When it comes to best-selling authors, John Irving is among the most well known (with some of the fewest number of books produced). It's amusing to read a John Irving novel. They are most certainly not for everyone. Even more than that, it can be easy to be upset or offended by his books if you just don't have that hard of a shell to take it. The situations his characters find themselves in are bizarre, tragic and yet they're comedic in essence. There is usually a lot to swallow in a John Irving novel. Not because of the story, but because within the narrative of each book it becomes clear that John Irving has a lot to say. And sometims you'll love this about him most. If, that is, you have time for what he's going to tell you.
John Irving began his writing career with a book called "Setting Free the Bears," in 1968. Of all the books Irving has written this is often said to be his most different. In the first place, it has little-to-nothing of the things John Irving would later be known for in his writing. And while Setting Free the Bears was a book that at its debut opened up to nice reception from critics, it never became a book which Irving fans would appreciate and understand. How could it? The books many came to him through are completely different. And Setting Free the Bears is by no means a bad book. It's just not quite a memorable one.
Irving himself must've known that he could do better as his second novel began to talk about themes that he would soon repeat several times over. This book, The Water Method Man, is perhaps one of the funniest John Irving novels out there. It has a lot of sexual humor and is comedic in its wit and story in and of itself. Again, a book which opened up to much critical praise, but ever became a book audiences cared to read very much. Yet it is perhaps the one book that clearly begins to show us who John Irving is.
The 158-Pound Marriage is when John Irving became darker and more ironic with his writing. And while it's the shortest of his books, it's one of the best he's ever done. Once again, however, one that many fans haven't read. On the other hand, it is the writing of 158 Pound Marriage that lead John Irving to eventually write what would become the book to make him famous and clearly define who John Irving is in the middle of his career.
The World According to Garp was published in 1978 and became one of his most recognized novels. One that continues to have a lot of influence in the literary world. The novel focused on the life and times of T.S. Garp, the bastard son of Jenny Fields. His life is one filled with a lot of tragedy and exploration. The book itself focused quite heavily on topics and themes such as feminism, death and about how parents often fear for their children. And even more so... just how bizarre and strange people truly are. John Irving once remarked that life in and of itself is just bizarre and sometimes certain situations can seem unreal. It is no secret that John Irving writes a lot of sexual comedies. The World According to Garp shows this as well, although his 1981 novel: The Hotel New Hampshire is perhaps just as telling of the bizarre sexual situations he can, and often does put his characters into. In short, those deeply offended by sex... would do best to leave John Irving on the shelf. Unless it's Setting Free the Bears. Throughout his career John Irving has explored the sexual topics of rape, asexualism, homosexuality, open marriages, older woman/younger man, beastiality... there is no sexual topic that's off limits for John Irving.
And he does repeat themes. To a large degree. In many of his novels there are absent parents, and characters who often find themselves in terrible accidents (sometimes even deadly). In The World According to Garp, Garp ends up being born to Jenny Fields, but his father was long ago involved in a terrible accident that eventualy lead to his death before he was even born. The Hotel New Hampshire sees the death of one parent in a terrible accident. The Cider House Rules sees the main character, Homer Wells, being left in an orphanage and left to a father figure in Dr. Larch... but one of the characters there is involved in a terrible accident (though surprisingly not deadly). A Widow for One Year sees a character who's mother abandons her and who has lost two brothers in a terrible accident. It goes without saying by now... when you read a John Irving novel you'll have to settle in to seeing terrible things happen to some of the cast involved.
Yet also something which was very well established with The World According to Garp is that Irving often focuses on taking the reader through a characters life. In the World According to Garp we are literally exposed to Garp from the moment he is born until the moment he dies. Not every character do we see from the beginning of his life until his death, but you can bet that the narrative will always span decades of a character's life. The Hotel New Hampshire sees us watching characters go from childhood to adult hood. John Irving focuses much more on the characters involved in the story than not. In fact, many of his books aren't exactly stories as they are books that put characters through many different situations throughout their lives. Sometimes when asked, "What's it about?" It can be tough to actually tell someone what a John Irving novel is about. Even ones that aren't so complex in their narrative have a lot more locked away in the story than what's on the surface. The Cider House Rules is a book that's exactly like that. There's so much to it, and yet it's a very simple and straightforward story when you step back and look at it.
Irving, however, does not see himself as an intellectual... just a writer who writes and tells stories. Yet as he has gone through his life and career, there's a big strong difference between Irving as a young writer and Irving as an older writer. Just about every writer goes through changes as they age, but Irving is one of the more fascinating. As a young writer he was more interested in 19th century fiction. Primarly the works of Charles Dickens and Gunther Grass. They're often his biggest influences. He was not a fan of Ernest Hemigway or his methods of writing. Irving felt the "Write what you know," mantra was not good writing advice. Irving was much more annoyed by the worship of Ernest Hemingway as a writer, not necessarily Ernest Hemingway himself. Also as a younger writer, he detested writing in an autobiographical sense. That's not to say he never did such a thing. In his book "A Prayer for Owen Meany," the main character suffers from dyslexia... a disability John Irving himself suffers from (and has been very adamant about saying that if he can read several books while being dyslexic, there's no excuse for critics NOT to read the books they're reviewing). Perhaps what Irving meant was that he didn't feel that a writer should be writing about real life events that happened to him or her throughout their lives.
