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‘The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Read’: The Revival of Stoner

Read Sunday, 23 Mar 2014

Luke Horton looks at how a ‘perfect novel’ published to general indifference in 1965 is now being hailed as a masterpiece by everyone from Bret Easton Ellis to Tom Hanks, to Ian McEwan.

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John Williams’ Stoner is one of the most highly and widely praised novels of recent times. Hailed as a ‘perfect novel’ by New York Times critic Morris Dickstein, it has collected high-profile endorsements from the likes of Bret Easton Ellis (‘a great American novel’), Ian McEwan (‘a minor masterpiece’), and even Tom Hanks, who wrote in Times Magazine: ‘It’s one of the most fascinating things you’ve ever come across’. It was recently a bestseller across most of Europe. It is also 48 years old. Which begs the question: how does a largely forgotten American novel become a bestseller 48 years after its initial publication?

The short answer seems simple enough. A long history of hushed, underground reverence – writers pressing it upon other writers, the occasional piece popping up in literary journals about the criminal neglect of a masterwork – then, over the last ten years, a flurry of new editions and translations, and a canny European marketing strategy that made Stoner the word-of mouth literary phenomenon of 2013. By July, Stoner was sitting in the bestseller lists in Spain, France, and had hit number one in the Netherlands, displacing Dan Brown’s Inferno.

The longer answer begins with the indifference with which this lost American classic was greeted upon its release in 1965. Williams won the National Book Award for his next book, Augustus, in 1974, but Stoner, a quiet novel about the ‘uneventful’ life of a university professor at a Midwestern University in the first half of the 20th century, received good reviews and poor sales before falling out of print just a year later. And yet, by 1973 it was already being championed as an overlooked masterpiece. In the Financial Times, English novelist and critic C. P. Snow asked, ‘Why isn’t this book famous?’

The conventional explanation for this is cultural historical. That, no matter how beautifully written, a novel about the life and loveless marriage of a poor Missouri farmer’s son who discovers a love of classical literature was never going to be a hit in the mid-60s, a time when the Beats were gods and the counter-culture was gathering momentum. And maybe there’s some truth to this. Despite its promising title (it’s the protagonist’s surname, not a drug reference), Stoner couldn’t be more at odds with the tenor of the times. Another young realist writer of this period, and the writer to whom Williams is most often compared, Richard Yates, similarly attracted critical acclaim but meagre sales in this decade. Like Williams, Yates’ popular success, with novels such as 1961’s Revolutionary Road, has been largely posthumous.

And yet, in a piece in The Millions recently, critic Claire Cameron reminds us that with 54,378 books released in 1965, it might be misleading to suggest it’s some sort of tragedy Stoner was overlooked at the time of its release. Instead, Cameron argues, this is simply the fate of most books. The fact that Stoner has been remembered and resuscitated so spectacularly she suggests, especially without making an initial splash, is the exceptional thing about this story. She writes, ‘This is a story about a novel that is so extraordinary that it’s been remembered’.

Others remain shocked. In an interview for BBC Radio 4, Ian McEwan said he was, ‘amazed a novel this good escaped general attention for so long’.

But whatever the reason for its initially subdued reception, Stoner has certainly hit a vein now. Its resuscitation began in earnest in 2006 when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) bought the US rights to the novel, which had been languishing for nearly fifty years. Although reissued in the UK by Random House’s Vintage Classics in 2003, it was the NYRB Classics edition that saw the novel attract high-profile endorsements like those from Ellis, McEwan and Hanks.

But it was when bestselling French novelist Anna Gavalda translated it into French in 2012 that Europe began to go crazy for Stoner. The European marketing for Stoner was overseen by Oscar van Gelderen at Lebowski Publishers, whose inventive approach to the marketing of the book has a lot to do with its sudden success there. Knowing it would be a challenge to make a novel by a relatively unknown mid-century author a bestseller in 2013, especially with no author to help promote it, Gelderen had to eschew traditional marketing strategies. Determined to push the readership for Stoner beyond the existing market for ‘classics’, Gelderen avoided the term. Instead, he turned to social media to start a conversation about the book, and sold the idea of the book directly to booksellers. This approach turned out to be more successful than he could have possibly imagined.

Yet it’s Stoner’s status as a lost classic that’s forging its readership here in Australia. High-profile endorsements are nice but it’s word-of-mouth buzz that will seal its fate. The fact that it comes in a comparatively cheap $12.95 paperback can only help sales. A sticker on the latest edition reads ‘The greatest novel you’ve never read’, but the truth of the matter is that this book does brilliantly live up to the hype as those who read it will no doubt discover for themselves.

This article was first published in the Big Issue (Australia).

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