Saturday, November 14, 2015

Stoner, Again

Yesterday's Washington Post carries a bracingly negative review of Stoner by Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton. I agree with about half of it. It seems to me that some of what she takes as a "lack of ironic self-awareness" is simply the endurance of someone who began life as a dirt farmer, and seems never to have expected much from life.  I think that Stoner was right to give the graduate student a bad time at his orals, and I have to doubt that Showalter would extend more mercy to a faker in such a case. She is entirely correct to say that the depiction of the wife, Edith, is a weakness in the novel.

The theme of Stoner is the worth of a life spent teaching literature. As Showalter says, this flatters the reviewers and the professors. She believes that the pinched condition of the humanities makes the audience particularly susceptible to the message now. I suspect that they were pretty susceptible then; or at least the graduate students were said to be, for I have read of the ones at the University of Denver passing around copies of Stoner as if they were samizdat (the author's description, not mine).

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