A Reader Reviews: John Williams’s ‘Stoner’

Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

In 2013, John Williams’s Stoner was named Waterstones Book of the Year. The award marked the culmination of a slow ascent to fame, its victory secured by a series of translations and reprints decades after its initial publication back in 1965. I first came across the novel shortly after the award, when copies of it graced the tables of the great and good in every bookshop foyer. Adding it to my never-ending wish-list, it was not until a few years later that a copy of the novel found its way into my hands, a Christmas gift from a relative who had noted my selections in advance.

The novel tells the story of the hardy William Stoner, a quiet man of farming stock who enrols as an agriculture student at the University of Missouri. While Stoner is completing a compulsory English module as part of his degree, an eye-opening seminar on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 sparks a life-long love of literature, an experience so profound that he decides to switch his course and devote himself instead to the decipherment of books. After years of careful study, he becomes an academic at his beloved alma mater, never once leaving the protection of the campus he calls home. As we follow Stoner’s footsteps from the cradle to the grave, we see the struggles of an average life laid bare, from a vitriolic marriage to the hatred of a colleague, but in spite of all this heartache, of personal failure and professional disappointment, Stoner’s passion for the book gives him cause to carry on and provides some consolation for the battles he must face.

Williams’s portrayal of campus life in Stoner is no doubt modelled on his own experiences as a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri and an academic at the University of Denver. His characters are instantly recognisable as the mainstays of academia, from the incompetent and unduly pompous graduate student Charles Walker to the bumbling Josiah Claremont, an ancient scholar who refuses to retire. His depiction of academic rivalry and departmental politics bears the hallmark of a writer who himself was forced to suffer petty squabbles and the overbearing egos of his peers, while his admission from the outset that William Stoner was held ‘in no particular esteem’ suggests the resignation of a man who knew first-hand that mediocrity is often all we can achieve.

In less accomplished hands, the story of a life so unremarkable could easily have turned out uninspiring, but Williams strikes an artful balance between narrating Stoner’s failures and describing fleeting moments of epiphany and joy. Almost all of these moments are inspired by literature, and one of Williams’s greatest strengths in this novel is his ability to encapsulate the transformative experience of reading. When Stoner grapples with the meaning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, for example, he is jolted from the present and sits ‘staring out before him’, subsequently feeling ‘very distant’ and ‘very close’ to his fellow students. Later, as he reads in his room, ‘the past and the dead [flow] into the present’ and Stoner is rewarded with ‘a vision of denseness into which he [is] compacted and from which he…[has] no wish to escape.’ In moments such as these, Williams celebrates the power of literature to elevate the humdrum and uplift the spirit of a reader who would otherwise have garnered little happiness from life.

Told with great compassion and in plain and simple prose, Williams’s Stoner is a captivating novel that affirms the value of the small and mediocre. Not quite an everyman, nor yet a shining star, William Stoner stands for all who make their way through life with little fanfare or applause and yet somehow stumble forward in pursuit of what they love.

A Reader Reflects: Imagining the World at Hay Festival 2018

Hay Festival
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

Every year, bibliophiles from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye. For more than three decades, this idyllic market town has been home to Hay Festival, a celebration of our love affair with literature and the essential part it plays in the humble reader’s life. I was a pilgrim there myself this year, drawn by the lure of Philip Pullman and his fiercely quiet wit, but far beyond the thrill of daemons was the thought-provoking theme of this year’s Hay: Imagine the World.

I had tickets for two events that broached this theme in different ways. The first was a discussion between children’s authors Emma Carroll (Sky Chasers), Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink & Stars), and Jacob Sager Weinstein (The City of Secret Rivers). The three writers gave an insight into how they create the worlds in which their stories are set, and for an aspiring author currently at work on a world of his own, it was encouraging to recognise the thrust of their approach. For Carroll, as for Hargrave and Sager Weinstein, ‘history ignites the idea’ around which a world can be constructed. Whether that world is entirely fictional or an imagined version of our own, the process is the same: new worlds are made from the one in which we find ourselves.

This same sentiment was at the heart of the second talk I attended, which focused on the role of the fairy tale as a story of resistance. The panel consisted of three of literature’s greatest talents — best-selling author of His Dark Materials Philip Pullman, renowned academic and mythographer Marina Warner, and foremost authority on folklore and fairy tales Jack Zipes. Zipes, in particular, was a revelation to me, and it was clear that both Pullman and Warner were enamoured of his work. Warner, for example, commended Zipes’s observation that fairy tales are emancipatory, while Pullman praised the folklore expert’s emphasis on the real-world grounding of fairy tales and their status as metaphor. These initial remarks formed the basis of an illuminating discussion in which Zipes drew attention to the way in which fairy tales inform our ideologies and values. Noting how frequently they feature tyrants and their downfall, he demonstrated the relevance of these stories as a means of combating the pernicious messages of a capitalist world where tyrants thrive, arguing that we must become the storytellers of our own lives if we are to mobilise resistance and push for change.

As I reflected on this, I realised the immense responsibility that storytellers have whenever they present a world to readers. If fictional worlds are created from our own, we must be careful not to replicate within those worlds the unquestioned biases our raw material contains. Instead, the worlds that we create should bring us closer to the world as we would like it to be, for it is only by imagining a new configuration that we unpick the status quo and bring its tyrants to their knees.