Saturday, 7 March 2020

Thoughts on Stoner, “the perfect novel”

John Williams’s Stoner has been called a perfect novel, the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of, etc. and been widely praised. I picked it up with high hopes, albeit fully aware of the controversy. 
I was disappointed. 
Over the past few days, I have been commenting on the book and discussing it with people: (a poll)
I lost interest about 2 days ago but continued, wanting to see how bad the marriage could get, but today decided to stop, somewhere after Grace’s birth and right before Lomax’s appearance.  
What shall I say?
My main problem with Stoner is that I don’t find Stoner compelling as a character, and don’t understand his motivations. I don’t mean that I can’t relate to the character, which to me isn’t a criterion of literary merit—in fact, I should be relating to him because of my love for literature, classic literature. Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country is an example of a character I don’t like—she is a bitch, but a complicated, fascinating, compelling bitch; Humbert Humbert in Lolita is another example, who is repulsive but charismatic and interesting. William Stoner as a character is not compelling—he seems to pass through life and doesn’t have much of a personality, and I have no interest in him whatsoever.  
More importantly, the novel is puzzling because I don’t understand his motivations, and this is because the book is full of assertions but doesn’t show anything. For example, Stoner comes from a farming family and is sent off to university to study agriculture, then during his studies he decides to switch to literature, without saying a word to his parents. He studies for 4 years, his parents don’t know a thing till he has graduated. We are meant to understand that Stoner discovers a love for literature, but we are not shown how it happens, what Stoner thinks, how he comes to love literature and what he finds in books. I know I would make the same change, but I don’t know why Stoner himself makes the decision to change direction and go against his parents’ wish. I can’t even see his love for literature. 
The same can be said about his relationship with Edith. Stoner seems to fall in love with her at first sight, and proposes after 2 weeks. They get married after 2 months. The marriage turns out to be a horrible failure. Readers might have theories/ assumptions such as that Stoner gets married because that’s the only way he can get sex (to put it crudely), but if that’s the case, it’s not in the novel. I don’t think anyone knows why Stoner chooses Edith, why she accepts him and wants to have the wedding as soon as possible, why Edith’s parents ask about Stoner’s situation and know that he’s not rich but still approve of the marriage, or even why Stoner doesn’t let his own parents meet Edith until the day before the wedding. 
It’s hard to be invested in the story when I don’t know what the characters think, what they want, why they do what they do, and how they feel about what happens to them, most of the time. It is frustrating at times, when I want answers and don’t get any—the way Stoner just drifts away from his parents is strange, for instance. And if we're meant to sympathise with Stoner for his bad marriage (reviews say terrible wife), I find that difficult, considering the alarming lack of communication between them, and his lack of regard for her feelings.  
This is one of the passages that I think most feminists have problems with: 
“Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love. If he spoke to her or touched her in tenderness, she turned away from him within herself and became wordless, enduring, and for days afterward drove herself to new limits of exhaustion. Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed; sometimes at night, in her sleep, she unknowingly moved against him. And sometimes, then, his resolve and knowledge crumbled before his love, and he moved upon her. If she was sufficiently roused from her sleep she tensed and stiffened, turning her head sideways in a familiar gesture and burying it in her pillow, enduring violation; at such times Stoner performed his love as quickly as he could, hating himself for his haste and regretting his passion. Less frequently she remained half numbed by sleep; then she was passive, and she murmured drowsily, whether in protest or surprise he did not know. He came to look forward to these rare and unpredictable moments, for in that sleep-drugged acquiescence he could pretend to himself that he found a kind of response.” (Ch.5) 
That is rapey, no? I quit halfway through so I don’t know how bad things can get—I’ve been told that Stoner, despite his ordinary life and his failures in work as well as marriage, should be seen as a heroic figure, because of his devotion to literature and to work. John Williams, I believe, sees him as heroic. I find that difficult. The protagonist doesn’t have to be perfect or morally good, I also see the point that he’s meant to be seen as a failure, but there’s a difference between a failed marriage because of, say, incompatibility (such as the Ralph- Undine marriage in The Custom of the Country) and a marriage where the husband doesn’t communicate with his wife about anything, doesn’t comfort her when she cries, doesn’t try to figure out why she’s afraid of touch, and forces sex on her whilst she sleeps. 
There is nothing spectacular about the prose either. Take this passage about Edith: 
“She was even taller than he remembered, and more fragile. Her face was long and slender, and she kept her lips closed over rather strong teeth. Her skin had the kind of transparency that shows a hint of color and warmth upon any provocation. Her hair was a light reddish-brown, and she wore it piled in thick tresses upon her head. But it was her eyes that caught and held him, as they had done the day before. They were very large and of the palest blue that he could image. When he looked at them he seemed drawn out of himself, into a mystery that he could not apprehend. He thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he said impulsively ‘I—I want to know more about you’.” (Ch.3) 
The prose is plain, and flat. 
Or this passage: 
“After he had gone Edith remained for some minutes in the center of the room, staring at the closed door, as if trying to remember something. Then she moved restlessly across the floor, walking from one place to another, moving within her clothing as if she could not endure its rustling and shifting upon her flesh. She unbuttoned her stiff gray taffeta morning robe and let it drop to the floor. She crossed her arms over her breasts and hugged herself, kneading the flesh of her upper arms through her thin flannel nightgown. Again she paused in her moving and walked purposely into the tiny bedroom and opened a closet door, upon the inside of which hung a full-length mirror. She adjusted the mirror to the light and stood back from it, inspecting the long thin figure in the straight blue nightgown that it reflected. Without removing her eyes from the mirror she unbuttoned the top of her gown and pulled it up from her body and over her head, so that she stood naked in the morning light. She wadded the nightgown and threw it in the closet. Then she turned about before the mirror, inspecting the body as if it belonged to someone else. She passed her hands over her small drooping breasts and let her hands go lightly down her long waist and over her flat belly.
She moved away from the mirror and went to the bed, which was still unmade. She pulled the covers off, folded them carelessly, and put them in the closet. She smoothed the sheet on the bed and lay there on her back, her legs straight and her arms at her side. Unblinking and motionless, she stared up at the ceiling and waited through the morning and the long afternoon.” (Ch.5) 
I keep a long passage so you get an idea. Isn’t this mechanical and boring? 
Some fans say that Stoner is a perfect novel and you can’t change or replace a word—what are they talking about? Go read some Edith Wharton. 
Anyway, I’ve said enough. I’ve quit, and don’t think I’m missing anything. Life is short, there are many greater books to read.

Addendum: the discussion continued here:


  1. There's a critical essay about American fiction and "melodramas of beset manhood" and I felt Stoner was popular among readers who for whatever reason found that kind of story congenial. It certainly paints a very odd picture of academia! That was one of my own stumbling blocks with it.

    1. Do you have a link to that essay? Or is it not online?

  2. I have not read the novel, although I have read enough passages that I feel like I have read it. I just want to say that Stoner, in 1965, was surrounded by some of the most distinctive authors and fiction in American literary history. How the prose in Stoner gets pulled out for praise has baffled me since the beginning of the Stoner boom. Except that, I know, I know, we have such a limited critical vocabulary of praise, thus anything we like is "beautiful." That "we" does not include anyone here, in the post or in comments, except that we are human and therefore sometimes weak.

    Anyway, yes, there are better books, or certainly more individual books, and many of them were written just when and where Stoner was written. Everything That Rises Must Converge is from the same year, for example.

    1. Haha.
      I don't get it either, and I've been waiting for people who love the book to tell me what I was missing, but nobody has told me anything.
      Is it not strange that this became a bestseller? I can't quite see the appeal.


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