Stonermania and the Promise of Novel Diplomacy

Could a simple book about a simple man help mitigate America's image as a vulgar hegemon?

When it was first published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's runaway bestseller Uncle Tom's Cabin sold some 300,000 copies in the United States (despite being banned in much of the South) but more than a million in Great Britain. By 1857 it had been translated into 20 languages. Thomas Paine, Edith Wharton, and Mario Puzo were all publishing sensations abroad, shaping America's image, for better or worse. Literature is a slippery form of cultural diplomacy. Who can predict which books will catch on, or how they will reflect on us? Are prolific American writers like Danielle Steel -- with hundreds of millions of global book sales -- now our most prominent ambassadors to the reading world?

Literary fiction can't compete with mass-market, but now and then an understated American book makes a deep impression overseas. Last year, the 1965 novel Stoner by the American John Williams became a dramatic case in point. Set in Missouri in the first half of the 20th century, the novel traces the life of William Stoner, the son of a poor farmer. Stoner leaves home to study agriculture, is inspired by literature, and eventually becomes a university English professor. We find him trapped in a catastrophic marriage and enduring colleagues who are foils for his wisdom, integrity, and capacity for joy. Through it all he absorbs life's blows with stoic grace. 

The book, which sold only about 2,000 copies when it was first published, was re-issued by the New York Review of Books in 2006. In a 2007 essay in the New York Times, Morris Dickstein called it a "perfect novel," and reminded us that it has been revived by enthusiasts every decade or so. Last October, the essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider lamented in the New Yorker that Stoner "goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti."

Yet 50 years after Stoner was published, this stealthy export has now gained stunning commercial velocity in Europe and beyond. It was translated by the bestselling French author Anna Gavanda in 2011 and has been a bestseller in France, Israel, Italy, and Germany. It was expertly marketed with social media by Lebowski Publishers in Holland, and hit No. 1 on the best-seller list there last year, selling 100,000 copies (equal to its 50-year total for American sales). It was also the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year in Britain, and has sold well in Turkey and Spain (in Spanish and in the Catalan language). It has been licensed for publication in more than 20 countries overall.

A restrained portrait of a quiet mid-century American life can't rival the heft of hip hop, or Friends, or the country's top-selling authors, but could its mature and introspective protagonist help in some small way to mitigate America's image as a vulgar hegemon?

Stoner deals with the undiluted essentials of life -- love, learning, war, death. The main character decides, at risk to his career and personal prestige, not to enlist at the outbreak of World War I. At work he endures an undermining colleague and intellectual frauds, yet finds satisfaction in scholarship. At home his wife, Edith, neurotic and cruel, cringes at his touch, until she decides she wants a baby. She uses the couple's beloved daughter as a weapon against Stoner, yet even then he does not retaliate. When he falls in love with a younger woman who becomes his intellectual and emotional refuge, the plot unfolds into a moving and deeply satisfying read. 

But even given the book's literary merit, the Stonermania that cropped up abroad last year is curious. Conversations with a sampling of Stoner readers provided me with some plausible theories to explain it. One said the protagonist is a universal everyman, but that Williams's fine writing is better appreciated by Europeans than Americans. Another noted that the book "explores intimate emotions rather than big themes such as heroism and individuality and freedom, as in the Great American Novel."

A few thought the main character was more European than American and that the Stoners's relationship reflects the more generous contours of a European marriage: Edith doesn't seem to mind her husband's affair and they stay married. (In Europe, a mistress is permissible but divorce is a sin, whereas in America divorce is acceptable but adultery is unforgivable.) And when Edith falls ill (with either imagined or passive-aggressive ailments), Stoner manages the childcare and housework, reflecting European progressivism.

One reader argued that the novel doesn't defy American stereotypes, but embodies them, confirming European beliefs. Stoner is a workaholic. The novel's American characters don't know how to open a bottle of Champagne -- Prohibition is a running theme. The threat of campus scandal looms over Stoner's extra-marital affair. And while Stoner does not enlist, an aura of romance surrounds his friend who is killed in action in France, confirming America's glorification of war. 

And finally, a favorite theory: The title Stoner was simply misunderstood and attracted young readers. 

Akhil Sharma, a professor of creative writing at Rutgers and author of the entrancing new novel Family Life, complicates the inquiry further. He thinks Stoner is "too good to be true. The character is benign and humble and his goals are admirable. Where is the pettiness?" He is in essence a "primitive" character.

But other writers, like Chekhov, Sharma says, have "primitives who behave viciously." And "asking the reader for compassion for them seems braver than asking empathy for nice people doing nice things." In lieu of authorial bravery, Sharma believes, Williams "relies to a large extent on exoticism." The American scenery in Stoner is more alien and hence more compelling to Europeans.

The American author David Vann offers a market analysis of Stoner's -- and his own -- relative success abroad. "My book Legend of a Suicide sold 250,000 copies in France and less than 10,000 copies in the U.S.," he told me. "It sold more copies in just the city of Barcelona than in the U.S., more in the Netherlands than in the U.S."

