Self-Flagellation in Pursuit of Atonement

July 19, 2019   •   By J. C. Hallman

William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life

Steve Almond

OVER THE LAST 50 YEARS, the number of degree-awarding programs in creative writing in the United States has exploded. Notably, the same period has seen a precipitous decline in the number of Americans reading serious literature.

In 1970, a handful of programs offered the terminal Masters of Fine Arts degree in writing fiction and poetry. Now there are more than 250 such programs, with hundreds if not thousands of undergraduate programs offering BA and BFA degrees. The creative writing credential is of famously uncertain value, vocationally speaking, and absolutely no one believes that the thousands-fold increase in the number of degrees awarded annually corresponds to a thousands-fold increase in the number of writers producing quality literature. What gives?

One explanation suggests that creative writing workshops give individuals the opportunity to develop their personal aesthetics. Another claims that creative writing programs create populations of new and better readers.

In 1982, a National Endowment for the Arts survey found that 56.9 percent of US adults had consumed a modest amount of literature during the previous year. Ten years later, the number had fallen to 54.0 percent, and in 2002 it had fallen further still to 46.7 percent. In 2018, the same survey was heralded for a slight uptick in the number of people reading poetry, yet readers of literature overall had continued to slip, to 41.8 percent.

To be clear, the number of “books sold” has increased apace. As the population has grown, the total number of people buying golf books, and business books, and political books has steadily risen. The bottom line is a dirty secret: while the academic instruction of creative writing has boomed, the consumption of quality literature has crashed, at a rate familiar to those who study doomed populations of bees and frogs. Something weird is afoot in the literary ecosystem.

Oddly enough, some of the best books being written today are about other books. Or maybe that’s not odd at all — maybe a renewed interest in writing interestingly and provocatively about literature is just what one should expect in the face of a stealth literary crisis. The list of writers who have in recent years published book-length examples of what critic J. E. Spingarn once called “creative criticism” is broad and deep: Nicholson Baker, Phyllis Rose, Edward Hirsch, Milan Kundera, Geoff Dyer, Wendy Lesser, Charles Baxter, Thomas Beller, Jane Tompkins, Cynthia Ozick, Robert Hass, Alain de Botton, Elizabeth Hardwick, William Gass, Susan Cheever, Sven Birkerts, Harold Bloom, Vivian Gornick, and Michael Dirda — and that’s limited to writers whom I have reviewed, interviewed, or anthologized during the last decade.

Now comes Steve Almond with a book about John Williams’s cult classic, Stoner, and the result is a brief but wide-ranging examination that puts both the novel and Almond himself under a microscope.

Stoner has been having its 15 minutes of fame for about 25 years now. It may not be an accident that this roughly corresponds to Almond’s history with the book, which is here recounted. First published in 1965, the novel was recommended to Almond during his own stint in a graduate creative writing program in the mid-1990s, and based on Almond’s account of his program experience, it’s safe to say that the book taught him more than any of his professors did. Since then, Almond has recommended Stoner to countless people, led book discussions about it, taught it, and cajoled a filmmaker into making a documentary about it. And now he has produced a book that appears at approximately the same time as an auspiciously titled biography of its author — who, despite once sharing a National Book Award, is known for pretty much nothing else — The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life, by Charles J. Shields. There have also been rumors of a forthcoming film adaptation of the novel.

If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past quarter century, here’s a quick summary: Stoner is the story of an unhappily married and largely unaccomplished academic named William Stoner. That’s it — that’s the whole kit and caboodle.

Stoner is an outlier, in all kinds of ways. First, its popularity is not in keeping with our frenetic age of color and motion, whose influence has crept into storytelling culture, where there is a glut of apocalypses, and monsters, and superheroes that backhandedly suggest that people like Clark Kent are valueless schmoes unless they’re secretly Superman — and of course, in this analogy, Clark Kent is William Stoner.

The novel was also an outlier for Williams, whose other books appear to be completely unlike Stoner (though Williams himself may bear a more than passing resemblance to his stoic Everyscholar). And it’s an outlier for Almond as well — at least from the perspective of those of us who have followed his frenetic and colorful career. Almond’s first book of stories, My Life in Heavy Metal (2002), is an impressive array that begins with a love story about a woman who ejaculates (the tale is more endearing than sensational). Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (2004) is a sugar high of an ethnography. Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book By and for the Fanatics Among Us (2010), Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto (2014), and Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (2018) are cris de coeur disguised as treatises, or vice versa, and all of them take stock of the world in a way that is more or less the polar opposite of how Williams anatomizes prewar academia. Almond claims that Stoner has “limpid prose,” but this is not a phrase I’d ever use to describe Almond’s own writing, which is more like aiming a paintball gun at a brick wall and pulling the trigger until you run out of ammo.

Counterintuitively, Almond claims that the novel taught him an important lesson about action: scenes should perform certain kinds of core work, not simply convey information. In other words, whatever happens in the exterior of a story — its setting or world — should serve to expose the interior of a character. Hence, the titular reference to “Inner Life,” which to my mind is a way of saying that stories are not about what characters do but how characters are.

This speaks to a really old idea from the history of psychology — the problem of discrete minds. Long story short, people can’t ever truly know what’s in the mind of another; it’s all guesswork and supposition; and human existence is therefore plagued by alienation, loneliness, and the narcissism of suspecting that we are the only ones to have an inner life. Enter books, or at least modernism. In the world of modernist fiction, we get an illusion of perfect access to the inner life of another, and from these fictional inner lives we can infer that others around us — real people — probably have inner lives, too.

