The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel

Something wonderful is happening in publishing. Twenty years after the death of author John Williams, his novels are being embraced by tens of thousands admiring readers— here and abroad— and heralded by critics as some of the best examples of American fiction of the 20th century.

John Williams’ Stoner is something rarer than a great novel,” wrote Morris Dickstein, “it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.”

Since Stoner’s republication by the New York Review of Books in 2006, it has risen inexorably to the forefront of popular fiction. “Stoner is magic,” said Oscar van Gelderen, publisher of Lebowski that brought out the Dutch edition in 2012, now with over 100,000 copies in print. It was one of Israel’s bestselling books of 2012. Also that year, 50,000 copies in France, Spain, and Italy flew off bookstore shelves in translation.

John Williams at the University of Denver in the 1960s

John Williams at the University of Denver in the 1960s

Then in 2013, Stoner catapulted to the top of bestseller lists in Holland (#1), the UK (#8), France, Italy, Israel, Spain, and Germany. Waterstones’ managing editor, James Daunt, said, “It is incredible that Stoner had effectively disappeared and wonderful that a wave of recommendation and word of mouth has seen this exhilarating novel sweep all before it in 2013.” Last December, Waterstones named Stoner its Book of the Year, having sold 200,000 copies in the UK. As of mid-February, Stoner is #9 on the Der Spiegel hardcover bestseller list in Germany— where it’s been every week since its initial publication last year.

And now Butcher’s Crossing— an earlier Williams novel— is being pulled along in Stoner’s wake. Critics realize that Williams’s revisionist West anticipated Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree by twenty years. The British Express, reviewing the Vintage Classics edition of Butcher’s Crossing just released, said, “This is an anti-Western, an antidote to tales of heroics and bravery in the wild. Butcher’s Crossing is the American story, but it is the horror that it describes, not the heroics. If you do not read another book all year, read this one. At the end, I was quite gasping for breath.”

And from the Guardian— “Stoner showed us a writer who had written a great book. To those of us who didn’t know already, Butcher’s Crossing reveals John Williams to be more than that: forgotten writer as he was, he was unquestionably also a great one.”

2014 saw a deluge of translations of both novels: in Turkey, Russia, Brazil, China, Korea, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Bulgaria. Twenty-one countries have the rights, and Stoner is slated for release in China, too.

“So far the book has kept selling without signs of receding,” said Cristina Marino from Fazi, the novel’s Italian publisher.

In 2016, Lebowski Publisher in the Netherlands will publish The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel by Charles J. Shields.

Stay tuned!

CT68T6 Family gathered around television


Reading Stoner or Thinking about Adding It to Your Book Club?

The New York Review of Books has a free discussion guide available here.


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