Stoner by John Williams

Stoner John WilliamsAs 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.


Filed under Books

18 responses to “Stoner by John Williams

  1. I think I must be one of the few people who does not really like this book. I appeciated the fine writing at first but in the year or so since I read it, I have grown to dislike it more. I do not mind an unlikable character but I need to be able to evoke some understanding for the character’s behaviour, even if I violently disagree. There is nothing to provide a context for Stoner’s apathy, so he comes off as such a wet dishrag. His treatment of his daughter, in the end, was the final straw because he seems to know he can act differently, he chooses not to bother.

    I’ll slip out the back door now…


  2. I’ve heard nothing but awesome things about this one. I think it’s about time I picked it up soon. Love the look of your blog! Thanks for sharing the awesome review! If you’re ever interested in some other great book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad to see you commenting on the value of word of mouth in promoting a book.. I really enjoyed this book – felt quite at home with the main character. In a way he represents the quiet, undistinguished way of life so many of us have lead, Perhaps you could find us some more forgotten gems……… please !


  4. I did like Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing a great deal. I didn’t try his other one – seemed too daunting.


  5. I think some people just accept everything as it is, they don’t even bother to think about why everything is the way it is.


  6. Sounds good! I really admire writers who can make ordinary things interesting.


  7. This was one of my favorite books of a couple years ago!


  8. joydelire

    I’ve had this on my shelf for a while now, I really must get round to it soon!


  9. I love this book, and even though I read it a while ago now, I still think about it at times. I love how it’s written in such an understated way, but is so powerful. Glad you enjoyed this one 🙂


  10. great review, I really enjoyed Stoner. I remember having to note down some of the lines in it, I found them so beautiful.


  11. Great review of a beautiful, quiet, powerful book

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I absolutely loved reading Stoner about a year ago and really enjoyed revisiting it to write my own review – – Stoner Review

    I agree that the word-of-mouth spread of the book’s popularity is testament to the quality writing and timeless relevance…
    Enjoyed reading your post, thanks. Sure I’ll be back!


  13. Pingback: My Books of the Year 2015 | A Little Blog of Books

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