Posted by: zhiv | January 23, 2010

Stoner, John Williams

And yes, I was able to read Stoner quickly. It wasn’t quite one long session, but close enough. It’s a very fine book, quiet and carefully modulated, forceful and relentless.

I’ve mentioned that I was able to write the first draft of a sort of teacher novel over the summer, and I read and wrote about a few novels in the genre once I had finished. That’s when Stoner was recommended to me. I doubt I would have tried to write anything about a teacher if I had already read this book, which is masterful. There is a certain basic structure to the Teacher Novel, and it was interesting to see some similarities. At any rate, after the recommendation I thought of other things and kept forgetting to look for Stoner or buy it for four months, but reading Russo’s Straight Man made it rise to the surface again. Once my copy arrived, I wanted to read it right away.

Stoner is a hybrid of the Teacher Novel and the Academic Novel, as the somewhat arbitrary distinctions between these two genres now begin to clarify themselves to me. I would classify a Teacher Novel as the story of a lover of literature or some other branch of learning, who tries to communicate his or her passion to young students, usually in high school, over an extended period of time, even a lifetime, although the story can be focused into a single year easily enough. The extended version allows generations and epochs to pass by as the teacher ages but his position and profession remains relatively static, and a confluence of character and society is created.

An Academic or Campus Novel, it seems to me, concerns itself with scholars and higher education. It’s a genre that readily lends itself to satire, for all the obvious reasons. College and university settings provide an inviting canvas for contemporary comedies of manner, and the seriousness of cloistered intellectuals almost always seems absurd. Often, the activity of teaching itself is an afterthought in Academic Novels. Professors are trying to write or finish books, justify their intellectual pursuits, and angle for or consolidate postions in the university hierarchy. And of course they’re busy getting in scrapes and fights and having flirtations and affairs. I’m thinking now, with a strong hint from Amateur Reader, that I gave Straight Man rather short shrift as a superb comic novel, and an outstanding Academic Novel as well.

These highly generalized categories come readily to hand, and what makes Stoner so interesting and effective is the way that is somehow manages to be an outstanding exemplar of all of them, while maintaining a high seriousness and literary quality. It’s very much a Teacher Novel, showing in wonderful detail, with a great sense of place and setting in Missouri, the creation of a teacher out of simple and harsh agrarian roots. This first part of the novel is stunning, classic Americana, and Stoner’s solitary quest for learning and his love of literature is inspiring. He’s focused and relentless, a classic underdog and an unlikely candidate to be a scholar.

Stoner’s early life is hard, but it doesn’t get any easier or brighter when he reaches his goal of graduating and becoming a teacher and ultimately a professor. The novel is dark and serious, a sober and realistic study of life and its pitfalls. Stoner seems headed towards being a scholar, but circumstances intervene, and he’ll never have the chance or the will to do patient, detached research and write about literature. So the book is set at a university (the University of Missouri in Columbia), but it follows the basic lines of the Teacher Novel, and it does in a sort of grand, inspired, heightened way.

At the same time it follows a story and simple line as an Academic Novel. There is no satire in it or sense of absurdity, as Stoner’s calling is genuine and preciious to him despite the obstacles he encounters. Still, the novel concerns itself deeply with university politics and characters and types. In this area it has some troubling elements, but its impressive accomplishments in terms of character and story should be considered first.

Perhaps the above musings boil down to a more direct statement: the tone of Stoner is exquisite, extrordinary and rich. It has the feel of a classic, a bit dour but with a steady pace and sustained clarity and focus, and lots of fine writing, scene-setting, and characterization. Stoner’s family and early life are striking, as mentioned. This is followed by his solitary student days, then his exceedingly modest, hard-earned success, and early romantic infatuation, as he enters adulthood and professionalization. The second quarter of the book is the dark portrait, in keeping with the preceeding harsh tone, of an unfortunate marriage. Next Stoner, his stars still crossed, falls on the wrong side of academic politics. Midway through his journey he is just as solitary and monastic, sleeping on his sofa and an exile within his own home and university, as he was when he first arrived with nothing. Stoner finds love and has a beautiful, doomed affair in the third quarter of the book, and our investment in him as a selfless, patient, hard-working romantic hero is rewarded: he is understood, connected, and briefly satisfied. In the last quarter of the book Stoner settles his accounts and dies with dignity. He remains a solitary witness to the beauties of his life’s journey and his own struggle, which has been so hard, broken, and honest.

All of the characters in this book are vivid and real and purposeful and rather sad. Again, they seem classic. Stoner’s wife and daughter make for a horrible, touching story, and his lover is only briefly ecstatic and mostly bittersweet. There isn’t the faintest hint of melodrama in any of it, nor is there comedy. The level of seriousness in the book and its broad canvas is ambitous and difficult to sustain, but Stoner seems to pull it off throughout, quite impressively, and even more so by comparison to the rollicking satire of most Academic Novels. The book is dark and relentless and brooding, but always direct and swift, and the story keeps moving and remains compelling. It’s an extremely readable story, an important added feature pushing it further towards classic status.

Okay, so Stoner is great, and everything a student of the genre and lover of good fiction could want it to be. It does have, however, a strange and troubling pair of disabled antagonists, and there is a lot of grist for the Disability Studies mill here, that I won’t pretend to understand. Stoner’s implacable enemy is a hunchback with “matinee idol” features, Lomax, and he turns against Stoner after a scattered, shallow crippled grad student, Walker, runs afoul of Stoner’s rigor in class and at his orals. There are plenty of gay undertones to the Lomax-Walker relationship, while their deformities raise the stakes, and I’m not sure why. Stoner doesn’t care that Walker is disabled, but he can’t accept that he’s an unprepared academic fraud. Lomax bitterly believes that Stoner is disdainful and prejudiced against the disabled. There are direct statements about the Academy as a refuge for those who can’t exist in the world, something Stoner is determined to fight and resist, and this central storyline is making the point somehow, in a way I didn’t understand. I suppose the book can be read as deeply conservative, and this plotline a commentary on affirmative action, but that seems facile. I don’t get it, exactly, but it didn’t mar the book for me in any way and even makes it more intriguing, and I’m anxious to hear other responses and interpretations and comments. Good book. Read it sooner rather than later, if you missed it in the flurry of recognition and praise when it was republished by NYRB two years ago.



  1. It has been a couple of months since I read Stoner, and I don’t have the book in front of me (I checked it out from the library), so I may not remember correctly. I seem to recall, though, that the conversation that Dave and Stoner had about the Academy being a refuge was not as a general refuge for anyone that can’t exist in the world, but as a refuge for those who can’t exist in the world because of their (romantic?) passion for learning. Stoner seemed to agree with this assessment, and in the conflict with Walker and Lomax, was refining the distinction. Walker, though perhaps unable to exist in the world because of his disability, represents the instrumental use of learning that Stoner is so anxious to keep out of the academy. I think that it is precisely the use of learning as an instrument that makes it difficult for someone like Dave or Stoner to exist outside of the Academy.

    Interestingly, Lomax, while definitely a s.o.b., does not come under the same criticism as Walker, and Stoner always respects Lomax as a scholar.

    I actually had the same thought of Stoner as a profoundly conservative novel, but for reasons unrelated to the affirmative action angle. I have no idea what Williams’ politics are like, and they aren’t readily apparent in his novels, but what seems to be admirable about Stoner is his reserve and disinclination to force his (non-academic) judgments on other people. Not that he has much in common with Rush Limbaugh in that regard, but it brings to mind Edmund Burke.

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