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Stonermania and the Promise of Novel Diplomacy

Stonermania and the Promise of Novel Diplomacy

When it was first published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s runaway bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold some 300,000 copies in the United States (despite being banned in much of the South) but more than a million in Great Britain. By 1857 it had been translated into 20 languages. Thomas Paine, Edith Wharton, and Mario Puzo were all publishing sensations abroad, shaping America’s image, for better or worse. Literature is a slippery form of cultural diplomacy. Who can predict which books will catch on, or how they will reflect on us? Are prolific American writers like Danielle Steel — with hundreds of millions of global book sales — now our most prominent ambassadors to the reading world?

Literary fiction can’t compete with mass-market, but now and then an understated American book makes a deep impression overseas. Last year, the 1965 novel Stoner by the American John Williams became a dramatic case in point. Set in Missouri in the first half of the 20th century, the novel traces the life of William Stoner, the son of a poor farmer. Stoner leaves home to study agriculture, is inspired by literature, and eventually becomes a university English professor. We find him trapped in a catastrophic marriage and enduring colleagues who are foils for his wisdom, integrity, and capacity for joy. Through it all he absorbs life’s blows with stoic grace. 

The book, which sold only about 2,000 copies when it was first published, was re-issued by the New York Review of Books in 2006. In a 2007 essay in the New York Times, Morris Dickstein called it a "perfect novel," and reminded us that it has been revived by enthusiasts every decade or so. Last October, the essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider lamented in the New Yorker that Stoner "goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti."

Yet 50 years after Stoner was published, this stealthy export has now gained stunning commercial velocity in Europe and beyond. It was translated by the bestselling French author Anna Gavanda in 2011 and has been a bestseller in France, Israel, Italy, and Germany. It was expertly marketed with social media by Lebowski Publishers in Holland, and hit No. 1 on the best-seller list there last year, selling 100,000 copies (equal to its 50-year total for American sales). It was also the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year in Britain, and has sold well in Turkey and Spain (in Spanish and in the Catalan language). It has been licensed for publication in more than 20 countries overall.

A restrained portrait of a quiet mid-century American life can’t rival the heft of hip hop, or Friends, or the country’s top-selling authors, but could its mature and introspective protagonist help in some small way to mitigate America’s image as a vulgar hegemon?

Stoner deals with the undiluted essentials of life — love, learning, war, death. The main character decides, at risk to his career and personal prestige, not to enlist at the outbreak of World War I. At work he endures an undermining colleague and intellectual frauds, yet finds satisfaction in scholarship. At home his wife, Edith, neurotic and cruel, cringes at his touch, until she decides she wants a baby. She uses the couple’s beloved daughter as a weapon against Stoner, yet even then he does not retaliate. When he falls in love with a younger woman who becomes his intellectual and emotional refuge, the plot unfolds into a moving and deeply satisfying read. 

But even given the book’s literary merit, the Stonermania that cropped up abroad last year is curious. Conversations with a sampling of Stoner readers provided me with some plausible theories to explain it. One said the protagonist is a universal everyman, but that Williams’s fine writing is better appreciated by Europeans than Americans. Another noted that the book "explores intimate emotions rather than big themes such as heroism and individuality and freedom, as in the Great American Novel."

A few thought the main character was more European than American and that the Stoners’s relationship reflects the more generous contours of a European marriage: Edith doesn’t seem to mind her husband’s affair and they stay married. (In Europe, a mistress is permissible but divorce is a sin, whereas in America divorce is acceptable but adultery is unforgivable.) And when Edith falls ill (with either imagined or passive-aggressive ailments), Stoner manages the childcare and housework, reflecting European progressivism.

One reader argued that the novel doesn’t defy American stereotypes, but embodies them, confirming European beliefs. Stoner is a workaholic. The novel’s American characters don’t know how to open a bottle of Champagne — Prohibition is a running theme. The threat of campus scandal looms over Stoner’s extra-marital affair. And while Stoner does not enlist, an aura of romance surrounds his friend who is killed in action in France, confirming America’s glorification of war. 

And finally, a favorite theory: The title Stoner was simply misunderstood and attracted young readers. 

Akhil Sharma, a professor of creative writing at Rutgers and author of the entrancing new novel Family Life, complicates the inquiry further. He thinks Stoner is "too good to be true. The character is benign and humble and his goals are admirable. Where is the pettiness?" He is in essence a "primitive" character.

But other writers, like Chekhov, Sharma says, have "primitives who behave viciously." And "asking the reader for compassion for them seems braver than asking empathy for nice people doing nice things." In lieu of authorial bravery, Sharma believes, Williams "relies to a large extent on exoticism." The American scenery in Stoner is more alien and hence more compelling to Europeans.

The American author David Vann offers a market analysis of Stoner‘s — and his own — relative success abroad. "My book Legend of a Suicide sold 250,000 copies in France and less than 10,000 copies in the U.S.," he told me. "It sold more copies in just the city of Barcelona than in the U.S., more in the Netherlands than in the U.S."

He believes that some fiction — his own has been called "unflinching" — does better in Europe than here in part because "American literary culture has been dismembered by Amazon’s monopoly." This has not happened in France, said Vann, where "the government has fought Amazon and kept a price control on books…. Because of this, there’s still an independent bookstore in every neighborhood in France."

Indeed, on March 25, a front-page story in the New York Times, "Literary City, Bookstore Desert," reported that independent bookshops are vanishing in Manhattan, as are larger chain stores, including Barnes & Noble and Borders. In Europe, arguably, American books make their way through a more intimate network of scouts, agents, and bookshops, and gain traction by word of mouth. Vann adds that Europeans "haven’t forgotten 2,500 years of literary tradition, so they’re willing to read tragedy."

Europeans also read far more literature in translation than we do. Accused of being too insular, America has been shunned in recent years by the Europe-based Nobel Prize in Literature; the prize hasn’t been awarded to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. In 2008, a Nobel judge was quoted by the Associated Press as saying Americans "don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, the Guardian reported, the Sino-British writer Xiaolu Guo unloaded on festival co-panelist Jonathan Franzen, "I love your work, Jonathan, but in a way you are smeared by English American literature." She thinks "certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated." On the same panel, Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri, born in London and raised in America, expressed concern about the current outsize "commercial currency" of writing in English and said our lack of translation is "shameful."

Our most admired writers may be uncomfortable with the soft power of literary world domination. Nonetheless, this year, for the first time in its 45-year history, Britain’s prestigious Man Booker prize will be extended to American authors published in Britain. The British author Julian Barnes, a former recipient, speculated that this might be an example of "capitalist expansionism." 

It will be interesting to see how the critically esteemed new American voice Phil Klay sells overseas. He served in Iraq as a U.S. Marine before earning an MFA. His recently published, debut collection of stories, Redeployment, made the New York Times Book Review cover this month and will be published in seven countries.

In late March, he read from it at Brooklyn’s Book Court, one of New York’s remaining independent booksellers. "Is writing about war an anti-war act?" one attendee asked the author. He answered questions thoughtfully — "We need to talk maturely about war, like adults" — cracked jokes about hipsters, and signed books. Then Klay was off to catch a flight. He was heading to Amsterdam.