December 4, 2013
Waterstones names Stoner, which was first published in 1965, their Book of the Year 2013
by Julia Fleischaker
Authors, take heart. The recognition you deserve could just be a few decades delayed. Case in point: John Williams‘s 1965 novel, Stoner, which was just picked as Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2013. The story of a literary scholar who is having professional and personal problems, Stoner was largely ignored upon its publication; other than a review in The New Yorker’s Briefly Noted section, the book was overlooked, then forgotten quickly and out of print a year later.
In 2006, New York Review Books reissued Williams’s novel, and a groundswell of recognition started to emerge. In a 2007 essay in The New York Times Book Review, Morris Dickstein extolled the book’s virtues.
John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away. Ignored on publication in 1965, a clamorous year, it has been kept alive by enthusiasts who go into print every decade to rediscover it, including Irving Howe in The New Republic in 1966, C. P. Snow in The Financial Times in 1973, Dan Wakefield in Ploughshares in 1981 and Steve Almond in Tin House in 2003. They invariably wonder why no one has heard of the book. “Why isn’t this book famous?” Snow kept asking. Now, along with Williams’s earlier novel, Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Stoner is available in a handsome reprint by New York Review Books. Both books deserve to be widely read, but their dark, comfortless vision raises the question of whether this can be expected.
Real attention started to come in 2011, when bestselling French novelist Anna Gavalda decided to translate the book into French. According to NPR, “Gavalda liked it so much that she asked her editor to buy the rights, so she could translate it herself. And the book took off…’My books sell really well in France,’ she explained, ‘so when all the other European editors saw that it was me who translated this book, they were all curious about why Anna Gavalda translated it, and so they all bought the rights.’”
In October of this year, Tim Krieder wrote in The New Yorker that Stoner is “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of,” and the drumbeat of praise got stronger.
Bestselling novelist Ian McEwan praised the book during a Guardian book club event for his latest novel Sweet Tooth in July, and US writer Bret Easton Ellis gushed about it on Twitter. He wrote: “Best book I’ve read this year is a remarkable novel by John Williams called STONER. It isn’t about drugs but it’s about everything else …”
Colum McCann, who was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize for his novel TransAtlantic described the book as “one of the great forgotten novels of the past century … so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic”, while the critic John Self called it “a sober study of one man’s slow journey to finding out who he is, and it is quietly magnificent“.
In fact, the praise reached such critical mass that there has even been a small backlash, with Drew Smith pleading in The Daily Beast for people to stop talking about the book. “Every month or so there’s another article rediscovering John Williams’ ‘lost’ classic Stoner. Please stop—every literary type who cares already knows about it. Let’s rediscover someone else.”
Never mind the haters though. It’s always nice to see an overlooked author get his due, even if this particular author unfortunately died before he could see it happen. (Long before, in this case; Williams died in 1994.) As Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt puts it, “The year of publication is of no import – this is the book everyone has been talking about in 2013, the very least we can do is name it our Book of the Year.”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.