He believes that some fiction -- his own has been called "unflinching" -- does better in Europe than here in part because "American literary culture has been dismembered by Amazon's monopoly." This has not happened in France, said Vann, where "the government has fought Amazon and kept a price control on books.... Because of this, there's still an independent bookstore in every neighborhood in France."

Indeed, on March 25, a front-page story in the New York Times, "Literary City, Bookstore Desert," reported that independent bookshops are vanishing in Manhattan, as are larger chain stores, including Barnes & Noble and Borders. In Europe, arguably, American books make their way through a more intimate network of scouts, agents, and bookshops, and gain traction by word of mouth. Vann adds that Europeans "haven't forgotten 2,500 years of literary tradition, so they're willing to read tragedy."

Europeans also read far more literature in translation than we do. Accused of being too insular, America has been shunned in recent years by the Europe-based Nobel Prize in Literature; the prize hasn't been awarded to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. In 2008, a Nobel judge was quoted by the Associated Press as saying Americans "don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, the Guardian reported, the Sino-British writer Xiaolu Guo unloaded on festival co-panelist Jonathan Franzen, "I love your work, Jonathan, but in a way you are smeared by English American literature." She thinks "certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated." On the same panel, Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri, born in London and raised in America, expressed concern about the current outsize "commercial currency" of writing in English and said our lack of translation is "shameful."

Our most admired writers may be uncomfortable with the soft power of literary world domination. Nonetheless, this year, for the first time in its 45-year history, Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize will be extended to American authors published in Britain. The British author Julian Barnes, a former recipient, speculated that this might be an example of "capitalist expansionism." 

It will be interesting to see how the critically esteemed new American voice Phil Klay sells overseas. He served in Iraq as a U.S. Marine before earning an MFA. His recently published, debut collection of stories, Redeployment, made the New York Times Book Review cover this month and will be published in seven countries.

In late March, he read from it at Brooklyn's Book Court, one of New York's remaining independent booksellers. "Is writing about war an anti-war act?" one attendee asked the author. He answered questions thoughtfully -- "We need to talk maturely about war, like adults" -- cracked jokes about hipsters, and signed books. Then Klay was off to catch a flight. He was heading to Amsterdam.



Why Are We So Busy Trying to 'Figure Out' Vladimir Putin?

On personality politics, great men, and the fallacy of thinking that individuals actually shape the world.

Do leaders matter in foreign policy? Of course they do. But if you read a lot of Western commentary on foreign affairs, you might conclude that individual leaders were the only thing that made much of a difference. If we could just put the right people in charge in Washington, Moscow, Paris, Baghdad, Beijing, Kabul, Cairo, Islamabad, etc., then everything would be peachy and any minor conflict that might arise could be easily and quickly resolved. In this view, most problems in the world are caused by political leaders who are myopic, old-fashioned, rigid, ill-informed, aggressive, paranoid, or just plain evil, and the key to successful diplomacy is figuring out what makes them tick (and getting rid of them if the opportunity presents).

Recent commentary on Russia and Ukraine illustrates this tendency perfectly. Instead of examining the historical roots of the conflict or the concrete interests of the various parties, commentary in the West tends to pin all the blame on one individual: Russia's Vladimir Putin. According to the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, for example, the failure of Obama's "reset" is due not to geopolitical conflicts, legitimate Russian concerns, or American hubris (the latter being something McFaul has contributed to through his own writings and public service), but rather to the replacement of the supposedly reasonable Dmitry Medvedev by the thuggish and backward-leaning Putin.

Similarly, Peter Baker's recent news analysis in the New York Times -- "3 Presidents and a Riddle Named Putin" -- views U.S.-Russia relations almost entirely through the lens of failed U.S. efforts to understand the Russian leader's personal psychology. Historical experience, NATO expansion, ballistic missile defense, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Kosovo, and Russia's bleak long-term prospects all take a back seat to the supposed "riddle" of a single leader. Money quotation:

For 15 years, Vladimir V. Putin has confounded American presidents as they tried to figure him out, only to misjudge him time and again. He has defied their assumptions and rebuffed their efforts at friendship. He has argued with them, lectured them, misled them, accused them, kept them waiting, kept them guessing, betrayed them and felt betrayed by them.

This tendency to view world politics largely in terms of leaders and personalities is hardly limited to U.S. relations with Russia. Those who are most worried about Iran's nuclear program tend to portray Iran's leaders as irrational religious fanatics, while others debate whether current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a genuine moderate or merely a wolf in sheep's clothing. Critics of Israeli policy tend to blame everything on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while discussions of America's troubles in Afghanistan often finger the truculent Afghan President Hamid Karzai, instead of discussing the impossibility of the mission or the contradictions embedded in U.S. policy.

Indeed, Americans have a long history of demonizing leaders with whom they are at odds: Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty tyrant, the three Kims who have led North Korea since World War II are all dangerous oddballs, and Syria's Bashar al-Assad is the latest incarnation of History's worst monster. No matter how complex or unfathomable world politics really is, we always seem to boil it down to a simplistic caricature of good versus evil.

