The Emperor’s New Book

by Steve

University of Missouri

It seems like every year I fall for it. I read about the ‘must-read’ book of the year. The newspaper reviews are gushing. The bloggers and the tweeters talk the book up as thought-provoking, eye-opening, life-changing. Amazon is a sea of five-star reviews. A critical mass builds up where coverage is overwhelmingly positive – This Is A Great Book. And the book, from the blurb alone, sounds good, the kind of book I’d like to read. So, I buy the book. I read it. And I’m disappointed. Angry even.

If I’d read these books in isolation, in blissful ignorance, I probably wouldn’t have minded them so much. I wouldn’t have loved them, but I’d probably just consider them a fine but flawed diversion and move on to the next book. But the weight of expectation really doesn’t help. Neither does the adulation of others. I wonder, have I missed something? I then wonder, are people happy to just settle for this?

I guess I should probably name names. Freedom is an obvious one. The Art of Fielding even more so. Maybe even A Visit from the Goon Squad, to some extent. But this year, the Emperor’s New Book is Stoner by John Williams.

Stoner is different to the other hyped books. It is not new, it was written in 1965. But it is one of those books that is periodically rediscovered and considered a ‘lost classic’. This year a decent marketing campaign around the reissue has led to a lot of fuss around the book. As it was an older book, I thought the acclaim perhaps held more weight. People have had more time to gain a little hindsight, live with the book, decide how good it really is. It felt like a safer bet.

Williams pretty much sets out the book as a low-key event. He tells the tale of William Stoner and his life through the first half of the twentieth century but makes clear it is an unremarkable life. In short, Stoner is a country boy who goes to university, becomes an academic, gets married, dies. I have no problem with this. I was looking forward to it. I liked the idea of a book showing how every life has its own drama and interest, no matter how normal and uneventful it might appear on the surface. I was even happy with a reasonably straight, linear narrative. It made sense for a quiet book like this.

Yet, once I finished Stoner I was almost angry at the book, and those who had heaped such praise on it. The main character holds little or no interest. There is no real insight into how he becomes interested in literature and academia, or what his thoughts are on their value. I had no feel for what he thought of the world, if anything.

This would be fine if the surrounding characters were illuminating or entertaining. But every time a half-interesting character appears they are either killed off or sent into exile. Instead we are left with a series of caricatures to take the story forward. Stoner’s wife is a two-dimensional and misogynistic creation – cold, manipulative, heartless and with no redeeming features whatsoever. Stoner’s one friend is portly, jolly, jovial. The villain of the story is – literally – hunchbacked. It would be comical if it wasn’t so offensive. I started to wonder if this was a literary novel or a corny old horror story.

None of these characters have any depth, they are just vehicles to manipulate the story and to ultimately help justify Stoner’s behaviour. There is a distinct lack of craft here – at every point it is entirely obvious what will follow. It is a frustrating and tiring experience. I could see the strings being pulled.

The two world wars seem to be used more as handy plot devices than opportunities to reflect on life in the twentieth century. Most of the time Stoner lives in his bubble. He fails to interact with the outside world during such a tumultuous period yet the reasons why are never really explored properly. He is just there.

There are some passages that are lyrical and that conjure up some nice imagery, but that is not enough. The book cannot survive the ham-fisted characterisation and plotting, where characters and their actions are just thinly veiled shorthand sketches to get Stoner where the author wants him to be.

Maybe I just misread the book, maybe there were hidden depths I missed. I can live with a book without innovation if it still has something meaningful to say. I think I could even appreciate it, to some extent, if it had been written 50 years earlier. But this doesn’t read like a book relevant for the 1960s, let alone the present day. I don’t get it. Is this really what well-read people think is good writing, in 2013?

Image from Missouri State Archives, via Flickr