Charles J. Shields... serves his subject well. This is neither an easy writer nor—on the basis of these pages—an easily approachable one ... Shields does not wholly cotton to his subject. And his indictment can be general ...
The throughline is the writing, and the writing soars ... Charles Shields has done us all a service by pointing up and pointing out the novelist’s unyielding ambition and rigor. By Stoner’s end both the book’s eponymous hero and his creator find honor on the page.
Fans of Stoner...will be delighted to learn that, despite obvious parallels with his fictional university protagonist, John Williams is both different and interesting enough to merit a book of his own ... It certainly helps that, like Williams, Shields knows 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 (spoiler alert: there are many) ... Shields’s slim biography offers plenty of insights not only into John Williams’s life, but also, thanks to the lively descriptions of the arduous path to publication for each of his novels, the writer’s life in general. For an author of four novels, none of which exceed 300 pages a brief biography seems appropriate. Besides, Williams spent much of his later life drinking to excess, and a reader gets an uneasy feeling that a lengthier treatment would only reveal more embarrassing situations of the author with a drink or cigarette in one hand, an inhaler in the other. Not that Shields shies away from these moments entirely, which at their lowest reveal Williams to be a difficult person with misogynistic tendencies, and at their least harmful, show him to be locked in a world of his own.
...[an] exemplary biography ... The man [John Williams] himself emerges as a complex character whose experience as a flight radio operator in Myanmar during the second world war left him 'sometimes plagued by bad dreams or periods of cold sweats from the effects of malaria' ... Each time he had a new novel out Shields says he would take up a prominent position in the English department office and sit there smoking and drinking coffee all day, expecting that some of his colleagues would congratulate him. It never happened. Given Stoner’s posthumous success one can’t help thinking that he was shabbily treated.