Essay: A Forgotten Bestseller: The Saga of John Williams’s Stoner
“The most surprising bestseller in international markets,” ran the article in Publisher’s Weekly a few weeks ago, “was in the Netherlands, where John William’s classic novel Stoner reached #1.” The novel has hovered near the top of the charts for weeks and there are now more than 125,000 copies of the Dutch edition in print. Sales are picking up in France, Spain, and Italy.What is the story of Stoner? How does an American book first published in 1965 go on to become a bestseller in the Netherlands in 2013?When I first started looking into the history of the book, I expected to find a story of undiscovered genius and a neglected book. Much of the narrative around Stoner and its author, John Williams, seems to be one of being overlooked and forgotten. “John is almost famous for not being famous,” said his friend Dan Wakefield.That a good book, which may be slightly ahead of its time, gets published and ignored is not an exceptional story. It happens all the time. According to the UNESCO survey of book production, 54,378 books were published in 1965. Some of those had more than a handful of readers. A few might be thought of as works of genius. Many were overlooked. Most are forgotten. This is not a tragedy. It’s realistic. It is ordinary.When I looked into the story behind Stoner, what I found is the opposite. It is surprising precisely because this book has not been overlooked. This is a story about a novel that is so extraordinary that it’s been remembered.
In 1965, an English professor at the University of Denver, John Williams, published a book called Stoner. It is the quiet story of a man born at the end of the 19th century. He escapes a hardscrabble existence on a farm in Missouri by falling in love with English literature. He works his way into a scholar’s life. The years go by. He turns inward. He dies.The novel was briefly noted in The New Yorker, calling it “a masterly portrait…Mr. Williams shows extraordinary control in telling this extremely difficult story.” The novel went on to sell about 2,000 copies.Some of you might think, “briefly noted in The New Yorker, some sales, and he has a pension — not all bad?” In the annals of writers, there are certainly far more tragic stories, especially for a book with such a quiet plot and a non-celebrity author. Many would agree. As a profile by Alan Prendergast notes, “[Williams] didn’t have many readers, but they were the right ones — the high princes and satraps of academia and the publishing industry.” It was a year after the book was published, 1966, that the novel was first remembered. Irving Howe, a literary lion of the time, wrote about Stoner in The New Republic calling it, “Serious, beautiful and affecting.”But even as that essay was published, it is said that Stoner was out of print.
Williams won the National Book Award for his next novel in 1973. A hung jury spilt the award between John Barth’sChimera and Augustus by Williams, which is a story of the Roman Empire from the death of Caesar to the last days of Augustus.It was also in 1973 that Stoner was published in England. “Why isn’t this book famous?” C.P. Snow wrote in The Financial Times. “Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.”There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that by then, Stoner was an underground favorite. It was passed around between grad students, keen readers, and people in the know.
And through each decade, the book continued to be remembered, notably by Dan Wakefield who wrote about Stoner in Ploughshares in 1981. In that essay, Wakefield tells of hearing Williams read passages from the novel, “so eloquent, so moving in their understated passion, that I rushed out after the lecture, bought the book, and spent the rest of the day reading it.”
Back in those days, as some of you might remember, it could be hard to buy older books. Titles still regularly went out of print. Stoner’s journey from person-to-person was most likely slow. The few copies that were still in circulation were likely ringed by coffee stains, a few were forgotten on a bus or a bench, and a many more parked on a bookshelf somewhere.
One of those copies of Stoner was passed to writer Steve Almond in 1995 by a friend, “he talked about it in a this reverential way, almost hushed, and because we were, in fact, both stoners, I did assume it was about drugs. But it took me about one paragraph to realize it was straight realist fiction, and to be mesmerized.” Almond went on to write about the book for Tin House in 2003, an article that was recently reprinted by The Rumpus.
Edwin Frank, the editorial director of New York Review of Books Classics, first heard about Stoner from John Doyle, the owner of the Upper East Side bookstore Crawford and Doyle. Frank read the book in one sitting and quickly bought the rights. He isn’t sure how long the book had been out of print by then, “but they were certainly not easy to come by.” He republished Stoner as a classic in 2006.This is the point in the story at which it seems the supply of copies of Stoner became more abundant. Instead of waiting for Steve Almond to pass along his dog-eared copy, readers were now able to buy a copy of their own. A few passed these copies on.
This is also the point where the narrative seems to split into several strands. While it is hard to trace the exact path of Stoner, it is clear is that the book had many fans who were now actively recommending the book.And is this also the point at which Williams’s writing, often described as “plain” had become fashionable? “It sort of pays tribute to a man whose life is, in one sense, utterly ordinary, but, in another sense, rich as anyone’s life can be,” Frank said to NPR.
Almond puts the same idea in another way, that the book helped him “learn more about what it is means to be human…to help me bear the most painful moments of that awareness.”If the ideas in Stoner had come of age, then Morris Dickstein wrote the review in 2007 that coined the moment. In The New York Times, he called Stoner a “perfect novel.”Williams passed away in 1994. Though he must have heard acclaim for his work while he was still alive, if there is one sad note in this story it might be that he was not alive to read this review, or see the success that has come since.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, the accolades continued. Colum McCann called Stoner “one of the great forgotten novels of the past century,” while adding that he had bought at least 50 copies to give as gifts in the past few years. Publisher’s Weekly mentioned that this article led both the Catalan and French publishers, Ediciones 62 and Le Dilettante, to buy the rights for their territories. The book had also caught the attention of Anna Gavalda, one of France’s best-selling novelists. She told NPR that she read Stoner in English and asked her editor to buy the rights so that she could do a translation. It has gone on to sell well in France. The novel was also successfully published by Yedioth in Israel.
Denise Bukowski, my literary agent, explained how one sale of rights can lead to another. “If an editor with taste is similar to yours in France has bought a book, that signals to you and other editor friends to consider it seriously.” It also matters how a book is discovered. “Everyone loves to discover a good overlooked author, especially one rediscovered by The New York Review of Books.”
Oscar van Gelderen, publisher of Lebowski Publishers, remembers the expression on the faces of his colleagues in the sales force when he first presented the new book he wanted to acquire, Stoner. They said, “are you serious? That sounds like the most boring book.” And without an author, how exactly would this work? Their worries were well founded. While American books can do well in the Netherlands, it is almost unheard of for a classic to perform as Stoner has. It has been in the top five of the bestseller charts for almost three months, hitting number one for five weeks in a row and it keeps on selling. How did this happen?
This is where our story shifts into something even more rare: An extraordinary book is found by a passionate person, who is in the right place at the right time, and does something extraordinary with that book.
A friend in New York had recommended Stoner to van Gelderen, who also read it in one sitting. From the start, he felt passionate about publishing it, “I knew there was only one way to pull it off.” He made it the lead title in the Lebowski Fall 2012 catalog and found an iconic cover that perfectly expressed the powerful emotional strength of the book, but avoided the word “classic.” He wanted to publish it in “as modern a way as possible”, and then focused on talking to booksellers, “we knew this was a book that they would be proud to sell.”
Van Gelderen and his team at Lebowski thought the reviews for the book would be very good, but how to get beyond the 10,000 odd readers that might be the natural audience for a classic? With no author available to promote the book, the traditional methods wouldn’t work, so they turned to social media. “We used all the modern techniques…in the beginning you need to tweet. You need to start the conversation, in order to become the topic of conversation. Then you go from tweet to retweet.”
But again, tweeting does not make a bestseller. What made the difference? This quiet book instilled a something in van Gelderen as it had in others before him, “if you publish with passion, you can still pull it off,” he says. “You can still sell great literature.”