As noted by The Millions, “There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for not being famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner”. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary since ‘Stoner’ was first published but the almost forgotten novel has only become well-known in the last couple of years some two decades after the author’s death and ten years after being reissued. Somewhat ironically, it is revealed in the first paragraph that the main character, William Stoner, is also quickly forgotten by his students and colleagues after his death in 1956. Originally a student of agriculture entering the University of Missouri as a freshman in 1910, he later switches to literature and becomes an academic and professor.
I read ‘Academy Street‘ by Mary Costello earlier this year and although the main storyline of a young Irish woman emigrating to the United States in the 1960s is quite different from the academic setting of ‘Stoner’, I can see why it has been widely compared to Williams’ work. Both are relatively short novels which outline the “quiet” life of an introverted main character from youth to old age where several years may pass in the space of a paragraph yet without ever feeling rushed. The triumphs and failures in their lives are everyday ones which could happen to anybody.
In an article by Julian Barnes in The Guardian, novelist Sylvia Brownrigg comments that Stoner himself is more English or European in character than American. Stoner is often passive with life largely passing him by – an unlikely hero rather than an archetypal one. He doesn’t seek great ambitions or aim to change his personal or professional circumstances, despite an unhappy marriage to his unstable wife Edith and career obstacles following disputes with the head of department Hollis Lomax.
‘Stoner’ is a very moving, understated and unpretentious novel and it seems somewhat fitting that it became popular purely because of word-of-mouth recommendations rather than a large marketing campaign organised by the publishers. Everything about it – the tone, the pace and the prose itself – is steady, precise and consistent. It certainly makes me wonder how many other quietly brilliant novels have been all but forgotten and if they will ever gain the recognition they deserve.