Why do we do this? It is partly because political leaders of all stripes work overtime to keep themselves in the spotlight and claim credit for positive developments, while their opponents try to pin the blame on them for any failures. Instead of looking at larger trends or forces, our political discourse naturally assigns responsibility to whoever happens to be "in charge." Journalists (and readers) are powerfully drawn to the human side of foreign policy, either by trying to psychoanalyze some enigmatic foreign leader or chronicling the individual role of a Kennan, Kerry, or Kissinger. Either way, our attention gets riveted on individuals and not on the broader environment in which foreign policy is made.

In his classic book, Man, the State, and War, the late, great international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz labeled this sort of thinking "first image" analysis. As Waltz made clear, there was a long tradition of writing about war and peace that located the problem in human nature and in the characteristics of individual leaders in particular. Some writers blamed war on man's sinful nature, while others attributed it to psychological defects or hard-wired aggressive impulses. Regardless of the precise source, "first image" analysis focuses on individuals and assumes that things will go badly whenever bad guys are in charge. By this logic, all will be well as soon as wise, moderate, and benevolent leaders replace the troublemakers.

Waltz also pointed out the fundamental problems with this style of analysis. For starters, if individual human nature causes conflict and war, then what causes peace? Furthermore, leaders with many different backgrounds and beliefs have provoked crises or launched wars; men and women as varied as Adolf Hitler, Woodrow Wilson, Kim Il Sung, Indira Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, George W. Bush, and François Hollande. Even seemingly moderate individuals can be surprisingly comfortable inflicting great harm on others, as when soon-to-be Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1996 that she thought the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths caused by U.S.-led sanctions in the mid-1990s were "worth it."

But the real problem with the relentless focus on individuals is that it blinds us to the broader context in which all world leaders operate, and especially to the internal and external constraints that shape their conduct. To take an extreme case, Assad has been waging a brutal and inhuman campaign in Syria, but not because he derives great personal satisfaction from watching the country disintegrate amid massive human suffering. No, he's doing these things because he fears that the Alawite minority that has dominated Syria (and to which he belongs) could be wiped out if his side loses. Given what Alawite rule has been like for other Syrians, his fear of violent retribution is well-founded. My point is not to defend Assad or his regime, of course; it is to help explain why he is acting as he is. Blaming it all on Assad's dubious character is neither accurate nor likely to point the way to a solution, because any Alawite who replaced him would probably act in similar ways.

In world politics, all leaders have to balance various sorts of internal and external pressures and especially the need to defend their country in a world of separate states. Even very powerful states like the United States cannot act with complete impunity, and whoever is in charge needs to weigh options carefully, instead of indulging personal whims. That is why even murderous leaders like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong usually acted cautiously in foreign affairs. Focusing on the external environment also tells us when to be worried. When a strong state feels aggrieved and believes its vital interests are being threatened, for example, it is more likely to take risks and use force to defend them.

The setting in which states find themselves also helps us understand why very different countries and very different leaders often act in strikingly similar ways. The United States and Soviet Union were radically different societies, and Soviet leaders were unlike their American counterparts in myriad ways. Yet the two superpowers often acted in remarkably similar fashion throughout the Cold War. Both recruited allies all over the world; both built massive arsenals of nuclear weapons and deployed them in similar "triads"; both intervened in various developing countries; and both engaged in espionage, subversion, assassination, and other unsavory activities. Both states were also very careful when dealing with the other, however, and each generally avoided actions that risked escalation to world war.

Similarly, it is hard to think of three presidents as different in personal style and background as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, yet the continuities across their three presidencies are at least as striking as the differences. This is partly because the United States remains the world's strongest nation and because its combination of power and security gives it the option of acting in many places but little reason to bear high costs or absorb significant risks. Plus, all three presidents were dealing with the same well-entrenched national security bureaucracy. Add these two things together, and even radically different presidents end up doing a lot of the same things.

When different states and different leaders act in highly similar ways, it is a good sign that their behavior is being shaped by powerful internal and/or external conditions. And what is true for the United States is even truer for weaker countries. When some country does something U.S. leaders don't like, it's not just because a particular foreign leader got some crazy notion into his or her head. It is far more likely that the leader is responding to a set of circumstances as he or she saw them and that plenty of other people in that country probably see things in much the same way. If so, then it may not matter as much which individual is in charge, and addressing the problem properly requires focusing less on a leader's personality and more on the interests and conditions he or she is facing. Blaming everything on today's "bad guy" may be emotionally satisfying and play well here, but it is a lazy and usually misleading style of analysis.

None of this is to say that individuals don't matter at all or that we shouldn't try to understand how Putin, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, or other leaders see the world. But if we want to grasp the larger forces that drive global trends and ignite occasional crises, we'd be better off leaving that style of analysis to People magazine -- which is really good at that sort of thing -- and focus more of our attention on power, interests, and strategy.