The novel cure: Passivity
Literary prescriptions for modern ailments
Cure: Stoner by John Williams
Passivity can seem like the safest option. Why speak up/get one's hands dirty/risk failure when you can watch from the sidelines, and see how it all pans out? The answer, of course, is because while you're watching, Rome may fall; lives may be broken; loves lost. And at the end of your life, as you stand amid the debris, you won't be able to say, "At least I did everything I could".
For William Stoner – the farmboy-turned-English-professor of John Williams's Sixties rediscovery, and the surprise bestseller of 2013 – passivity seems part of his inheritance. Stoner's mother views her life "as if it were a long moment she had to endure". He's expected to do the same. When shown another sort of life – studying Literature at Columbia, then staying on as an English teacher – he reaches out with his thin, gangly wrists, and grasps it.
But this one self-serving act seems to exhaust him, and for the rest of the story we are forced to bear witness as he stands by and allows all that had seemed good to turn sour – his marriage to Edith, his career and, most heart-rendingly, his relationship with his beloved daughter, Grace. Stoner is Grace's sole carer for the first six years of her life. Then one day Edith comes home with her hair bobbed, a smoking habit and a shrill new voice, and proceeds to whisk Grace off to parties in stiff dresses.
Stoner accepts his fate with the mute passivity suggested by his name – and it maddens us. We defy you to read this quiet, haunting novel without raging, internally, that Stoner should let himself be so downtrodden, so overlooked.
But why waste your breath on Stoner? We're told of his death on the very first page. Put both the novel and your passivity away, and start standing up for yourself.
'The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies' (Canongate, £17.99); thenovelcure.com
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Madonna might be a stand-up comedy virgin - but she wasn't terrible
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'