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What Makes a Novel Memorable?

Flickr Creative Commons: Karoly Czifra

Recently I was in a bookstore looking for something to read on an airplane. (Boulder Bookstore in Boulder, Colo., just so you know. Don’t want a miss the chance to give a shout-out to an indie.) I idly picked up a novel from the table at the front of the store, and read these blurbs:

“…something rarer than a great novel—this is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Once in a while, a novel comes along so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what well-written fiction should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself…one of the most extraordinarily fine novels published in the past fifty years.”—The Dallas Morning News

“In over 80,000 words there is not a single superfluous phrase. Every sentence is crafted with delicacy and necessity.”—South Mississippi Sun Herald

Well, heck. Of course I bought it and read it. The book is STONER, by John Williams, first published in 1965. At heart, it’s a story about a farm boy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. The main character, William Stoner, is fairly passive; his marriage is lonely; he becomes estranged from his only child, who has a sad life of her own. So what is it about this book?

I found it riveting and couldn’t put it down. My mother found it unbearably sad. People I know who have read it have alternately called it “depressing” or “beautiful” or “depressing and beautiful.” But it’s a great book. And the things that make it great, I believe, are key elements that every writer can learn from and strive for:

The writing is simple and straightforward. Early on, Williams writes: “In the evenings the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame; often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house.” A single sentence, yet it conveys the loneliness and bone-crushing fatigue of the small family’s life on a farm in Missouri just before World War I. All of the writing, including the dialogue, is economical but evocative. It’s a good goal to aim for.

The setting feels real. The entire novel takes place on the campus of the University of Missouri. The university comes alive almost as a breathing entity—with the excitement of a shared love of learning, the stifling dictates of academia, the petty rivalries and jealousies, the genuine friendships. The time period (during and after WWI), the large columned buildings with their marble stairs, the dull grayness of a mid-western winter—it’s all there, drawing you in to Stoner’s world.

It has a great love story. Hey, there’s a reason romance novels are the best-selling genre in fiction. People love love stories. And STONER contains an impossible, beautiful, intense, memorable love story. “They were both very shy, and they knew each other slowly, tentatively; they came close and drew apart, they touched and withdrew, neither wishing to impose upon the other more than might be welcomed. Day by day the layers of reserve that protected them dropped away, so that at last they were like many who are extraordinarily shy, each open to the other, unprotected, perfectly and unselfconsciously at ease.” And there’s a nice frisson of sex, too.

The characters are individuals. These are not stock characters. They are unique individuals who feel intrinsic to the story, the setting, and the main character. The antagonist is a brilliant, handsome, arrogant, man with numerous physical deformities; the love of Stoner’s life is a smart, serious, intense young woman who is also playful and warm and wise beyond her years. And Stoner is a character who learns, grows, recedes, and evolves over the course of the novel to become fully himself, in ways that surprise both him and the reader. “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

It tells the entire arc of a life. I have written three novels, and only one of them contained a character’s entire life story from beginning to end. And yet, I think it’s my best, most interesting book. It’s human nature to want to know how stories turn out, not just the slice of life often presented in a novel, but the whole story, the arc of a person’s life from beginning to end. Obviously different stories call for different treatments, but there is something compelling and satisfying about knowing a character from birth to death.

STONER isn’t a book everyone will love. But it’s an impeccably written book that everyone can learn something from.

What are the best lessons you’ve learned from a great novel?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.