”I don’t have a bedside table. I pile my books on a pallet next to the bed, and Stoner is on the top.” This response given by a budding member of the cultural elite to the standard question from lazy journalists; What do you have on your bedside table? Giving the “right” answer is the key to acceptance by the cultural coterie. Stoner!! Say no more, you are in!
Why was it no surprise that Stoner was at the top of the pile? John Williams´ book has been the subject of numerous gushing reviews and articles in the Swedish press this year, and has been parked in the number one spot on the best book list for months. So, for all aspiring members of the cultural elite, Stoner had been the must book to buy and display on top of your pile or coffee table, perchance also to read. It has been described as a cult book, a label often glued to books of limited commercial success, circulating amongst a select band of people in the know, the intellectual disciples. The more a book spreads to the mass market, the less cult it becomes.
Why Stoner? It is an unlikely candidate for cult status. What is it about this book that signals cultural awareness? Is it the book’s inner qualities which have attracted attention, perhaps? I mentioned the book to my friend Ron, and he asked if it was about somebody who was stoned. This of course is often a requisite for a cult book. Having now read Stoner, at the instigation of two enthusiasts who said it was so readable but couldn’t say why, I can assure Ron that main character Willy Stoner is not stoned at any time during the book.
So, what’s it about? Only son of poor sodbusters in Missouri is encouraged to study agricultural science, finds English literature more absorbing, if less useful, takes the academic road and abandons his parents down on the farm. Painful social ineptitude, neurotic wife, class differences, obnoxious in-laws, academic back-biting by power-hungry colleagues all take their toll. But Stoner puts up with all this, findings solace in the sonnets and in dedicated teaching of students with, sadly, limited interest in the works of Ben Jonson. Occasionally Stoner peeps out from his ivory tower and notes events in the world outside; the Great War, the Depression and the Second World War. These make little impression on Stoner, or the book. True to character he avoided enlistment for WWI, preferring the safety of familiar university life to a tour of Europe. The arrival of students still in army uniform announces the end of WWII to Stoner, who is more concerned with their devotion to studies than their war experiences. While his personal world crumbles around him, he escapes to his room at the university, seeking consolation in obscure literary tomes. At other times, when wife Edith is having one of her many long breakdowns, he runs the home and looks after daughter Grace – an unusual role for a father in the inter-war years. This interlude of apparent domestic bliss is cut short by Edith’s return to take over the management of home and daughter. Willy retires to his sofa existence, like the family dog.
So, why has cultural Sweden adopted Stoner at the cult book of 2014? Readable, perhaps, but this is not uncommon in books. Cult books do often tend to be more esoteric the less readable they are, and the more incredible the storyline, if there is one.
What probably appeals to those who actually read the book is the chronic drudgery and pain of ordinary life. William Stoner is ordinariness embodied, average, nothing special, almost mediocre, his one published work described – by himself and others – as uninspiring, and soon to be forgotten. Just like this his autobiography on first publication. The author gives a picture of himself as plain, ordinary and unexceptional too.
A positive episode in the book – Stoner’s warm loving relationship with research student Katherine – is sadly not plausible and clearly out of character, a pipe dream.
Few if any of the characters in the book are likeable or attractive. Stoner is a sorry person, who just accepts humiliation after humiliation, a stayer who puts up with life on the sofa without a fight. Murphy’s law rules and in the end he dies an ordinary sort of death (sorry), seemingly to finally escape life and pending retirement. Stoner is an aggravating anti-hero. The reader is tempted to shout “don’t give in, fight for your life, or get out”, but know that the message will not reach him hiding deep in the catacombs of the university library.
Is this life what arouses interest in the book? After reading Stoner, ordinary life may seem a bit less boring, drab and painful by comparison. In fact, it works as a feel-good book for those who hoped there would be more to life.
But is this the essence of a cult book? I think not. The more popular this celebration of ordinariness is amongst the populace, the less cultish it will appear. At least to those who use it as a watershed between the cultured and the common crowd.
So, why a Stoner cult? My vote goes instead to a combination of provenance and public relations. The book has an unconventional background; obscure writer with everyday name that nobody can remember writes provincial autobiography in 1985, few copies sold and removed quickly from the shelves. Rediscovered 30 years later by enterprising publisher and re-launched in vintage series by the publisher, plastered with enthusiastic one-liner endorsements attributed to a gaggle of big-name authors. People in New York who matter in the international culture sphere embraced Stoner, and their murmurings were picked up by the sensitive ears of the Swedish culturati. They proclaimed it THE CULT BOOK OF 2014. That is, until the mainstream got hold of Stoner – and started reading it!
Eric Gandy, Contributor