Reading Stoner: Another Time, A Different Academy

I’m reading John Williams’s understated and fairly depressing novel Stoner (I’m only half-way through, so perhaps it gets less depressing, though I doubt it, the way things are going–and I’m reasonably certain the tone and style won’t change–but we’ll see). One of the reasons I have been very interested in reading it is that it’s a novel about an English professor, and who doesn’t have a prurient curiosity about seeing how their occupation looks in fiction? And the smattering of other academic novels I’ve read have been either satires (David Lodge, Kingsley Amis, Zadie Smith) or mysteries (Amanda Cross — and there’s a strong satirical element there too, especially in Death in a Tenured Position). The exceptions I can think of are Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I liked very much but can’t now remember in much detail because I read it in the era Before Blogging, and May Sarton’s The Small Room. I tire of the satires, because though I agree academics are prone to take themselves and their work a bit too seriously, at the end of the day a lot of us are at least really sincere about what we do, and the values that motivate us are not ridiculous, however bizarre or arcane their outward manifestations may seem to others. The flip side of this “look at the funny creatures” mode is idealism of the somewhat problematic kind found in The Small Room, or, in a way, in Gaudy Night (my favorite academic novel of all). What’s more elusive, in my experience of academic fiction, is straight-up realism. Perhaps writers fear that if they show the mundane business of academia they will bore everyone–my husband and I have often speculated that this fear lies behind the very odd distortions of university life that break out any time a television show goes to college (seriously, Friday Night Lights, a freshman class with a professor who holds weekly salons? and a TA who gives a student a C because–knowing basically nothing about her at all–he imagines she can do better?)–or any time a movie has a professorial character (I can’t remember how which one it was that showed a professor meeting with his agent and getting a large advance for his next book, but again, seriously?). Even when I know being realistic is not really the point, as in On Beauty, I find it distracting when issues like timetables for tenure and promotion or the granting of sabbatical leaves, never mind actual teaching and grading, are handled with no concessions to the way these things are actually done.

So far, Stoner seems to be more or less aiming at realism. Certainly, there’s little idealism beyond the traces of it in Stoner himself, and Stoner is too sincere for the novel to seem like satire–though the characterizations of his colleagues all trend towards caricature. But the English Department of Stoner’s experience is still far from my own, and in this case what is distracting me is trying to figure out whether the differences are just historically accurate–whether what Williams is trying to capture is just a sense of the way things used to be, that is, amateurish, vague, unregulated–or in service of some larger idea. Stoner begins his career in the early decades of the 20th century, and things definitely were different then. English itself was only recently professionalized as a field of study and was in the early stages of its development as an academic discipline. But there’s something disturbingly indistinct about the world Williams is describing. What I keep wishing for is some exposition, some active narrative work to contextualize Stoner’s academic experience as a historical phenomenon, or as part of Williams’s broader interests (which at this point I am finding elusive). Here’s Stoner being advised to go on to graduate school, for starters:

‘But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?’ Sloane asked. ‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.’

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly.

‘How can you tell? How can you be sure?’

‘It’s love, Mr. Stoner,’ Sloane said cheerfully. ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that.’

It was as simple as that. . . . He went out of Jesse Hall into the morning, and the grayness no longer seemed to oppress the campus; it led his eyes outward and upward into the sky, where he looked as if toward a possibility for which he had no name.

I realize that I will have at least one further context for this kind of moment by the time I finish, namely the rest of the book. Perhaps as we follow the rest of Stoner’s career the tension between this naive, if lovely, idea of professing literature and its eventual professional realities will be developed. I’m not disavowing love as a motive for professing literature-I think it remains one of the chief motivators for anyone who starts down this path, and often shows through in our teaching, if not so often in our academic writing–only, nobody could end up as a professor now based on their love (or their teaching) alone. It is not as simple as that any more (though not without reason, and perhaps not without benefits either). I’m curious to see what the novel does about this, if anything.

There are little things too that distract me. At one point, Stoner heads off to a funeral and we’re casually told he gets someone else to take his classes. While this is not impossible, it’s a lot harder than it sounds, or so I’ve always felt–and found. For one thing, it’s not easy to find someone available to teach at a moment’s notice, but even putting aside logistics, it’s tricky to find a substitute who can carry on where you left off and leave things ready for you to pick up again: often, we are teaching things our colleagues know little or nothing about, and even when they do know the texts, their approach may be quite different–which is not a bad thing in itself, but can be confusing for everyone. This may reflect Stoner’s more canonical time, when expert knowledge was concentrated around a narrower body of material, or just my own no doubt disproportionate skepticism about having other people cover for me. (Now that I think about it, I have a serious scheduling conflict coming up that would be great to resolve by having someone else step in for at least one of my classes–I should explore that possibility further rather than assuming I’m going to have to cancel them!) There’s the way the appointment of a new dean and a new department chair is handled–in both cases, in ways radically unlike the elaborate and transparent process we would expect to go through in my own university. Again, things were different then–but I’m interested in some commentary on that, on how that kind of cronyism and inside politics and informality reflect not just different practices but also an idea of the university that has been superceded. Then there’s the impressionistic account of Stoner’s research, especially as he moves into work on his second book…

Probably everyone exposed to fictional treatments of their profession gets similarly hung up on whether the portrayal seems fair and accurate. I can only imagine what ER doctors and nurses think about ER or surgeons about Grey’s Anatomy, or lawyers about The Practice, etc. Is accuracy a legitimate thing to fret about, I wonder? Perhaps I’m especially sensitive about how English professors are depicted because these days there seem to be so many belittling, reductive, anti-intellectual assumptions about them in circulation that reflect at most only the extreme outliers. Somewhere there may be English professors who work only four hours a week from September to April, who farm out all their grading to teaching assistants in order to jet-set around, who spend what little classroom time they have on political indoctrination–but I don’t know any of them, any more than I know any, or at least many, who are starry-eyed idealists or absent-minded bores shuffling around in tweed jackets, lost in intellectual abstractions. It’s not a novelist’s job to counter these stereotypes with the specificities and complexities of our reality, but it’s hard not to bring your reality with you when you read a novel that is, ostensibly, in some way, about the work you do.

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