On "Stoner" by John Williams
In response to reading Stoner by John Williams, at the suggestion of several people and
Well, I have "seriously read" Stoner and I have disliked it thoroughly. The prose is clear and forceful, and the realism is effective. However, the plot and characters are largely clichés, and the novel is an empty vessel—a self-justifying, spiritless, Godless, sentimental emptiness that presents the emotion of love of literature as having absolutely nothing to do with the content of that literature, as if what Shakespeare and Donne were making of their classical and medieval influences were nothing but objects to be studied in the light of those influences, as if the actual subjects of their works were irrelevant to the academic’s pleasure in reading and teaching them.
To me the book reads like Samuel Beckett in ivy and tweeds, giving the picture of a man cut off from any possibility of active human kindness by a solipsism as thick and immovable—despite his devotion to teaching and his passionate love affair—as the clay from which he has sprung. The novel’s world view is utterly depressing in its depiction of an ultimately meaningless universe that it pretends to fill with a calling without any caller. The only good thing in the book is the hero’s resistance to the lies and injustice of the villain (whose behavior is an allegory of affirmative action and/or feminism at their collegiate work). But the moral stance of the hero cannot make up for the complete absence of any moral or spiritual foundation to sustain it and therefore remains a mere accident of nothingness being busy about its ultimately meaningless business.
If the novel has become a fad, that is because the New York Review of Books and New York Times set see in it the complete justification of their own spiritually vacuous lives, in which "literature" substitutes for God, teaching it substitutes for faith, and human discourse is a matter of nothing but noticing nature at work in sex and in words, exactly as if the real works of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Buber, C.S. Lewis, and Solzhenitsyn never existed and as if a Samuel Beckett character who should accidentally fall in love had spoken the final word on man.
The author has used his considerable talent to produce a convincing but deluded picture of unilluminated man caught in the hell of a life of self-centered love experienced as sourceless, goalless, purposeless, and powerless to heal. The hell of reading it is that the author imagines that the feckless existential emptiness of his hero might be redeemed by the mere fact of his falling in love with literature while offering no hint of what is in fact lovable about that literature we are told the hero loves. Hence, the novel is an exercise in subtle but exasperating sentimentality.