Not Everybody Must Get Stoner

Steve Almond Attempts to Extend the Reputation of Literature’s Most Overrated Academic Novel

When I wrote an essay for the Establishment last fall arguing vehemently that John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner doesn’t deserve the gold-plated reputation people have granted it in 21st century, I didn’t explain why I thought they loved and defended the novel. My focus lay on Stoner itself, not on its fans. But, for the record, I do know why. People who revere the life of the mind generally love Stoner. Those invested in academia love Stoner. People who believe in a divide between high art and low art and consider themselves above the latter love Stoner. The book excuses all kinds of bad behavior in the name of a pure and holy love for literature, and thus it draws toward its sterile bosom all manner of writers and readers and teachers invested equally in solipsism and books.

Our exhibit A is Steve Almond, author of a just-released monograph about the book: William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life. Because the book contains the phrase “when I can sense that someone is itching to feud with me,” I feel the need to say right now that I have no wish to feud with Almond by writing this review. I admire Almond as a writer; I recommend his little craft book to people monthly. Had anyone written this monograph, I would have recoiled at it and criticized it. That a feudster wrote it is my misfortune.

 

Additional misfortune comes from the fact that I had to read it, that discourse on Stoner has developed into enough of a cottage industry that such a book is appropriate. That I find I must point out, again, that Stoner, the character, is a rapist, that Williams is a mediocre and outrageously prejudiced writer, and that the book’s success is a jewel-perfect example of the culture celebrating white male mediocrity well beyond its true value. But I wrote about all that elsewhere, and this review is about Almond’s book.

Often Unscholarly and Sometimes Contradictory

Almond’s analysis of Stoner, which comes across in a variety of forms, is rich, affectionate, and thoughtful, if often unscholarly and sometimes contradictory. He skillfully mixes memoir with exegesis, and he successfully uses the phrase “inner life” as a frequent touchstone, as if he’s giving a speech with a theme. His argument, that Stoner’s central virtue derives from its examination and prioritization of the inner life, compels, initially.

However, I’m not at all sure that Almond proves his point adequately. I believe that he has elided “inner life” with “love of literature.” He defines the first as “the private realm of thought and feeling through which we come to know ourselves,” but later notes that “Stoner himself, while learned, is not a deeply reflective person. He has intense emotional reactions to the world…but he is often blind to his own motives and intentions.” The apparent contradiction between a book’s emphasis on the inner life in which one knows oneself, and a book’s main character who does not understand himself, evidently escaped Almond.

This is not the only serious contradiction in the monograph. “Over and over again, [Stoner] is slammed up against his own inadequacies as a son and father and husband and scholar. And yet he refuses to turn away.” In fact, Stoner does nothing but turn away: “[Stoner] has no choice but to walk away from the love of his life.” “What good is a father who functions only as a passive witness to his child’s suffering?” “Stoner has no political consciousness to speak of. He would never fight in a war…He is more like a monk who wishes only to be left alone in his abbey with his manuscripts.” Repeatedly, Almond’s sympathy for Stoner blinds him to the contradictions both in the book and in his own argument.

Not Everyone’s Inner Life

However, the deeper problem with Almond’s project repeats the problem of the current critical response to Stoner: it does not consider how people who are not some combination of white, male, and academically trained will respond to the book. “[T]he artistic triumph of Stoner…is not just that we witness the life of William Stoner, but that we witness our own.” No, I say. No. This is completely untrue. My inner life does not resemble Stoner’s. I find his carelessness with his wife and child unforgivable, and his devotion to his lofty ideas of the academy repugnant. I don’t identify with him and I don’t witness anything of myself in him.

Freakin’ Stoner. I swear.

If we’re speaking of identification, I must turn to Almond’s chapter about Edith, Stoner’s wife, the main female character in the novel and a prototypical crazy bitch. The chapter is apologia of the clumsiest kind, duly pointing out that John Williams’s biographical patterns demonstrate misogyny, but claiming that Williams mitigated his “damning portrayal” of Edith by assigning her all the power in the marriage. I find this laughable.

Almond also speculates at length about Edith and her motivations and actions, but none of this speculation regards a character on the page. It’s all Almond’s imagination, a portrayal of the Edith that might have been if Williams had been thoughtful about female characters in even the smallest way. The character on the page is, in truth, “a cardboard villainess whose central narrative purpose is to burnish her husband’s virtues.” She serves as a contrivance, as a foil, as do the two disabled characters in the novel. There is no getting around this, though Almond tries. He even quotes the consummation of Stoner’s marriage without pointing out the obvious: it’s a rape scene. I don’t know if he missed this, or if it didn’t fit his vision of the book. Either interpretation troubles the reader.

A Book for Academics Who Believe They’re Special

Academics, and others who privilege the old-fashioned life of the mind over such trifles as equal access to education and the changing meaning of literacy, see in Stoner a pure version of their priorities. It’s the same instinct that draws adolescents to Harry Potter books: they want to escape the drudgery of being told what to do by parents and teachers, and they want to believe that they are special, that they have magical powers. Stoner posits that intellectual life is more important than anything else, that it’s fine and saintly and above the common rabble. People who have avoided a lot of evidence and sacrificed a lot of pleasure to continue believing this will find the book utterly validating.

Nothing about Stoner attempts to reach beyond the experience of the white male in academia, and Almond compounds this issue by repeating it in 2019. The point of the monograph is to reflect on Almond’s experiences with Stoner, and so by design it’s a pretty solipsistic project. But it’s disappointing that a writer who pursues self-awareness as persistently as Almond does could exhibit such halfassery. He never questions if he loves Stoner because it corroborates and nurtures an ideal version of himself.

Beyond this individual disappointment, Almond’s monograph belongs a more globally-troubling project. It’s part of a series called Bookmarked, from Ig Publishing, which now boasts ten titles.  A male writer, all but one of them white, wrote every single one of the titles. And all of them are about a book by a male writer. Such an obvious lack of diversity slides from disappointing to inexcusable. The dominance of white male criticism has allowed Stoner to flourish long past its cultural expiration date, and the book series continues that representation fail.

No matter how enthusiastic Almond is about the book, he can’t make everyone love it. He also can’t recast Stoner’s failures as successes, or keep his opinions about our current president out of an apolitical book from 1965. He can write appealingly and movingly about his own life, but that wasn’t exactly the nature of the assignment. All this book does  is convince me further that Stoner needs to return to obscurity, and that white male critics need to take a knee for a year or ten.

Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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