A quick internet search reveals that John Williams’ novel Stoner has become something of a literary phenomenon since its re-release by NYRB Classics a few years ago. Appreciated if not adored when it was originally published in 1965, today it’s become an international bestseller. I suppose I want to start my meandering thoughts on the novel by asking Why now? That is to say, what does it say about the novel and the times that it’s now captured the literary imagination. Obviously, some works of art just take a while to find their audience. Moby-Dick famously needed some seventy or eighty years to gain its momentum. It seems all the more obvious to me, however, that such works do not simply lie in wait like Prince Charmings turned toads, quietly minding the years, puckering for every princess who walks by before finally being picked up and smooched by one of the maids. The novel, and by this I mean any novel, is somehow different “now” than it was “then.” Strictly speaking, there is no “then” to speak of. It’s funny to me that we can say what appears to be the opposite and mean the same thing: “then” is only ever spoken of.
Perhaps then, better than Why now? I should pose the same question differently. Who now? That is, who now is reading Stoner, and finding in this story of a single, rather cut-and-dry life of a middle class, unremarkable English professor, something not nearly so homogenous? Well before David Foster Wallace was extolling the hum drum as a medium for a life’s worth of passion, and ultimately failing in his attempt to render this message in a novel, it seems to me that John Williams did so in Stoner. This isn’t to say it cannot be done again, or that no other artist worth her salt should try — no new things under the sun, etc. My point, maybe a little clumsily expressed, is rather to unite the questions: who are these readers looking for a different perspective on the mundane? and why are they now so ravenous? Again, I refuse to think the answer is so so banal as we’re somehow more mundane now than they were then. Continue reading “Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?””