Just finished reading Stoner by John Williams. Written in 1963, it has become a surprise success, enjoying a level of acclaim that I found baffling before I read it, and absolutely infuriating now. Reader, it is everything I hate.
Written by a Professor of Literature, Stoner is the story of, erm, a Professor of Literature, and is a campus novel with all none of the humour but all of the tedium and smugness implied by that genre. Worse, it is written in that most self-conscious and inauthentic of literary styles, Realism, and combines stylistic incompetence and thudding melodrama with a lack of deftness that is truly breath taking.
William Stoner’s origins are, of course, humble. If you want to meet his parents you don’t need to read the book – just imagine a Ma and Pa from a 1910 American farming community, living in a place called, dear God, Booneville, as rendered in ‘books’, and there you go. What just came into your head is spot on, trust me. Stoner is sent away by Pa to one of them Universities they have nowadats to study Agricultural Science. The reason for this is obscure. ‘The crunching machinations of plot’ is the true and best answer, and – given the lack of motive clarity in the book – it is the one we are forced to adopt.
While studying a compulsory course in English literature (what luck!), Stoner has an inarticulate epiphany, although one feels that the inarticulateness of the epiphany is a reflection of the author’s lack of ability rather than a genuine insight into the character of the protagonist. The crime in not the author’s inability to describe a fundamental existential change in a character – it’s pretty difficult after all, unless you’re Melville or Faulkner – but that he puts himself in a position where it is necessary that he does. As with a child who can’t draw hands, the best thing is to set things up so you don’t have to.
From that point on we are caught in a death grip of a novel that breaks the fundamental rule of good literature – show don’t tell. There is not a moment in the whole book where we are not told what to think. We are guided with a dread hand from minor crisis to minor crisis, each of which is explained to us, as are Stoner’s emotional reactions. Nothing is gleaned, nothing is ambiguous. We are given no choice but to sympathise with Stoner at every turn. Perhaps that is only fair – he would be hard to sympathise with if we weren’t chained to his point-of-view.
This constant ‘telling not showing’ annoying when it comes to speech. For a book that attempts the conceit of a ‘plain prose style’, barely a word passes any characters lips without an adverb – always a sign that the scenario has not been well enough written, that the characters aren’t convincing enough, to convey emotional meaning without a qualifier. People speak ‘mechanically’, ‘definitely’, ‘blankly’, ‘hopelessly’. We should know this without being told. It is Creative Writing 101. But the writing isn’t fucking good enough, I say angrily.
As with a bad television show, characters change personality to suit the clunking machinations of the plot – at one point Stoner’s wife completely changes her look, (flapper style, despite no intimations of a nascent free spirit), her haircut, her clothes, her hobbies, her friends. This all lasts for the chapter where it is required, and is never mentioned again. Wars drop in for a paragraph, a character emotes, and the plot thuds on regardless.
The one time we encounter an interesting character (the head of department Lomax who, in a rare nod to non-cliché, has the body of a cripple and the face of a matinee idol) he becomes Stoner’s enemy, based on a mind-numbingly boring dispute over the abilities of a graduate student called Charles Walker. We are, of course, constantly reassured that Stoner is right in the dispute. All the other characters are in unison on this too, so we better agree with them, having no choice not to. As another boring character, Finch, says of Lomax ‘I wonder what it is between him and Walker’. We are left wondering at the end of the novel as, having served his function as the cause of the dispute, Walker disappears, never to be seen again.
And so, predictably, onto Stoner’s relationship with one of his students. This is, of course, the staple of any novel about a Professor written by a Professor, a sort of displacement wank where we are asked to sympathise with sensitive bookish men for wanting to fuck women. Even the author has the good grace to be bored at this point, introducing it as ‘And so he had his love affair’. The student, Katherine Drsicoll is, of course, bookish and willing, Stoner draws her out of herself, he brings her books, and they make love in the afternoon. Lest passion disturb the thudding tedium of the novel, Stoner’s wife sympathises, his colleagues sympathise, other students have a laugh then sympathise.
Only his enemy, Lomax, fails to sympathise and tries to make him lose his job. ‘Fortunately’, however, Stoner gets the better of him IN A SCHEDULING DISPUTE REGARDING THE MEDIEVAL LITERATURE SYLLABUS (I kid you not) and peace reigns. The female student, Katherine, now supplementary to the plot, is forced to move away of course, and does so in a way that is, to the needs of Stoner, sympathetic. We only hear of her once more, years later. Life has turned out all right. Stoner didn’t fuck up her life. He’s ok! Let’s all fuck our students from now on!
None of this is earth shattering. Bad books have always been written and no doubt will continue to be, and do quite nicely. What I find galling is the new popularity of the book, and the promotion of the idea that it is, somehow, a forgotten masterpiece. Nostalgia has its place, but this seems to represent a desire for some sort of prelapsarian paradise where books ‘meant something’. It is comfort food for the middle brow literati, who presumably had their own small literary epiphany reading the classics at high school, and now, quite like books.
I think it was Gore Vidal who said that when he was young he thought 60% of the population read rubbish, 30% read good books, and 10% read literature, only to be astonished when he went out in the world to find that 90% of people didn’t read, 6% read rubbish, 3% read good books, and 1% read literature. If that 1% are clinging to books like Stoner, we are in real trouble.