The Big Issue : Edition 453
THEBIGISSUE7--20MAR2014 31 JOHN WILLIAMS' STONER is one of the most widely praised novels of recent times. Hailed as a 'perfect novel' by New York Times critic Morris Dickstein, it has collected high-profle endorsements from the likes of Bret Easton Ellis ("a great American novel"), Ian McEwan ("a minor masterpiece"), and even Tom Hanks, who wrote in Time magazine: "It's one of the most fascinating things you've ever come across". Last year, the book became a bestseller in Europe. It also turned 48 years old. Which begs the question: how does a largely forgotten American novel become a bestseller 48 years after its initial publication? The short answer seems simple enough. A long history of hushed, underground reverence -- writers pressing it upon other writers, the occasional piece popping up in literary journals about the criminal neglect of a masterwork -- then, over the past 10 years, a furry of new editions and translations, and a canny European marketing strategy that made Stoner the word-of-mouth literary phenomenon of 2013. By July, Stoner was sitting in the bestseller lists in Spain and France, and had hit number one in the Netherlands, displacing Dan Brown's Inferno. The longer answer begins with the indifference with which this lost American classic was greeted upon its release in 1965. Williams won the National Book Award for his next book, Augustus, in 1973, but Stoner, a quiet novel about the uneventful life of a university professor at a Midwestern university in the frst half of the 20th century, received good reviews and poor sales before falling out of print just a year later. And yet, by 1973 it was already being championed as an overlooked masterpiece. In The Financial Times, English novelist and critic CP Snow asked, "Why isn't this book famous?" The conventional explanation for this rests on the cultural and historical context in which the book was published. No matter how beautifully written, a novel about the life and loveless marriage of a poor Missouri farmer's son who discovers a passion for literature was never going to be a hit in the mid-1960s -- a time when the Beats were gods and the counterculture was gathering momentum. And maybe there's some truth to this explanation. Despite its promising title (it's the protagonist's surname, not a drug reference), Stoner couldn't be more at odds with the tenor of the times. Another realist writer of this period, Richard Yates, the writer to whom Williams is most often compared, also attracted critical acclaim but meagre sales in this decade. Like Williams (who died in 1994), Yates' popular success, with novels such as Revolutionary Road (1961), has been largely posthumous. And yet, in a piece in The Millions at the peak of Stoner hype last year, critic Claire Cameron reminds us that with 54,378 books released in 1965, it might be misleading to suggest it's some sort of tragedy Stoner was overlooked at the time of its release. Instead, Cameron argues, this is simply the fate of most books. The fact that Stoner has been remembered and resuscitated so spectacularly -- especially without making an initial splash -- is the exceptional thing about this story. She writes, "This is a story about a novel that is so extraordinary that it's been remembered". But whatever the reason for its initially subdued reception, Stoner has certainly hit a vein now. Its resuscitation began in earnest in 2006 when The New York Review of Books (NYRB) bought the US rights to the novel, which had been languishing for nearly 50 years. Although reissued in the UK by Random House's Vintage Classics in 2003, it was the NYRB Classics edition that saw the novel attract high-profle endorsements like those from Ellis, McEwan and Hanks. But it was when bestselling French novelist Anna Gavalda translated it into French in 2012 that Europe began to go crazy for Stoner. The European marketing for Stoner was overseen by Oscar van Gelderen at Lebowski Publishers, whose inventive approach has a lot to do with its sudden success there. Knowing it would be a challenge to make a novel by a relatively unknown mid-century author a bestseller in 2013, especially with no author to help promote it, van Gelderen had to eschew traditional marketing strategies. Determined to push the readership for Stoner beyond the existing market for 'classics', van Gelderen avoided the term. Instead, he turned to social media to start a conversation about the book and sold the idea of the book directly to booksellers. This approach turned out to be more successful than he could possibly have imagined. Yet it's Stoner's status as a lost classic that's forging its readership in Australia. High-profle endorsements are nice, but it's word-of-mouth buzz that will seal its fate. A sticker on the latest edition reads, "The greatest novel you've never read", but the truth is that this is one book that does live up to the hype, as those who read it will no doubt discover for themselves. by Luke Horton Stoner is out now.