Stoner: the must-read novel of 2013

Julian Barnes in The Guardian:

Stoner-illustration-006On 13 June 1963, the American novelist John Williams wrote from the University of Denver, where he was a professor of English, to his agent Marie Rodell. She had just read his third novel, Stoner, and while clearly admiring it, was also warning him not to get his hopes up. Williams replied: “I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. Oh, I have no illusions that it will be a 'bestseller' or anything like that; but if it is handled right (there's always that out) – that is, if it is not treated as just another 'academic novel' by the publisher, as Butcher's Crossing [his second novel] was treated as a “western”, it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I'm sure of is that it's a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”

…Stoner was published in 1965, and – as is usually the case – it steered a mid‑course between the novelist's fears and his hopes. It was respectably reviewed; it had a reasonable sale; it did not become a bestseller; it went out of print. In 1972, Augustus, Williams's “Roman” novel, won half the National Book Award for fiction (the other half going to John Barth's Chimera). It was his largest moment of public success, yet he did not even attend the ceremony; perhaps he was rightly suspicious, as the laudatum pronounced in his absence was strangely disparaging. When he died, two decades later, without publishing any more fiction, the New York Times obituarist treated him as much as a poet and “educator” as a novelist. But still to come was that factor – identified by Williams in his letter – that novelists often write about, that they fear, but also place their trust in: time. And time has vindicated him way beyond his own modest hope. Fifty years after Williams wrote to his agent, Stoner became a bestseller. A quite unexpected bestseller. A bestseller across Europe. A bestseller publishers themselves could not quite understand. A bestseller of the purest kind – one caused almost entirely by word-of-mouth among readers.

More here. (Note: Read it, loved it, gave it to many friends who loved it. It is the male version of Madame Bovary. Do read it.)