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The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel


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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Part I. Nothing But the Night
    • Chapter One: He Comes from Texas
    • Chapter Two: "Ho, Ho! Wasn't I the Character Then?"
    • Chapter Three: Rough Draft
    • Chapter Four: Key West
    • Chapter Five: Alan Swallow
    • Chapter Six: Love
  • Part II. Butcher's Crossing
    • Chapter Seven: The Winters Circle
    • Chapter Eight: "Natural Liars Are the Best Writers"
    • Chapter Nine: Butcher's Crossing
    • Chapter Ten: Fiasco
  • Part III. Stoner
    • Chapter Eleven: "It Was That Kind of World"
    • Chapter Twelve: "The Williams Affair"
    • Chapter Thirteen: Stoner
  • Part IV. Augustus
    • Chapter Fourteen: Bread Loaf and "Up on the Hill"
    • Chapter Fifteen: The Good Guys
    • Chapter Sixteen: "Long Life to the Emperor!"
  • Part V. The Sleep of Reason
    • Poem: "An Old Actor to His Audience"
    • Chapter Seventeen: "How Can Such a Son of a Bitch Have Such Talent?"
    • Chapter Eighteen: In Extremis
  • Epilogue. John Williams Redux
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Works Consulted
  • A John Williams Bibliography
  • Index

About the Author

Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, a New York Times bestseller, a Literary Guild Selection, and a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate. His young adult biography of Harper Lee, I Am Scout, was chosen an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year, and a Junior Literary Guild Selection. In 2011, Shields published And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year.


"[An] engrossing short biography." * The New Yorker *
"Shields...hoovers up the available evidence and shapes it into an episodic narrative without giving much sense of what he makes of his subject...Shields's book is a handy corrective for anyone who's nostalgic for the days when American writers and publishers routinely ran up large bar tabs." * London Review of Books *
"This rich biography gives new insight into the enigmatic man behind , a novel quickly forgotten after its 1963 publication but more recently recognized as a midcentury American classic." * Publishers Weekly, "The Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2018" *
"The Williams that emerges is not unlike Stoner himself: self-obsessed, given to petty feuds, and insecure about his abilities...It is to Shields's credit that by the end of this finely crafted biography readers will feel they have some insight into this talented, troubled enigma of a man." * Publisher's Weekly, Starred Review *
"Despite obvious parallels with his fictional university protagonist, John Williams is both different and interesting enough to merit a book of his own, Charles J. Shields's The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. It certainly helps that, like Williams, Shields know 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." * Los Angeles Review of Books *
"Charles Shields has done us all a service by pointing up and pointing out the novelist's unyielding ambition and rigor." * New York Journal of Books *
"[An] exemplary biography, the first devoted to the life of one of America's most unusual writers." * Financial Times *
"[A] sharp-eyed biography." * Booklist *
"Through exhaustive research and sharp prose, Shields has composed a portrait of the complicated author and the particular darknesses that drove Williams to write, to overcompensate, to philander, to mansplain." * The Millions *
"Brief but compelling...The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel is a welcome reminder that even in the rarefied world of literature, good sometimes prevails." * Waterbury Republican-American *
"Shields' writing is captivating and reveals much about the wounded psyches of the GI Bill generation of American (male) authors." * Shepherd Express *
"Shields describes Williams's development and motivations and explains persuasively why a writer hungry for fame didn't go in for the postmodernist experiments of his time." * New Criterion *
"Shields accomplishes an admirable feat of objectivity in a biography published during our riven age of identity and tribal politics." * American Book Review *
"[John Williams's Stoner] has in recent decades become the sort of book that people adore, give to their friends, fiercely identify with, and dub 'the perfect novel.' And full credit to Charles Shields for going behind the scenes to fill in the picture of Williams's own-somewhat similarly miserable-life...Stoner's rediscovery reflects well on the artisanship of John Williams, a novelist whose accomplishments and foibles Charles Shields has brought ably into view." * Western American Literature *
"Charles Shields's biography of John Williams invites us to enrich our understanding of Stoner-and Williams's other writings as well-in The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. Through his accessible style, his scrupulous attention to detail, and his use of source material and interviews, Shields provides us with a balanced study of a writer whose work has the power to transform the unremarkable into the astonishing." * Journal of American Culture *
"Charles J. Shields' subtitle accurately captures the scope, purpose, and content of the book. It's a biography of John Williams. It's a description of how Williams's major work came to be, and it's a reflection on the writing life, as lived by John Williams. I found Shields to be fair in his approach to all three." * Concho River Review *

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