New Fiction July/August 2006

A Close Read

What makes good writing good
  • Stoner

    By John Williams
    NYRB Classics
“She brought the coffee, in delicate white china cups, on a black lacquered tray, which she set on the table before the couch. They sipped the coffee and talked strainedly for a few moments. Then Stoner spoke of the part of the manuscript he had read, and the excitement he had felt earlier, in the library, came over him; he leaned forward, speaking intensely.

For many minutes the two of them were able to talk together unselfconsciously, hiding themselves under the cover of their discourse.” —from Stoner, by John Williams (NYRB)

The first two sentences in this passage (from a 1965 novel long out of print, and just reissued) enhance the sense of unease between the characters—especially the first sentence, chopped as it is into four distinct phrases, each of about equal weight. The vivid detail of the delicate white china and the black lacquer draw attention to each separate description, emphasizing the stiltedness. The second sentence flows smoothly but contains the wonderfully effortful word strainedly. The structure of the last two sentences suggests the characters’ connection and the beginnings of some complications they then experience. As Stoner’s excitement builds, his actions are linked with a semicolon rather than cut apart with a period. Here are participles—speaking and hiding—rather than the simple past tense of these verbs, which, to remain consistent with the overall style, would have had to be set apart with an and (“he leaned forward and spoke intensely”). There is a suggestion here of forces beyond the characters’ control: Stoner doesn’t get excited; the excitement “came over him.” And the two don’t just talk; they are “able to talk—a reminder that something had to be overcome first. Williams, whose writing style is strikingly plain, finally employs a rare and lovely metaphor—“hiding themselves under the cover of their discourse”—precisely when it’s most necessary: to communicate a sensation that might shrivel in the light of straightforward expression.

Presented by

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

Video

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In