John Edward William’s Stoner is proof that there’s life in tradition and the individual talent yet…
Stoner by John Williams (image courtesy Goodreads)
Modernism was a funny period. It fostered experimentation in every genre of the arts (about which I have written before) and brought us numerous “isms” – Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism. It also brought, as I have also noted, the “academicization” of the arts, particularly after World War II. Modernist works in every branch of art – music, visual art, literature – are most clearly characterized by difficulty posed to the listener/viewer/reader. Whether the dissonant 12 tone compositions of Schoenberg, the seemingly chaotic drip paintings of Pollock, or the stream-of consciousness narrative experiments of Joyce/Woolf/Faulkner, Modernist artists sought to force readers to be aware of their engagement with art – whether they appreciated that engagement or not.
The successor to Modernism’s rigorous challenge to the audience was, of course, PoMo, post-modernism, perhaps best exemplified in the attempted elevation of the popular and commercial as art. The problem with post-modernism is that its “anything can be art” ethos can be (and has been) easily abused. The expression of this in literature has been the elevation of popular genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, detective works for example – sometimes justifiably, sometimes unjustifiably) to the level of serious literature.
What has been lost in these shifting currents of artistic movement is a profound, enduring current that has been represented, especially in the PoMo period, probably best by the work of creative writing programs (a graduate of one myself, I have not been kind to them). That current is realism. (Not that it hasn’t been represented elsewhere in the arts ever since its emergence as a movement – for every Pollock, there has been a Hopper; for every Schoenberg, a Copland; for every Faulkner, a Farrell.)
As we have recently discovered, and as the always insightful Wufnik has noted, for every Pynchon, there is a John Edward Williams. Williams’ Stoner is as superb an example of American realism as anything by Twain, Howells, or Henry James. Continue reading