David's Reviews > Stoner

Stoner by John Williams
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Jul 12, 10

bookshelves: mind-numbingly-boring, never-gonna-finish, wrist-slashingly-depressing, disappointing, read-in-2010
Read from July 08 to 12, 2010

Reading "Stoner" gave me another one of those parallel universe experiences. In the goodreads universe, where everyone else lives, this is apparently a much loved and lauded book. Heck, those good folks at the New York Review of Books tell us it's a classic. And has this to say about the main protagonist:

William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world

I'm sorry, but that's just a crock, even allowing for reviewer hyperbole. The very best that you could manage to say about Stoner is that he's a wraithlike nebbish who manages to glide through this dismal story without leaving an impression on anyone, least of all the reader. People seem to admire John Edward Williams's writing. The thing that baffled me is how any author can use so many words to write about a character and end up describing someone who is utterly devoid of a single distinguishing trait, or even a semblance of a personality.

Stoner is a stick figure who, over the course of the book, gets to interact with other stick figures (the resentful wife, the condescending academic colleagues, the college friend with a lust for life who gets mowed down before his prime in the Great War, etc etc ad bloody nauseam) as they act out standard plot #24*. Now I know the number of plots is finite, so it might seem unjust to fault an author for serving up the same story yet again. Fair enough. But it's considered good sport to mess with the template a little bit, to inject one's own authorial "spark", to add *something* to make the story rise above the generic template. Maybe you take the A.J. Cronin slant and stir in a little rage against the system. Or you might just add a big ladleful of chicken soup for the soul and give the story a Mr Chips vibe. What you can't do, and hope to keep the reader's interest and sympathy, is just trot out the bare-bones generic version of the tale, with no embellishment**. But this is exactly what Williams has done here. What's the point?

I wasn't looking for much. Hell, I'd have settled for the odd chunk of snappy dialog. A sense of humor. Anything at all, really. But even the most basic dialog seems to exceed Williams's capacity, and decent characterization eludes him completely.

Anyway, the bottom line is that, in my universe, this book was bleak, predictable, excruciatingly dull. Like one of those dreadful Thomas Hardy books where everyone is miserable all the time, but without the local color. One star, maximum. Though it isn't quite dreadful enough to earn a slot on the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf.

(Story #24: Intelligent {farmboy/kid from slums/juvenile delinquent/will be played by Matt Damon in the movie} transcends hardscrabble background to be first in the family to attend college. Lurches into an unfulfilling marriage that ends up making everyone miserable, teaches college, is left wondering if that's all there is. Alienation everywhere you look.)

**:Several authors have written intelligently within the framework of the "academic novel" (Francine Prose, Jane Smiley, James Hynes, Kingsley Amis, among others), even managing to be funny. But those are authors with, you know, discernible intelligence, an affliction which John Edward Williams has apparently been spared.

I just read David K's excellent review and realize that I am a hero, albeit a "Master and Margarita"-loving hero. So be it.

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Comments (showing 1-20)




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message 20: by David (new) - rated it 1 star

David Yes! Another person is intelligent enough to understand just how bad this novel is!


message 19: by Christine (new) - added it

Christine Wonderful review, David G. (and the other David too). Yet I still want to read Stoner because of all the glowing reviews. If I like it, I'll be able to confirm once and for all that I lack the good taste I ought to have gained from my lengthy and expensive education. I think it would be a huge relief to stop wondering about that and finally know. So freeing. However, if it turns out that I dislike the book as much as you do, I'll be pleasantly surprised to find myself in such discerning company. I'll be happy either way.


Steve Anderson Great review. You have some points and I'll have to read some of your other reviews. I wasn't sold in this book until the end but I think it's really pretty good.


message 17: by Anna (new) - rated it 2 stars

Anna I fully agree (including The Master and Margarita), although my star rating won't be quite as harsh.


message 16: by Nick (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nick Wellings I am really heartened to see other readers who had the same opinion as I do. At best this book is merely OK.


Wendy What's it got to do with intelligence, merely a matter of taste....you hated it.....I loved it. I dont need to read other reviews, I can decide for myself. In the uk it's the Waterstones book of the year, how can so many people be unintelligent?


message 14: by David (new) - rated it 1 star

David Good for you Wendy!

If you had taken the time to read my review carefully, you would have seen that I never said the people who liked the book are unintelligent, just that I thought the author wasn't particularly smart. Not quite the same thing, is it?

A question for you: if you "dont(sic) need to read other reviews", why do you bother to frequent a site like Goodreads? Maybe you have confused it with Amazon. Maybe, unfortunately, you are right.


