cover image The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, ‘Stoner,’ and the Writing Life

The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, ‘Stoner,’ and the Writing Life

Charles J. Shields. Univ. of Texas, $29.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4773-1736-5

In this rich biography of author John Williams (1922–1994), Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) seeks to understand the man behind Stoner, a novel that was quickly forgotten after its 1963 publication but more recently has attained the status of midcentury American classic (and European bestseller). The Williams that emerges is not unlike Stoner himself: self-obsessed, given to petty feuds, and insecure about his abilities. Though Williams always thought of himself as a novelist first, he also made a sizable academic contribution in founding the University of Denver’s PhD program in creative writing. He toiled for many years teaching while also writing fiction at a glacial pace (“If Williams wrote half a dozen sentences he liked in a day’s work, he was satisfied”). However, after winning the 1973 National Book Award for the historical novel Augustus, Williams’s main reaction was disappointment at not receiving correspondingly special treatment from the university. Eventually, Williams’s alcoholism led him to neglect his students’ dissertations and to his removal from the writing program’s directorship in 1975. It is to Shields’s credit that by the end of this finely crafted biography readers will feel they have some insight into this talented, troubled enigma of a man. Agent: Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary. (Oct.)