Squirming, reading Stoner

John WilliamsIt snowed enough to cancel school today. In lieu of teaching, I spent the day reading Stoner, a novel about a lifer teacher, from cover to cover. John Williams’s 1965 book is scary close.

So close that I think I learned something about myself. I’ve often wondered why I had came so close to pursuing English through grad school before deciding instead to become a lawyer. Certainly, close to half of my college credit hours were in English. Looking back on it, though, I had been fairly inarticulate in class discussions, and sometimes I had loved books that I later realized I had hardly understood.

So why have I been rereading my college books for the past few years? Why have I thought I might have pursued graduate studies in English?

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher. . . .”

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (Page 20)

I didn’t have a Professor Sloane who understood that my inarticulateness was a matter of love, not did I have a Bill Knight, at least back then, who understood that my never wanting to leave college may have had some bearing on my eventual profession. (Bill also introduced me to this wonderful novel, quoting one of the above lines.) No one had described to me the possibility of having, as the narrator puts it, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words” (page 98).

(I can’t really blame my college’s English department. I did have one of my professors pick me out of his giant English lit survey to take to lunch one day freshman year. I remember his pleasant patter at the University Cafeteria, but I never remembered anything he said. Like Stoner with his professor and, later, Stoner’s students with theirs, I must have been staring at my hands for most of the meal.)

But the novel’s scary closeness isn’t just from Stoner’s profession. Stoner has my view of learning, my view of the ideal college – indeed, my view of the ideal:

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees [the university] as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do— when you do—” (page 29)

Stoner’s buddy Dave Masters then settles in on William Stoner himself:

“ . . . you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. . . . You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong” (page 31).

Is it necessary that I have my faults thrown in my face like this? My lack of ambition, followed by my frustration over my lack of influence in an organization? My willingness to concede in battles I think are rooted in people’s insecurities, but my stubborn refusal to back down when one of my core principles is threatened? My desire (witness my political science writings) to change the world?

Stoner spends the novel, which serves as Stoner’s cradle-to-grave biography, reconciling his quixotic tendencies with Masters’s message: it doesn’t matter in the long run. The reconciliation is sad and satisfying. The novel also has something to do with hard work, as Williams is quoted as saying in the current edition’s introduction. Whether he’s 24, 34, 44, 54, or 64, Stoner always seems to be grading papers and preparing lectures.

The reconciliation and hard work are not enough for me to live by, however. Even as a confirmed idealist, I wouldn’t mention this except that Williams gets more strident about his take on life the older Stoner gets. Sometimes, for instance, Stoner, Stoner’s lover, and the third-person narrator all hammer home the same viewpoints in much the same way. In fact, Stoner’s lover always sounds like Stoner. The two of them spend much of their relationship repeating each other’s reactions and realizations, thereby affirming each other’s feelings they seem to experience and life lessons they seem to learn at the same moments.

Though, except for the stridency of the themes’ treatment in the second half of the novel, the book’s right real. It feels like a cross between Thomas Wolfe’s earnest and autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and James Salter’s realistic and conjugal Light Years. All three novels take in great swaths of the life of a misfit idealist (well, Light Years’s Viri Berland is at least an innocent of sorts), more content to show the outcome of certain personalities over time than to hew to a tight narrative. Not that Williams spares a single word. In that regard, he’s a lot more like Salter and Raymond Chandler than like Thomas Wolfe. And as far as turning a phrase just enough to improve on the English language, well, think of Salter again.

And think of Cervantes. Both Stoner and Don Quixote end with long death scenes in which the books’ namesakes discover who they really are beneath their strident idealism. Is this also really necessary?

Photo of John Williams.

Of time and the river

Book reviews are only about books.  I want to write reading reviews.  Could Twitter help?

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I shoot long shots because I want to photograph a river one day.  Not the mouth without the source or the source alone but the whole meander and rush and sail.  I can’t crop worth a crap.

If Thomas Wolfe had been a photographer, he would’ve shot pictures like me.  He couldn’t bear to edit, you know.  He’d have forced his editor, Max Perkins, to learn Photoshop.

