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.

7 thoughts on “Not Everybody Must Get Stoner

  • January 17, 2020 at 5:58 am
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    Your problem is that you want to identify with the character. Whether or not you can identify with him has nothing to do with the literary merit & value of the book.
    My favourite novels include “Moby Dick”, “Lolita”, “Anna Karenina”, “Madame Bovary”, etc. Did I identify with any of the main characters? Absolutely not. But that is irrelevant.
    You also wrote “it does not consider how people who are not some combination of white, male, and academically trained will respond to the book”.
    Don’t assume all non-white, female readers are the same. Again, not everyone tries to relate to the character.
    Go read Nabokov’s lectures on literature. Don’t blame the book when you’re a bad reader.

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      • March 8, 2020 at 5:58 pm
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        I have now read the novel.
        It is not a good book, as the prose is flat, the characterisation is weak, & the book is full of assertions but doesn’t show anything. I don’t know Stoner’s motivations.
        We both agree that it’s not a good book. I don’t understand why it’s so highly praised.
        However my point about your article remains the same: whether or not a reader can identify with the main character should not be a criterion of literary merit, & it’s irrelevant to talk about readers who are not white & male.
        You being a professional literary critic doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good reader. There are plenty of critics out there who read literature badly.

        Reply
  • February 24, 2020 at 11:57 pm
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    The best thing about your article is its title. Dylan would have loved it, but not the acrimony that follows. I am using Stoner for this month’s title in a senior’s book group in Australia. We are not white male academics. The fact that you have reacted so strongly to the subject matter of the novel proves beyond doubt that the novel is successful. It has forced you to think radically and angrily about many topics. It has helped you prove to yourself that you are superior in sex, race and academic background to the author and the reviewer. What you seem to forget is that the author is not writing to teach you something you already believe. He is writing to demonstrate a large number of things that happen in life. He may not agree with them. But they happen. My little old ladies have long ago got over that and enjoy discussing the book. None of them have ever experienced the enclosed academic fiction of a mid-west university in USA. Does it exist? That’s not the point.

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  • March 9, 2020 at 11:11 pm
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    She’s a good reader… of the Talmud, apparently.

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  • March 29, 2020 at 7:44 am
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    Just glad someone called you up on this.
    Literally just put the book down. The end was drawn out but fitting I suppose as to seal the pedestrian journey of Willy, oh Willy.
    This book touched me, made me emotional, made me angry, frustrated with most of the characters at points and also joyous in their small moments of triumph.
    There is much to be garnared in what is not said and done by the main character, as is the intended purpose I hope. That might sound trivial or obtuse, like a so-called pretentious musician claiming ‘it’s the space between the notes’, or ‘what’s not being played’ but these are nuanced ideas that can only be diluted so much before they lose integrity.
    The most obvious example of this is maybe how, early in the book, the character is said to have ‘mumbled’ something or other, time and time again.
    Most people can recognise this as moments of weakness/inferiority that we have faced in our own lives. Regretful moments that spur us forward.
    It seems you’re an ideal human being who has never had a self-conscious thought or momentary lack of confience.
    It’s rare I use the internet to vent but I opened this article knowing it was a negative review of something I’d just lovingly inhaled, hoping to knock the edges off my awe for the book, bring me back to reality. But you simply left me aghast at your ignorance and closed-mindedness.
    If you’re searching for something to redicule you will always find it. As a wise man once told me, “they don’t build statues of critics”.
    I found this book at 32 years of age.

    Reply

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