Stoner by John Williams

Stoner John Williams Illustration

So this week I've made a retro illustration/poster/cover thing for John Williams' book Stoner.

For anyone unfamiliar with the history of the book, here's a brief summary - it received excellent reviews when it was published in 1965 and sold around 2,000 copies. It quickly fell out of print but it's reputation survived among an underground network of lecturers, critics and readers who discovered the book, fell in love with it and passed it on to other like-minded folks. In 1973 the book was published in England and C.P. Snow wrote in The Financial Times "Why isn't this book famous?" and every decade or so a new article would be written keeping the flame of Stoner alive and wondering why it wasn't better appreciated.

Williams shared the National Book Award in 1973 for his Roman novel Augustus  and died in 1994 after having a not terrible life. Stoner remained out of print until 2006 when a reissue made it easier, at least for those who had championed it somewhere along the way, to get hold of a new copy. It did not set the world alight.

Then in April 2013 it became a massive number one bestseller in Holland and Waterstones named it their Book of the Year in December - almost fifty years after it was first published. Which came as something of a surprise to most people.

Thanks to a variety of different factors (Morris Dickstein's 2007 New Yorker review that called it a "perfect novel", Colum McCann's 2006 Guardian piece that directly led to purchase of rights by French and Catalan publishers, Anna Gavalda's 2011 French translation, recommendations by Bret Easton Ellis and Tom Hanks, etc.) that have been bubbling away for some time, the novel popped last year, has had huge success in Israel, Italy, France and the UK and is just generally killing it all over.

Which is a very nice story. It's really an amazing thing to see a book outside of the locked-down accepted cannon storm its way back into the fold and be recognised belatedly for what it is after fifty years of standing in the kitchen of the party. Not even the kitchen, Stoner has been sitting alone in the shower cubicle of an en suite upstairs while the guests who are in the kitchen of the party occasionally discuss its merits. For this guest to suddenly appear in the living room and completely own the karaoke machine is pretty damn surprising.

The book is sad and quietly heartbreaking. It's a rumination on the life of an academic, a poetic soul who is subject to a sequence of painful failures and defeats that are halted only by his unremarkable death.  It's beautiful and it's understated. It's a book that creeps quietly into your soul as you read, and sits patiently at the wheel until you forget its there before unexpectedly ramming on the brakes to stop and stagger you with a shining moment of descriptive prose so elegantly and concisely worded, yet so personal and profound, that you're left gasping like a trout on a sandbank and wondering how it is possible that someone could get it so right.

It's no wonder it lived on as a secret for so many years and it's no wonder that so many people have taken it to heart today. It's a book that feels personal. It's a book that feels like a discovery no matter how many other people are discovering it at the same time.

If you want any more information on the history of Stoner there are tons of articles written about its recent success (like this one written by Julian Barnes for The Grauniad and this one in The New Yorker) but the most in-depth article I've found about the novel's history (and one that doesn't rely on the kind of sensationalism I have utilised here) is probably this one by Claire Cameron that assembles the many pieces of the jigsaw of Stoner's success like a forensic analyst identifying shards from a broken window.

Incidentally, the illustration that is (ostensibly) the main point of this blog entry was inspired by the work of Rolly Crump. My friend Pete Morey (the illustrator and live scribe) sent me a link to Crump's work recently. It was immediately apparent that I'd been ripping off Crump for years without knowing anything about him or having seen anything he'd done. So I decided to jump in feet first and really go to town on a complete and unashamed "homage". Take a look at some of Crump's work here.

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