People Twitter all kinds of stuff that unfolds – baseball games, political conventions, boat trips – and then, even when the event lies unfolded, people still go back and read the unfolding, if it were good enough – the unfolding, that is, not the event unfolded – though maybe seeing all of those Tweets in reverse chronological order – and why does what makes a river not enter it by its mouth?  Does a river just perpetually throw up? – makes the unfolded less than the unfolding, makes Twitter web pages not as good as getting Tweets piecemeal on Twitter clients.  (Twitter’s all about immediacy, right?)

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But books unfold, or at least their plots do.  Books proper bristle open and thunk shut and sleep shut, really, but they don’t unfold like maps or trips or meetings or news stories or even newspapers.  Besides, how can I Twitter a book if I can read it anytime and anywhere?  Is a book an event if I have that much control?  Sitting on my porch and watching the morning unfold is more of an event than reading a book, perhaps.  (Though one may quite effectively Twitter a book, too.)

Can I Twitter the act of reading a book?  Even with all of the control we have over our reading, the experience of reading can sometimes feel more “eventful” than almost anything.  Here is some Twittering from my reading of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, a book you should read because I’m your friend.  (If you must have a book review (and I do love book reviews, really), The New Yorker earlier this month published a great article on the program era that amounts to a review of McGurl’s book.)

(I’m not really going to do this on Twitter.  I don’t want the character limit.  I want just the immediacy.  Thomas Wolfe, remember?)

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Page 147. O’Connor to her friend who pointed out how similar O’Connor and her character Hulga were to each other: “Now I understand that something of oneself gets through and often something that one is not conscious of.  Also to have sympathy for any character, you have to put a good deal of yourself in him.  But to say that any complete denudation of the writer occurs in the successful work is, according to me, a romantic exaggeration.  A great part of the art of it is precisely in seeing that this does not happen. . . . Those elements of the personality that don’t bear on the subject at hand are excluded.  Stories don’t lie when left to themselves.  Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you.  Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story.”  “Stories don’t lie”: great sentence, but what does it mean?  (I lied.  I was going to type this Tweet for another reason, but then I got stuck on that sentence while I was typing it and forgot my initial reaction.  No real time – sorry.)

Page 147. “As a minor term in a dialectical binary, ‘self-expression’ lies in wait, ready to reassert itself not as a contributory feature of the literary work but as the end-point of it all.  It was already doing so in the Beat movement in the 1950s and would soon do so on an even larger scale in the progressive educational revival of the 1960s, which saw the emergence of the now ubiquitous pedagogical imperative to ‘find your voice.’”  Sin lieth at the door!

Page 146. O’Connor would agree with Cassill: “’The writer of an original story begins to shape his material by accepting an emotional commitment to it – very much as if he himself were the first character to appear in the story to be.’  This ‘scaffolding’ is then ‘totally replaced by structural elements of the story itself before the story is done.’”  Wolfe would disagree.

Page 146. “. . . however heavy the scare quotes we might wish to put around the relevant terms.”  So there’s a name for that: “scare quotes.”  “’Scare quotes.’”

Page 145.  This still isn’t real time.

Page 144. He doesn’t pretend to be above New Criticism or even over it yet.  I guess we’re all too freshly widowed to have healthy marriages.

Page 137. “As [O’Connor] put it in a panel discussion held at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia . . .”  What research!  Probably made his grad students do it all.

Page 137. “. . . is left to crumb the table . . .”  I love that verb.  When did crumb become a verb?  Too lazy to consult OED.

Page 137.  What was on page 136 that made me think of that?  Who cares.  Stay immediate.

Page 136.  I can’t talk about literature in social settings.  Names and books don’t come to mind.  Feelings, or the memory of feelings, do.  It’s like writing a poem at a party (though I admit I’ve never tried it).  That professor I had, the first day of class: “I am your enemy” to those of us who wanted a smattering of literature for the cocktail circuit.  What was his name?  Big beard.  He knew nothing about kids.  Just loved to hear himself talk.  Probably great at parties.  But, see, I can’t even come up with names, even of acquaintances I’ve known for years.  No wonder I hate parties.

