An Academic Life Observed: “Stoner” (book review)

As far as I can gather, John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner became an overnight sensation nearly fifty years after it was written. Cover endorsements include Nick Hornby describing it as “A brilliant, inexorably sad, wise, and elegant novel” and Julian Barnes declaring it “A terrific novel of echoing sadness“. An uncredited reviewer in the Sunday Times labelled it “The greatest novel you’ve never read“.


Stoner tells the story of the eponymous academic’s career

Stoner tracks the life and career (in the first half of the twentieth century) of William (Bill) Stoner, a man raised in an agricultural community who goes on to become a lecturer at his alma mater, the University of Missouri in Columbia.

On one level, it would be hard to dismiss outright the critics who say it is a book in which nothing happens to an insignificant man working at nowhere-of-importance. Tom Hanks is right to say “it’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher“. Yet, as Hanks goes on to acknowledge it is a fascinating account; the beauty with which an apparently trivial life is described, and the rich insights the story offers into everyday, ‘mundane’, human existence contribute to the appeal of Williams’ tale. I found myself reflecting that the book is in some senses a fore-runner of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Educating Essex or Educating Yorkshire which focus on an unexceptional teacher in a typical comprehensive school going about their everyday business, in a manner that turns out to be unexpectedly profound and life-affirming.

There is, however, more to the contemporary appeal of Stoner than simply the quality of the writing. The setting may be 4000 miles from the UK, in a relatively obscure Midwestern institution in a different age, but it is easy to see why the book has proven popular amongst academics. There are themes within the novel that resonate with contemporary educational issues. Here are just a few that have struck me (with inevitable spoilers):

Widening participation: Bill Stoner is the first member of his family to go to University. It is actually his father’s idea for Stoner to enroll at the College of Agriculture at the University to learn more about novel farming techniques. The appeal to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds into university education as a vehicle for encouraging their social mobility remains an important goal today.

The merits of non-vocational study: unfortunately for Stoner’s father, the experience of university life draws Bill in a different direction. He abandons his vocational course in favour of the more esoteric delights of English Literature, eventually becoming an expert in Middle English language and literature. Has Bill taken a self-indulgent turn? Is it wrong for students to take courses without clear utility? One driver in current attitudes regarding the purpose of university education sees the merits very much in terms of the contribution the emerging graduate will then make to the (financial) betterment of wider society.

The thrill of your first book publication: Stoner develops his PhD thesis into a book. He is initially excited by the prospect of his work reaching a wider audience. Over time, however, this enthusiasm is dampened by a realisation that most people have not and will not notice its existence; those that do are lukewarm regarding the merits of his tome. The author of an academic work may have generated an elegant synthesis of a topic close to their heart, but it requires the alignment of factors beyond their control – an unanticipated zeitgeist, adoption and promotion by prominent individuals elsewhere – for the magnus opus to gain real influence.

The gnawing doubts about the value of your contribution to Project Humanity: concerns about the purpose of our academic lives don’t necessarily stop at reflection about the value of our written work. Teachers at any level can struggle to remain convinced that their labours are truly making a difference. In a previous job we used to talk of the three years an undergraduate is at university as times when you were helping to build sandcastles on a conveyor belt. If you are teaching basic neuroanatomy to a woman who goes on to be a top brain surgeon then, albeit with hindsight, you can identify a direct correlation between your input and their contribution to society. But for someone teaching about the principles of Anglo-Saxon versification, or even the nuances of the Kreb’s Cycle, the connection between our toil and the broader flourishing of mankind may be harder to gauge.

The perils of making significant enemies within the academy (whilst doing the right thing): Like it or not, our progress through the academy is significantly influenced by other people’s views of us (e.g. local promotions, grant awarding panels, peer review of papers). Bill Stoner’s career is becalmed when he falls out with colleague Hollis Lomax. Stoner questions whether a graduate student Walker has sufficient academic aptitude to be allowed to proceed with his plan to author a dissertation on Shelley and the Hellenistic Ideal. Colleagues know Stoner is right, but Lomax is determined that his protégé Walker will be allowed to proceed. Unfortunately for Stoner their dispute occurs just prior to Lomax’s appointment as Head of Department. From his elevated position Lomax assigns Stoner a burdensome teaching schedule that effectively kills off his development of a second book.