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.
“It is high time defenders of American literary fiction cut Oprah Winfrey a break. These days, even Oprah is no longer Oprah, and while Mathis’s novel has shot up into the bestseller lists, it is unlikely stay there for months the way books did in the Book Club’s 1990s heyday. Still, imagine what would have happened if Winfrey hadn’t picked it. It still would have garnered raves from reviewers in print and online, and over time booksellers would have begun quietly putting it in the hands of favored customers. In other words, it would have remained a well-kept secret among a bookish few.” Our own Michael Bourne defends the queen of American book clubs.