Wendy Actually David, I read your review many times to make sure I wasn't misinterpreting your inference that anyone who enjoyed this novel wasn't as highly intelligent as you! I also read the reviews of the few who gave it I or 2 stars. I didn't have a problem with any of them...I get it, they simply didn't enjoy it.

At the end of your first paragraph you wrote 'you know who you are', meaning us thousands of thicko's I presume.

Another quote 'whilst only eleven people were courageous enough to call a spade a spade'

On 12 July 2010: 'Yes! another person is intelligent enough to understand just how bad this novel is!'

I have been interested enough to read many of your reviews and have found them to be, on the whole, clever, witty and entertaining. It seems to be only the Stoner review you have had an intellectual melt down on, and in my humble opinion, over analysed. It's just a book for God's sake.

I must add, I am also one of those romance readers (albeit historical) amongst other genre, '("REAL" meaning not romance, which is stupid shit written by machines and doesn't count)'. Many of those 'machines' would take great exception to their work bring described thus, there are bad ones but also exceptionally good ones. Even if I hated a book, I would never annihilate someone's work, be critical by all means but never unkind. I talk to a number of these ''machines' and a harsh, personal review tears some of them to shreds.


Wendy My apologies, wrong David! I don't have a problem with your review, I had read it properly and accept you just didn't enjoy it.


Candace Thomas Hardy is hard for you to appreciate too? Maybe serious literature is not your thing. John leCarre. . .Stoner is a book for people who think about life as were Mr. Hardy's books.


Michelle Candace wrote: "Thomas Hardy is hard for you to appreciate too? Maybe serious literature is not your thing. John leCarre. . .Stoner is a book for people who think about life as were Mr. Hardy's books."

You're so helpful! Which John le Carre would you recommend?


Elena Rotondo I love Hardy as I loved this book so I guess you must be right! Two of the same. I'd choose Stoner over dreadful Ahab any day when it comes to American literature...must be because of my second run on the White Whale once again proved unsuccessful and dreary as hell. I mean, thousands of people think it the greatest English novel ever written. I'm not going to argue with them but if it takes tonnes of willpower to get through one, just so you can say "I read it", while you're trying your hardest not to shoot yourself in the foot to stray your brain away from the pain of having to read it…doesn’t really make a difference what others think, does it? In the same way, I totally respect your view – you didn’t like it. Fair enough. I’ll stick to my Stoners and my Tesses thank-you-very-much


Wendy Totally agree with you Elena..one man's meat is another man's poison.


Idiosyncratic Like you,I cannot see how this book caused such a big kerfuffle. I dragged myself through to page 100 and quit. At first, the words "muffled" and "strangled" came to mind when reading this book.I found myself thinking, by comparison, of the beauty of Brideshead Revisited (“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days - such as that day - when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.”) In the end, the final word that came to mind re "Stoner" was "cardboard".


David Candace wrote: "Maybe serious literature is not your thing".

This kind of drive-by condescension tells us a lot about Candace, but adds little to the discussion at hand.

I hope Candace has the grace to be ashamed of her lapse into pettiness.


Wendy Serious literature is always a matter of opinion. If we all liked the same life would be boring! I love serious history but also well written HR, got to keep those hard up authors in work. Good debate going here David.


message 4: by Mimi (new) - rated it 1 star

Mimi Thank you David, for putting me out of my misery haha! I am on page 60 something and knowing the only serious dimension about this book is that stuff is fundamentally missing -I keep reading in agony because I'm starting to think it must be me?! There is no real dialogue, no humor, no stylistic elements which could save an complement the silent parts, not even inner dialogues, it's just Stoner walking through life and that's about it. I am going to give it another shot but I'm afraid for it!!


Barbara Rhine I didn't dislike the book as much as you did, but both the prose and the man often bored me. What a case this story made for divorce, for following the heart! It helped absolutely no one that he stayed in that miserable marriage, I'll tell you that. And to bypass his one chance at happiness, for what? Convention? Social acceptance? Yet he cared for neither, as his conflict on with his fellow faculty member proved. Eh. Not my favorite type of guy...


Jeanette Thanks for your thoughts on this one. I stretched to give it a 3. THIS is the "American" male in some of these reviews! Huh, not in my city urban world in the six plus decades that I have known it. Pretentious self-pity and bored helplessness just doesn't trait in any men of my environment.


Cecily I thought this a beautiful novel, and not depressing, but it's interesting to read such a strong contrary opinion. Differences keep us on our toes!


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