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The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life

Charles J. Shields



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University of Texas Press
01 March 2020
Biography; Biography: literary
When Stoner was published in 1965, the novel sold only a couple of thousand copies before disappearing with hardly a trace. Yet John Williams's quietly powerful tale of a Midwestern college professor, William Stoner, whose life becomes a parable of solitude and anguish eventually found an admiring audience in America and especially in Europe. The New York Times called Stoner a perfect novel, and a host of writers and critics, including Colum McCann, Julian Barnes, Bret Easton Ellis, Ian McEwan, Emma Straub, Ruth Rendell, C. P. Snow, and Irving Howe, praised its artistry. The New Yorker deemed it a masterly portrait of a truly virtuous and dedicated man.

The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel traces the life of Stoner's author, John Williams. Acclaimed biographer Charles J. Shields follows the whole arc of Williams's life, which in many ways paralleled that of his titular character, from their shared working-class backgrounds to their undistinguished careers in the halls of academia. Shields vividly recounts Williams's development as an author, whose other works include the novels Butcher's Crossing and Augustus (for the latter, Williams shared the 1972 National Book Award). Shields also reveals the astonishing afterlife of Stoner, which garnered new fans with each American reissue, and then became a bestseller all over Europe after Dutch publisher Lebowski brought out a translation in 2013. Since then, Stoner has been published in twenty-one countries and has sold over a million copies.
By:   Charles J. Shields
Imprint:   University of Texas Press
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 216mm,  Width: 140mm, 
ISBN:   9781477320105
ISBN 10:   1477320105
Pages:   320
Publication Date:   01 March 2020
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active
IntroductionPart I. Nothing But the NightChapter One: He Comes from TexasChapter Two: Ho, Ho! Wasn't I the Character Then? Chapter Three: Rough DraftChapter Four: Key WestChapter Five: Alan SwallowChapter Six: LovePart II. Butcher's CrossingChapter Seven: The Winters CircleChapter Eight: Natural Liars Are the Best Writers Chapter Nine: Butcher's CrossingChapter Ten: FiascoPart III. StonerChapter Eleven: It Was That Kind of World Chapter Twelve: The Williams Affair Chapter Thirteen: StonerPart IV. AugustusChapter Fourteen: Bread Loaf and Up on the Hill Chapter Fifteen: The Good GuysChapter Sixteen: Long Life to the Emperor! Part V. The Sleep of ReasonPoem: An Old Actor to His Audience Chapter Seventeen: How Can Such a Son of a Bitch Have Such Talent? Chapter Eighteen: In ExtremisEpilogue. John Williams ReduxAcknowledgmentsNotesWorks ConsultedA John Williams BibliographyIndex

Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, a New York Times bestseller, a Literary Guild Selection, and a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate. His young adult biography of Harper Lee, I Am Scout, was chosen an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year, and a Junior Literary Guild Selection. In 2011, Shields published And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year.

Reviews for The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life

Shields accomplishes an admirable feat of objectivity in a biography published during our riven age of identity and tribal politics. * American Book Review * Shields describes Williams's development and motivations and explains persuasively why a writer hungry for fame didn't go in for the postmodernist experiments of his time. * New Criterion * Shields' writing is captivating and reveals much about the wounded psyches of the GI Bill generation of American (male) authors. * Shepherd Express * Brief but compelling...The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel is a welcome reminder that even in the rarefied world of literature, good sometimes prevails. * Waterbury Republican-American * Through exhaustive research and sharp prose, Shields has composed a portrait of the complicated author and the particular darknesses that drove Williams to write, to overcompensate, to philander, to mansplain. * The Millions * [A] sharp-eyed biography. * Booklist * [An] exemplary biography, the first devoted to the life of one of America's most unusual writers. * Financial Times * Charles Shields has done us all a service by pointing up and pointing out the novelist's unyielding ambition and rigor. * New York Journal of Books * Despite obvious parallels with his fictional university protagonist, John Williams is both different and interesting enough to merit a book of his own, Charles J. Shields's The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. It certainly helps that, like Williams, Shields know how to tell a good story, one that will appeal especially to those interested in the ins and outs of the publishing industry and the ups and downs of a writer's life. * Los Angeles Review of Books * The Williams that emerges is not unlike Stoner himself: self-obsessed, given to petty feuds, and insecure about his abilities...It is to Shields's credit that by the end of this finely crafted biography readers will feel they have some insight into this talented, troubled enigma of a man. * Publisher's Weekly * This rich biography gives new insight into the enigmatic man behind Stoner, a novel quickly forgotten after its 1963 publication but more recently recognized as a midcentury American classic. * Publishers Weekly, selected among The Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2018 * [An] engrossing short biography. * The New Yorker *

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