In “Stoner,” John Williams defies modern conventions to create a modern masterpiece

“Show, don’t tell,” say the pundits from creative writing workshops, conferences, how-to guides and “expert” magazine articles. Start with the inciting incident, they advise. Keep your plot moving. Add backstory only when and if it’s needed. Use simple sentences. Avoid adverbs.

You can find a dozen more examples of the conventional wisdom at any blog about writing. While such “tips” are worthy of consideration, the problem for this reader is that they often reduce the art of fiction to clichéd technique—as if the style of writing should come from a rulebook rather than from the story itself. Regrettably, the overuse of such well-intended advice makes much of modern literary fiction so similar, and so forgettable.

StonerAlthough he taught creative writing at the University of Denver for thirty years, John Williams ignores all of that good advice in his novel Stoner, published in 1965. Instead, he tells an honest story in a straightforward, old-fashioned way. This quiet, thoughtful and beautiful novel about the life of an English professor at a Midwestern university during the first half of the 20th Century (imagine pitching that plotline in today’s publishing world) harkens to another era. Stoner is reminiscent of the understated, character-focused novels of two other Midwesterners, Willa Cather and William Maxwell. And its form comes from a long literary tradition.

Stoner is a bildungsroman. Told with the authority of third-person omniscience (another rarity today), it is the story of a young man of humble origins who arrives at the university to study agronomy only to discover a passion for literature and the life of a scholar. We learn the bald facts of his life in the first few sentences:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, at the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

But, as Williams soon makes clear, these facts are the mere shell for the real story:

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses….Stoner’s  colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak rarely of him now; to the older ones, his name  is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Inciting incident be damned, Williams is interested in why this ostensibly unremarkable man’s life story is worth telling. The next 278 pages convey the complex and sobering story of Stoner’s life: collegial friendships, financial hardships, mistakes in love and marriage, failures at work, his daughter’s estrangement, infidelity and fidelity, battles won and mostly lost, the reflections of age and the approach of death. It is a hard, sometimes painful story with moments of clarity and frustration. At times foolish, often stubborn, but always honest, Stoner defies expectations. The book’s sadness is palpable. Stoner’s only solace, as he must rediscover several times in his life, is his passion for scholarship—the pure calm source of his dignity.

Williams’ prose is confident and precise. He doesn’t hesitate to use an adverb if it adds value, as in this description of a deer in the woods: “The doe’s delicate face tilted, as if regarding them with polite inquiry; then, unhurriedly, it turned and walked away from them, lifting its feet daintily out of the snow and placing them precisely, with a tiny sound of crunching.” Eliminate the adverbs and that crisp image goes soft.

And here he is confidently telling—as he frequently does instead of showing—Stoner’s state of mind after a crucial defeat: “He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I love books that go deep into character, ones that explore the inner workings of the mind and heart as much as the overt actions that result. The complex reality of humanity is as much about what isn’t acted upon or said as what is. That’s why I love authors like Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Conrad and Hesse, who delve into the thought processes, the buried emotions and dark unspoken fears of their characters. I haven’t read John Williams’ other novels—the National Book Award-winning Augustus or Butcher’s Crossing—but based on the extraordinary quality of Stoner, I certainly will.

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4 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Quotes, Reviews

4 responses to “In “Stoner,” John Williams defies modern conventions to create a modern masterpiece

  1. Thank you, Tom, for introducing me to “Stoner” and to John Williams. We all need a rock on which to cling when ravaged by the vicissitudes of life. I love this sentence: “Stoner’s only solace, as he must rediscover several times in his life, is his passion for scholarship—the pure calm source of his dignity.”

  2. dinahpearlbutton

    It sounds like the sort of book I would like to read from your review.

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