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The Man Who Wrote The Mediocre Novel

photo of a wooden bookshelf filled with books
flickr/rolf venema

What does it mean when the “perfect novel” is misogynistic, petty, and utterly unremarkable? Just that it’s by a white man.


As I browsed the University of Texas Press’s fall catalogue, a title jumped out at me: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel (October 15). When I read the blurb, I became incensed. It was a biography of John Williams, the author of Stoner, the unlikeliest bestseller of the 2000s. Stoner was originally published in 1965 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2006, and then re-reissued in 2015 in a lavish hardback edition. It was reviewed and lauded widely. In the New York Times Book Review, Morris Dickstein called it “a perfect novel.”

Stoner is not a perfect novel. It’s not even a particularly well-written novel. You’ve probably read a hundred books like it. It is a methodical, hagiographic piece of fiction about a college professor, a man who plods passively through his life and takes joy only in literature.

William Stoner is born on a farm. He goes to college, becomes a professor at that college, takes a wife, has a child, undergoes professional difficulties, and dies. This is a terrific way to write a novel—to do a character study of a small, mediocre life. But Williams’s mediocrity blurs with Stoner’s until they both lose the reader’s interest. And one or both of them has a frightening carelessness toward women. Stoner repeatedly indulges in marital rape, saying that when his wife shifts against him in her sleep, “he moved upon her.” His wife, in response, “turn[s] her head sideways in a familiar gesture and bur[ies] it in her pillow, enduring violation,” so there is no mistaking these encounters as consensual. Dickstein’s review didn’t mention that. But then, Stoner is aimed toward Dickstein, and not toward me.  

There’s a reason a book like Stoner was re-issued, and a biography like The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel was published.  The most elevated cultural conversations favor writing that is traditionally male, subjectively male, overtly male. This may be occurring almost involuntarily on the part of the editors and critics. In Stoner, a male critic might not notice that Stoner’s wife is relegated to the stereotypes of frigid bitch, and later, crazy bitch. A critic without a disability might not notice that the central villains of the book are both disabled, and that the motives for their villainy are otherwise unexplained. A white critic might not notice that there are no educated people of color in the book at all. He might perceive only that Williams’s quiet, scholarly hero does his duty and loves his literature, despite the schemers who endeavor to ruin him—never noticing the common thread among those schemers.

So, of course Stoner is not a perfect novel. There’s no such thing, but if there were, it definitely wouldn’t sympathize with marital rape or demonize characters who are not cisgendered, fully abled white men. To state the obvious, no novel can be all-inclusive. Committee art is rarely of good quality. But a novel that actively shuts out readers because of their gender or skin color? The time for celebrating a novel like that, for glorifying it to the point of biographizing its author, should be long over.

The most elevated cultural conversations favor writing that is traditionally male, subjectively male, overtly male. Click To Tweet

Yet it still happens. Charles J. Shields, who has also written biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, has done a valorous job with Williams in The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. But he cannot disguise what’s at the heart of Stoner and what seems to have been at the heart of its author: misogyny, and mediocrity. A recollection of Williams: “He was one of those who felt…that the world is closing in on them, with all these ‘women and minorities’…[taking] the place that they were raised to think is rightfully theirs.”

As a scholar, Williams’s work was backward-looking (despite writing in the fertile 1960s, he had no interest in poetry beyond the time of William Carlos Williams), derivative, and inadequate; a rejecting editor wrote to Williams, “You are overstepping your evidence by about ten thousand miles.” In 1963 Williams caused a minor scandal by plagiarizing Yvor Winters. Shields treats it as delicately as possible. “Williams’ students did know of their professor’s proclivity for borrowing…He had taken shortcuts since the beginning of his teaching career…piggybacking on Alan Swallow’s Wyatt dissertation for his own…compiling a poetry anthology incorporating Winters’ scholarship.”

In the critical segment of his writer’s life, Williams is so unimaginative that he must plagiarize. Meanwhile, as a poet and fiction author, he struggles to find an agent, to find publication, to find a job, to find funding. He often expresses frustration that he can’t seem to get ahead as a writer. Shields tiptoes around it, but the fact is, Williams’s books just aren’t that good. On his first novel, a rejection letter reads, “To us it seems a shame that a writer of Mr. William’s [sic] obvious capabilities and potentialities should have spent so much time delineating a character who is basically not worth it.” Dutton’s feedback: “Unfortunately, we think that…this manuscript is just too long and too pretentious.”

In sum, Stoner is a minor novel by a minor writer. I don’t begrudge its wide readership (people can enjoy whatever they want); I begrudge its elevation, when it is so plainly and seriously flawed, to the point that a single review by a male critic has titled Williams’s biography. The preposterous, rapturous praise, leveled unequally toward mediocre men like Williams, is the problem.

A scan of the NYRB Classics list shows that male names outstrip female names; the same editors who chose to put two editions of Stoner into print within ten years choose mostly men from the annals of out-of-print literature to reissue and promote. Yet the poet Ai, who won a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, and an NEA grant, requires a Kickstarter to come back into print. The Second Shelf, a quarterly publication and online bookstore devoted to out-of-print women’s writing, also needed a Kickstarter to fill the gap NYRB Classics perpetuates. Passing, by Nella Larsen, is obscure (ranked at 10,000 in Amazon sales at this writing), while Invisible Man flourishes (ranked at 1,000).

Twice as many male authors get translated as women; only two houses that commonly publish translated books published more women authors than men in 2017. And just one publisher, AmazonCrossing (!), accounts for 20% of the women published in translation. VIDA continues to shout across the gender gap in publishing for short stories, essays, and particularly criticism—check out the stats for the London Review of Books and, surprise!, the NYRB. As those statistics demonstrate, women writers are reviewed less, and women critics are offered fewer opportunities to review.

The preposterous, rapturous praise, leveled unequally toward mediocre men like Williams, is the problem. Click To Tweet

Stoner is perfect in one respect: as an example of the heights to which a mediocre white male writer can soar when given proper cheerleading. Williams has netted a biography and lasting fame because of the men in publishing and criticism clustered around him, rooting for him. Compare him to Clarice Lispector, a contemporary, who was exponentially more prolific and acclaimed during her lifetime. It took a 2009 biography to push her work into wider acknowledgment in the US, instead of the acknowledgment engendering the biography. Or compare him to Anaïs Nin, whose work is remembered as supplemental to Henry Miller’s, whose extraordinary diary has been published by smaller and smaller presses as interest in her has waned, whose objectively fascinating life has been biographized only once. Or compare him to Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place. She wrote bestselling, salacious melodramas that tapped the repressive sexuality of her era and is barely critically studied at all.

Stoner is also excellent as a standard against which every female writer should push. Per Shields, “Williams could build his fiction around thought warring with feeling, which creates tension, and to suggest that emotions are ineffable, beyond characters’ reach.” This sense pervades Stoner, that emotions are foreign and impossible. I think this struggle was Williams’s, that he found it difficult to enter the weak and confusing realm of emotion and nurture (his own children barely appear in Shields’s biography), the realm in which women stereotypically belong. I imagine that Williams would have found a book like My Brilliant Friend as intolerable as I find Stoner, as there is no place for him in it.

Women are half (or more) of the reading public, and yet books like Stoner are what’s thrust upon us—books in which we will never find ourselves, books whose authors were rightly buried under the weight of their own mediocrity. Books and authors whose obsolescence, whose extinction, are overdue.