A Substantially Good Book: On Charles J. Shields’s Life of John Williams

By Christopher UrbanNovember 3, 2018

A Substantially Good Book: On Charles J. Shields’s Life of John Williams

The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel by Charles J. Shields

IF YOU LONG AVOIDED John Williams’s campus novel based on its title alone, assuming it to be a coming-of-age narrative about a young man who leaves his small town behind to study literature and smoke pot, you may be forgiven the error. The book, after all, is called Stoner. By the time this reviewer realized that the novel is named after its stoic protagonist, assistant professor William Stoner, and contains no recreational drug use, there was still that other problem of it having been recommended to the point of rendering it almost unreadable. It can’t be that good, can it? Seeing the title on “Best of” reading lists over the past several years has become its own kind of holiday tradition.

When I did finally get around to reading it last fall, I was, like many readers, struck by its charms — its elegant, declarative sentences and its warmly melancholic tone. The story of a boy farmer turned college professor reads like a fairy tale. I would come to the end of a chapter wanting to read another, and then another. Fans of Stoner — there’s even a name for the die-hards, “Stonerites” — who might have reservations about reading an account of a life that’s already been fictionalized so successfully, or even “perfectly,” will be delighted to learn that, despite obvious parallels with his fictional university protagonist, John Williams is both different and interesting enough to merit a book of his own, Charles J. Shields’s The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. It certainly helps that, like Williams, Shields knows how to tell a good story, one that will appeal especially to those interested in the ins and outs of the publishing industry and the ups and downs of a writer’s life (spoiler alert: there are many).

One of those high-low moments came for John Williams the day after the publication of Augustus, his epistolary novel of Ancient Rome. That morning he took a seat in the English Department lounge at Denver University, where he taught for more than 30 years, hoping to receive some admiration from his colleagues. And who could blame him? The novel had taken him seven years to complete, and The New York Times had just ran a rave review. But, as was the case with his earlier work, Williams sat all day waiting without anyone saying a word of praise to him about his recent success. Williams, who died in 1994, would never experience the kind of fame he dreamed about all his life. It was only after the resurgence of Stoner this past decade that he would find a prominent place in American letters as a forgotten master.

This image of an aging writer seeking the attention and approval of his less talented peers is just one of the many touching and trying moments in Shields’s book. For Williams, the career of a novelist always meant one step forward, one step back. When he published his debut, Nothing But the Night, with Alan Swallow, an eccentric, independent publisher of non-mainstream fiction and poetry, the achievement was belittled by his brother-in-law, a pulp writer, who saw Swallow as nothing more than a vanity outlet. It didn’t matter that Swallow had worked with Williams on revisions, or that his press had recently put out the then-influential critic Yvor Winters’s In Defense of Reason; all that mattered was that the book sold next to nothing, with countless copies boxed up in a garage in Colorado.

Butcher’s Crossing, Williams’s second attempt, showed enough literary merit to be picked up by a major New York publisher, but the dense, literary novel, which aimed to debunk the romantic Emersonian notion of self-knowledge found only through nature, tanked miserably in part thanks to the publicity department’s insistence on it being marketed as a straight-up Western. His next effort, the quiet, elegant Stoner, was partly doomed by the political context in which it appeared; published in the mid-’60s, a decade of radicalism on college campuses and elsewhere, it fell on deaf ears, despite some glowing reviews (including one from Irving Howe). Considering this history of disappointments, it’s only fitting that when Williams finally caught a big break, winning the National Book Award in 1973 for Augustus, he was forced to share it, prize money and all, with John Barth, who won for Chimera. It was the first time the prize had been jointly awarded.

Relying on primary sources from the author’s archives at the University of Arkansas, as well as interviews with former colleagues and students, including his fourth wife and former graduate student, Nancy, Shields manages to conjure an engrossing portrait of the writer’s journey from farm boy to radio broadcaster to college professor. Shields’s analysis shows that the austere aesthetic principles of the so-called New Critics resonated with Williams’s puritan upbringing and played a major role in the formation of his fictional characters. To a large extent, the distaste for self-expression and general reticence shown by William Stoner in the novel were shared by his creator. But unlike Professor Stoner, who lives out a rather insular life in a Missouri college town, electing not to fight in World War I in order to advance his academic career, John Williams led a far more wide-ranging and messier existence than readers might have assumed.

