About Stoner: My Apology to a Dead Writer

The writer John Edward Williams has been dead since 1994, but I am apologizing to him anyway. Months ago, I began hearing many amazing things about his 1965 novel, Stoner, which details the life of a midwestern English professor of little fame and consequence. Curious, I bought the audio book just before embarking on one of my many trips between our house and St. Louis. I listened for two or three hours. The prose was easy and declaratory, if it was also occasionally as lethargic as its subject. Its subject, William Stoner, lived in the dull sepia tones through which I sometimes view the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yawn. I found myself bored and a little irritated. Eager to be the literary rebel, I declared it–on Twitter, no less (how mortifying)–to be “An English professor’s wet dream.” I did not mean it in a nice way.

I don’t particularly like snark. It’s nasty. I like it even less when I drag one of my prodigious size 9s through it. And this time I really stepped in it. No, my pronouncement didn’t get any kind of reaction from my Twitter friends/followers. I was smugly alone in my witty criticism. How appropriate.

I’m suspicious of books that other people proclaim to be amazing, and will either avoid them completely, or read them long, long after their popularity has peaked. I’m not sure why. It’s not that I don’t trust other people’s taste or opinions. I’m pretty sure it’s just the contrarian in me–I really am the sort who is skeptical of any club that would want me as a member.

Why did I continue listening to the book if I thought so little of it? Because I did listen to the whole thing–I even backed up a few times to re-listen to particular sections. At first I just didn’t want to give up on the book. I tell people all the time not to bother finish books they dislike, but I have a very hard time doing it myself. Then, about halfway through, I found myself turning it on every time I was in the car alone. And I became vaguely resentful when I had to turn it off when someone else got in the car with me. I finally finished it Monday as I sat in the parking lot of the post office, unwilling to go inside until it was over.

William Stoner is born to a Missouri farmer and his wife, and has an unremarkable childhood/youth. They send him off to the University of Missouri (Columbia) to study agriculture, but he finds himself so moved by his first English literature class that he begins to drift–almost unconsciously–into the English program. It is with the same sort of unconsciousness that he meets and marries a delicate young woman named Edith, and begins his career as a teacher. The action moves little out of Columbia, changing only when Stoner goes to St. Louis to meet Edith’s parents. Stoner’s is a small universe. Microscopic even. He suffers travails in academia: disappointments, small intrigues, betrayals of trust. He is passed over for promotion. He writes a single book that is published without fanfare. He and Edith have a child. Edith turns on him, turns on herself. There is no great, plot-driven drama here. Yet it is an enormous drama, of import only to its players. It is a drama of small details. Of the individual threads of one man’s life.

(photo: University of Arkansas Libraries)

Williams keeps a dogged pace. As I listened to the opening chapters, I kept asking myself why I should care about this colorless man. His world was colorless. The descriptions seemed colorless. But the doggedness finally wore me down. I began to anticipate the pacing, and tried to anticipate the plot. At times the story became so painful in its prosaicness that I wanted to turn it off in the same way I want to turn off a film when I know some beloved animal is about to be poisoned by the bad guy. I could feel Edith’s meanness, could feel Stoner’s withdrawal and the cool pity of their friends. Having some experience of academia, my heart broke for him each time it scorched his vision and crushed his naiveté.

Maybe dogged is not the best word. Measured is perhaps better. Every sentence, every paragraph is carefully measured. I knew that William Stoner would die in the end, and I knew exactly when it would happen. Williams keeps no secrets, and rarely surprises the reader. It’s not necessary.

I sat in the parking lot of the post office and listened to those last words of the story. I’d stopped feeling like I was a bitch for dissing the book. The act of finishing it, of seeing Stoner’s life through to the end, gave me an intense feeling of having been forgiven. It also gave me a powerful refrain that I know will continue to haunt me–I won’t share it here because it belongs to the book, and hearing it (or reading it) is a kind of reward. An illumination.

I was trying to think of books to which I could compare Stoner. I came up with Evan S. Connell’s novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. Connell was an actual midwesterner who was Williams’s contemporary (Williams was born in Texas). They, too, are measured (even episodic) books that explore the lives of unremarkable people. I recommend them as well–but do skip the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward film. It’s a poor reflection of the novels.

If there’s a Stoner film in the works, I don’t think I want to know about it.

So, my apologies, Mr. Williams. Wherever you are. Thanks for the excellent, thoughtful read.

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