Page 134-35.  What a great paragraph on O’Connor!  . . . . “’For the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure,’ she wrote, ‘it must first be a discipline.’  And ‘if the student finds that his is not to his taste?  Well, that is regrettable.  Most regrettable.  His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.’  For O’Connor, a devout Catholic who made something of a show of her obedience to the institutional authority of the Church, not only was religion understood as a kind of discipline, a willed acceptance of human ‘limitation’ before an Almighty God; but so was discipline itself a kind of religion, an article of faith arguably as basic to her thinking and writing as her specifically theological commitments.  Discipline meant obedience to rules, and rules were established and maintained by institutions; and to submit to the authority of these institutions, while painful, was also a source of great potential pleasure, aesthetic and otherwise.  Not that O’Connor’s sense of institutions was either monolithic or simplistic.  Seen in the light of her devotion to the church, the authority of worldly liberal institutions like universities was certainly questionable, and subject to her usually humorous derision.  And yet the habit of obedience to the one was obviously transportable, under the right conditions, to the other, where what Sarah Gordon has called her ‘obedient imagination’ could be cultivated as a specifically literary resource.”  She died at 39?  People lived full lives back then. (Also not real time: I’d love to say that to my charges: “Your taste should not be consulted.  It is being formed.”  Wouldn’t the principal love the phone calls!)

Page 133.  Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Fiction “confirms how much the discipline of creative writing as we know it owes to the large-scale intrusion of practitioner-critics like Warren himself into the domain of literary scholars, beginning in the lat 1930s.  The New Criticism put the point of view of the artist at the very center of postwar literary studies . . .”  Unstinted praise for Warren!  Francine Prose may be hard on New Criticism, but she owes her Reading Like a Writer to them.

Page 122. My butt hurts.

Page 99.  DeVoto in 1936 on Wolfe’s work: “long, whirling discharges of words, unabsorbed in the novel, unrelated to the proper business of fiction, badly if not altogether unacceptably written, raw gobs of emotion, aimless and quite meaningless jabber, claptrap, belches, grunts.”  And the reviews have gone downhill from there.  I’ll have to remember that, though: “words unabsorbed in the novel.”

Page 99.  Wolfe defends himself to Fitzgerald by pointing to Don Quxiote and Tristram Shandy.  To hell with “the aesthetic benefits of subtraction,” he says.  Meantime, Henry James’s “show don’t tell” evolves from 1930s forward into “a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.”  Now you can’t say “show don’t tell.”  But I do.  To ninth graders, granted.

Pages 97-98.  So the guy who coined “writer’s workshop” was the real-life version of Professor Hatcher in Of Time and the River.  Who knew?

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If I wrote you a book review or report, it would only foreshorten the book, creating waterfalls in the navigable, tidal river.  Besides, even if I wrote the best book review, it would only stand on its own, pour itself into only its own river, so – best case – I’m no longer reading with you when you read it.  I want you to read with me.  We’d feed off of each other’s reactions, but even that’s not enough, ultimately.  You have to read the book with my reactions and associations, and I have to read it with yours.  So you have to read it with me, maybe as me, and maybe me as you, or maybe in heaven one day.

Religion is affection, Jonathan Edwards wrote.  So is writing, I think.  All writing is travel writing.  Henri Nouwen (Bread for the Journey) writes about the traveler’s affection:

Traveling – seeing new sights, hearing new music, and meeting new people – is exciting and exhilarating.  But when we have no home to return to where someone will ask us, “How was your trip?” we might be less eager to go.  Traveling is joyful when we travel with the eyes and ears of those who love us, who want to see our slides and hear our stories.

This is what life is about.  It is being sent on a trip by a loving God, who is waiting at home for our return and is eager to watch the slides we took and hear about the friends we made.  When we travel with the eyes and ears of the God who sent us, we will see wonderful sights, hear wonderful sounds, meet wonderful people . . . and be happy to return home.

In a way, the only writing genre is the postcard.  There’s something both kind and callous about sending one.  All writing may rise and foreshorten to “Having a great time; wish you were here.” I want you here and not just here but behind my eyes to see what I think and know and feel, we have to share the eyes so at least tell me what you see, the binoculars’ timer sounds inexorable as a stream there’s only thirteen seconds left on my last quarter I dropped into the binoculars before we go dark

(The photos are from our recent hike on Mount Weather.)