All well and good — and perhaps Stoner’s cult status is explained by the fact that, in granting us access to William Stoner’s limpid inner life, the book succeeds in providing what books are supposed to provide even in an age characterized by flashy, event-driven narratives and by a troubling decline of interest in serious literature.

But that’s not the whole story. The real occasion for William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life is that certain events have conspired to bring Almond to reevaluate the novel. Originally, he thought Stoner was a book about class, and there is certainly evidence for this reading. William Stoner bootstraps himself up from his farm-family background, demonstrating, I suppose, that even if everything goes horribly wrong — your friends die, your uptown wife transforms into a cold robot, your daughter strays — academia still offers the opportunity for a poignant, scholarly realization of the American Dream. But that reading of the novel began to change when the prickly realities of Almond’s own marriage and the rise of the #MeToo movement forced him to confront Williams’s paltry portrait of Stoner’s wife, who comes off as a living embodiment of those easily problematized words, “hysterical” and “histrionic.”

His discussion of Edith Stoner leads Almond rantingly — which I mean in the best possible way — into an analysis of modern gender politics (Almond has a lot to say about the ugliest man who ever lived ascending to the most powerful job there ever was). Also, Almond must reconcile himself with Williams’s unflattering biography — nothing overtly heinous, but he wasn’t the kind of fellow you’d invite to a dinner party. And finally, Almond realizes that his reading of the novel might not fully jibe with Williams’s intention, at least to the extent that it can be discerned from eavesdropping on the author’s correspondence with his literary agent.

In any event, Almond now finds himself kicking back against Stoner, questioning it, and in so doing he comes to dramatize his own inner life, his passions and his flaws and his uncertainty. In other words, his original appreciation for the book was based on its technical excellence, but now it has become personal, and his critique has shifted from announcing that it’s a great book to a more nuanced telling of the story of his relationship with it. This is far more compelling than a simple book recommendation, and to my mind it reveals the fallacy of thinking of literature as mere entertainment. Instead, what Almond reveals is that true literary engagement is a bit masochistic — self-flagellation in the pursuit of atonement.

The exercise is fairly straightforward. Stoner is a book about a failed marriage; therefore, Almond describes the tribulations he has visited on his own wife, fellow writer Erin Almond. William Stoner is not the world’s greatest dad; therefore, Almond rehashes those moments when his parenting left him filled with shame. Stoner features an academic squabble; therefore, Almond confesses to a penchant for public feuds (in fact, he has engaged in more such feuds than are listed here).

At first, I wanted to kick back at this strategy. Almond is not a bad dad because his emotions flew away from him for a split second. And assuming that his penchant for feuds and the difficulties of his marriage go hand in hand, he might well be the proverbial “piece of work,” but I’m not sure this requires him to turn traitor on his favorite book.

I even wanted to kick back against his criticism of the characterization of Edith Stoner. Granting the premise that Stoner is a book about the inner life, is it the job of novels to depict the inner lives of every one of their characters? Minor characters are, after all, minor. When considering the problem of discrete minds, wouldn’t a book attached to a particular mind demonstrate and dramatize that mind’s inability to imagine the lives of others? Wouldn’t Edith then necessarily come off as a caricature?

That’s a red herring, actually. Even a character who acts as a foil — a character with a narrative job to do, as it were — must first of all be believable, and truth be told, the portrait of Edith Stoner is never particularly believable. She’s the opposite of a deus ex machina: rather than an implausible figure who magically appears late in the story to solve all of its problems, Edith is an implausible figure who appears early in Stoner to cause all of its problems.

William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life is never particularly confessional or explicit. Nevertheless, the vicissitudes of Almond’s marriage become one of its major subplots: the title’s reference to “battle” may stem in part from the author’s admission that he has sometimes had a hard time imagining his wife’s inner life. Could this have something to do with the fact that his own aesthetic has been steeped in readings of Stoner for a quarter century? We’re told that Erin Almond now restricts her commentary about the novel to a single tactful observation: a book just as interesting might result if someone were to write the story from Edith’s point of view. At the risk of sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, I would suggest that an equally interesting book might result if Erin Almond were to set out to the tell the story of what it’s like to be married to the biggest Stoner fanatic of them all (much in the same way as she once penned a reply to her husband’s announcement of support for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primaries).

But there’s a bigger picture here. Regardless of why Almond undertakes the task, comparing Stoner with his own biography and with the canvas of modern American life poses a subtler question: does literature matter anymore? Surprisingly — given the failure of creative writing programs to create a world of new and better readers — the answer is yes.

A number of times, Almond apologizes for his digressions, for embarking on political or philosophical sorties away from Stoner and John Williams. But this is what I find most fruitful about the book. The strongest literary criticism — the “creative” kind — is not driven by a thesis. Rather, it begins with literature and then digresses from it, much in the same way that literature itself is a digression from real life, and in so doing it embodies the consciousness of the critic. Stoner enabled introspection for Almond — it gave him an inner life — but it also gave him an opportunity to depict and critique that inner life. What we get then is a book in which Almond dramatizes the difficult process of being honest with himself, with his wife and children, and with books. It’s both excruciating and endearing, and its extended self-analysis would be self-indulgent if not for the fact that this is precisely what everyone should be doing with books: using them as prompts to think about ourselves.

It’s not too late to save the literary ecosystem, just as it’s not too late to save the bees and the frogs. Changing how we think and write about literature, shifting from arguing about the meanings of books or announcing their artistic greatness to telling vivid tales about our relationships with them, is the literary world’s collective suggestion for how to combat the crisis. The story of Steve Almond’s love for a book that is both important and imperfect is an earnest and essential addition to this battle for the inner life of literature.


J. C. Hallman is the editor of two anthologies of “creative criticism,” The Story About the Story and The Story About the Story II, and the author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.