Encouraged by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times, who flagged up the American novelist John Williams’s Stoner, I have devoured it in the past two days. Appleyard tells us that it is “the greatest novel you have never read”, making out a compelling case for it.
First published in 1965, Stoner sank almost without trace before being exhumed in recent years, garnering both critical acclaim and substantial sales. Set in the American mid-West, it tells the story of an unremarkable academic, a professor of English literature. Beautifully structured and written, it is understated, yet deeply moving.
Unfortunately, Appleyard goes on to pronounce: “Stoner, in short, is unmarketable – always, in my view, a good sign.” Well, clearly, this is not so. If it were, the book would still be unknown to all but a few. All one can say with some certainty is that it was inadequately marketed at birth.
It’s quite common for British critics to take this sort of line. It’s so patronising – as though failure to sell is in some mysterious way a marker of excellence.