For one, Williams, who was born in 1922 and raised in Clarksville, Texas, did join his generation’s war, enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1942. As a radio operative on cargo planes, he flew over the Himalayas, completing many dangerous missions. He would later wildly exaggerate his wartime experience with stories of being shot down by a Japanese fighter plane at night and crashing into the jungle. These tall tales are somewhat glossed over by Shields, who chalks them up to a kind of apprenticeship in prose. “Call it lying,” says Shields, “but writers call it creating fiction.” After returning home to civilian life he worked as a broadcaster at various radio stations from Florida to California, but soon lost interest in the profession. He began to pursue something no one in his family ever had, higher education.

Shields astutely points out that Williams’s intellectual and personal development involved, and perhaps required, a great deal of self-invention to overcome the stigma of his agricultural roots; this self-invention included dandyish outfits, a stylish mustache, and the perfecting of a deep baritone voice. But such self-invention seems to have run in the family. Shields describes an important and poignant moment when Williams, age nine, discovered that parts of his life were themselves fiction: the man he’d been calling father was actually his step-father, and his biological father, a hapless businessman looking to get rich in the era of oil-money scams in Wichita Falls, Texas, had been murdered when Williams was just an infant.

Writing about Nathanael West, another author who was nearly tossed into the dustbin of American literature, Elizabeth Hardwick quotes his letter to Edmund Wilson: “I’ve never had the same publisher twice — once bitten, etc. — because there is nothing to root for in my books and what is even worse, no rooters.” Later in the essay, Hardwick claims that West’s first novel wasn’t “designed to please.” The same could be said for Williams, who had multiple publishers and, at least in the case of his first two books, protagonists who didn’t do much to please. Stoner demonstrates that he had learned from his mistakes; readers cannot help but root for and take pleasure in the achievements and progress, however minor, of the hero’s academic career. He pursues his studies in literature despite his lack of background and with no real support, stands up to his rival Professor Lomax, and maintains his teaching principles against all odds. According to Shields, Williams was almost as unassailable in his pedagogic principles as his creation and also shared many of Stoner’s views; he found the introduction of literary theory and avant-garde texts into the academy deeply disturbing, calling them the “arrows of the barbarians.”

Of course, most readers wouldn’t go rooting for Stoner until much later, after Williams’s death. Now an international sensation, the novel sold poorly upon release, under 2,000 copies, confirming his agent’s initial fears that it wasn’t exactly “best-seller” material. Williams’s own self-assessment of the novel at the time couldn’t have been more prescient. He wrote back to his agent saying that he had no illusions about it becoming a best seller, “but if it is handled right […] that is, if it’s not treated as just another ‘academic novel’ by the publisher as Butcher’s Crossing was treated as ‘western,’ it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”

Shields’s slim biography offers plenty of insights not only into John Williams’s life, but also, thanks to the lively descriptions of the arduous path to publication for each of his novels, the writer’s life in general. For an author of four novels, none of which exceed 300 pages (his first book will return to print next year; his last remains unfinished) a brief biography seems appropriate. Besides, Williams spent much of his later life drinking to excess, and a reader gets an uneasy feeling that a lengthier treatment would only reveal more embarrassing situations of the author with a drink or cigarette in one hand, an inhaler in the other. Not that Shields shies away from these moments entirely, which at their lowest reveal Williams to be a difficult person with misogynistic tendencies, and at their least harmful, show him to be locked in a world of his own. A late chapter ends with Williams, now in his 50s and very much a green thumb, interrupting a PhD student’s oral examination by standing up and gazing out the window at a sudden, heavy rainfall, saying to himself, as if no one else was in the room, “Oh, my tomatoes.”


Christopher Urban is a writer living in New York. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in many publications, including the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and the Times Literary Supplement.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Urban has written for the Paris Review Daily, The Millions, Rain Taxi, Open Letters Monthly, This Recording, and elsewhere.


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