Remarkable 'Stoner' steals the limelight 48 years on
Donna Tartt's long-awaited The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton's Man Booker winner The Luminaries may have been the most talked about novels of 2013, but the year's most unexpectedly successful work of fiction was a book that achieved only modest sales when it was first published 48 years ago.
John Williams's Stoner was respectfully reviewed when it was published in 1965, but this novel about a Missouri farm boy who loved literature and became a university lecturer didn't sell well and soon went out of print. Perhaps its misleading title, suggestive of the burgeoning drugs era in the United States, didn't help, or perhaps its story of a decent, unhappily married man living a life of quiet desperation in middle America was just too downbeat for most tastes.
Some, though, thought it a remarkable book and I recall the late John McGahern urging me to read it. He subsequently wrote a fine introduction to the 2003 Vintage reprint of the book and that sold moderately well. However, it was only when the book was reissued again last year that everyone sat up and took notice.
This latest reissue first took off in France, where it entered the bestseller lists, and then in Holland, where 200,000 copies were sold, followed by sales of 80,000 in Italy. And in further translations it's about to be published in 20 other countries, including China.
Williams, a minor academic himself, died in 1994 but his widow can now collect royalties that her late husband never imagined. And it's heartening that a wonderful novel comes to be recognised as such, even if it takes so long for that to happen. (Review: Page 24)
Asked by the Financial Times what she was scared of, award-winning Irish writer Eimear McBride (left) confessed: "Not being able to finish my second novel. The first one took six months to write and nine years to get published. I'm worried this one will take nine years to write."
Well, if it turns out to be as remarkable as her debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, it will be worth the wait.