"Why isn’t this book more famous?” asked the writer C.P. Snow about John Williams’s Stoner in 1973, eight years after it was first published by Viking Press. A straightforward yet brilliant novel about an ordinary Missouri English professor, it seems almost fitting that for nearly 40 years, Stoner was quietly revered by its fans without being widely read. But by 2013, approaching its 50th anniversary, the novel is seeing a somewhat surprising revival—and not just in the U.S.
“Stoner is magic,” said Oscar van Gelderen, publisher of Lebowski, which published the Dutch edition in 2012 and now has over 100,000 copies in print. Currently, it’s the #1 bestseller in the Netherlands, where it’s been near the top of the charts for weeks. It was one of Israel’s bestselling books of 2012. And it’s moving units in France, Spain, and Italy; over 50,000 copies have been sold in the latter since it was published there in February 2012. “So far the book has kept selling without signs of receding,” said Cristina Marino from Fazi, the novel’s Italian publisher.
The international frenzy surrounding Stoner seems to contradict the restraint of the book itself. As Tom Hanks said in 2010, “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.” The novel’s chronicle of the life of an ordinary man is perhaps the key to why it’s translating so well. “I think the themes are universal,” said van Gelderen. “It’s an incredibly deep and spiritual book about identity, about being who you are.” When asked why the book is so beloved by readers, Patricia Reimann of DTV (Stoner’s German publisher) said it’s about “the final things of life. Love, comittment, compassion, work, backbone, truthfulness, death.” Whatever the reasons, it’s a rare occurrence for so many foreign markets to sweep up a backlist American literary novel, especially one that’s been somewhat marginalized during much of its history.
Even though Stoner has been around for nearly a half-century, it remained largely under the radar, receiving praise from the likes of Irving Howe in The New Republic in 1966 and Dan Wakefield in Ploughshares in 1981, but never catching on with the American reading public. That changed in 2006 when New York Review Books Classics reissued it and media attention picked up, first in the U.S. and then abroad. In 2007, Morris Dickstein of The New York Times Book Review called Stoner “a perfect novel,” while Colum McCann’s article about the book in U.K. newspaper the Guardian eventually led both the Catalan and French publishers, Edicions 62 and Le Dilettante, respectively, to pursue acquisition in their own territories. According to Linda Hollick at NYRB, since it reissued the book, Stoner has been among the publisher’s bestselling titles, both in print and digital. Hollick said, “We’re thrilled this great American novel, unknown for so many years in the U.S., is finding an audience around the world as well.”
While already a hit in a number of countries, Stoner seems poised to be a steady seller in territories where it is just being released; the book’s Calatan publisher said it has sold 5,500 copies out of the first run of 7,000 and expects the novel to remain popular for months. And at least one foreign publisher—Lebowski—is looking forward to releasing another of Williams’s novels: Butcher’s Crossing, a western (reissued in the U.S. by NYRB), will hit book shelves in the Netherlands this August.