As an older writer, however, John Irving became a LOT more accepting. His two most recent novels, Until I Find You, and Last Night in Twisted River are inspired A LOT by autobiographical events. Last Night in Twisted River, in particular, draws a lot of events from John Irving's life. There's a lot made up in it, but it's clear that Irving doesn't feel the way he once did about autobiography in writing. This is probably to his discredit, though. John Irving is a wonderful writer in the sense that he is very meticulous about his writing. The man has ony published 12 books... over forty years. This is because he's very precise about his craft. And yes, Irving definitely knows something about writing. Hearing Irving talk about writing, he could go on all day about sentence structures and organization. He is very forthcoming about it. His craft is done in such a way that he always writes his last sentence first and works backwards so that he knows the story. But he's very adamant about making sure his sentences are good and well organized. Through reading Last Night in Twisted River, it may be the closest into getting into his mind that we'll ever get. And John Irving knows a lot about writing. He's very meticulous. From making sure he choses good words to even getting obsessive about whether or not he should use a comma or a semi-colon in specific areas. You better believe Irving knows a lot about writing.
On the other hand, getting autobiographical seems to have impacted his storytelling in a more negative way. There seems to be a lot of autobiographical tidbits thrown into Until I Find You and Last Night in Twisted River that, for the most part, add little or nothing to the narrative. John Irving knows a lot about character development and the importance of craft, but in finding that it's okay to be autobiographical sometimes, it becomes strange to see that he puts so MUCH autobiography into his previous two books that it kept him from really telling a story or driving the narrative forward. Often Irving has something to say, but in his autobiographical moments I do not know just what it could be. They're also not that entertaining.
One thing that one can admire about John Irving, however, is that he does a fairly good job in taking his critics to task and really challenging them. As far as Irving is concerned, his critics don't exactly mean much. He has an audience that seems to like him. Irving has often challenged his critics to write. Not reviews, but to write books. Irving has little respect for critics because they don't even attempt to do what he does. That and some of them haven't exactly finished the book they're reviewing. If his critics actualy wrote books, Irving might have a bit more respect for what it is they do as critics. Until they throw their hat in the ring, however, Irving sees no reason why he should be concerned.
Although there are certain criticism that come from his fans as well. In the first place, many fans have expressed that as time has gone on, John Irving seems to repeat his themes far too often. Once again, Irving is one for stepping forward and meeting his critics. Not by challenging them to write, in this case, but in stating that almost every well known writers centers on particular themes that they become obsessed with. Irving isn't writing what he knows, he's merely writing about topics he is particularly interested in. "Your obsessions obsess you," he once said. It's not a perfect answer, but does provide an explanation as to why Irving treads familiar territory. In a way I can understand. Many creators do the same thing over and over again. I'm not too bothered by creators doing the same thing or focusing on the same things. If that were so I could easily criticize you reading this, for constantly reviewing "too much of the same thing." Imagine if I complained and said, "Again with reviewing food and restaurants @devora! When will you review something else!?" I'd never ask anyone to step away from something they enjoy. Even if they happen to do it over and over again. The stories John Irving tells are almost always very different from one to the next.
One thing that does seem to annoy many, however, is when Irving begins to speak politics. He makes no secret of his beliefs, although he is annoyed at the idea that he is simply supposed to "sit down and shut up," with his opinions. Irving is hardly a political writer, but when politics comes out in his fiction it has never failed to upset readers (particularly Conservative readers). In "A Prayer for Owen Meany," Irving takes a few asides to criticize Ronald Reagen. The Cider House Rules is the only PURELY political book. There are no asides there, just an issue it deals with. A Prayer for Owen Meany has certain political asides. What makes me scratch my head about John Irving putting politics into some of his books is actually more the idea that I can't figure out what some of them have to do with the story. In A Prayer for Owen Meany I couldn't figure out why it was even important to spend such time taking about Ronald Reagen. In Last Night in Twisted River he sticks in a TON of politics at the end... but once more I couldn't figure out just what it had to do with the story or narrative. It's like writing a story about kids going to the woods and then making sure that in the middle of the woods is a desert. It makes no sense! It's like when Family Guy decides to throw in some political jargon after talking about how stupid Peter is. It feels like something just dumped in.
That doesn't make John Irving a bad writer in the slightest. It's just to say that his storytelling can feel as though he's being sidetracked when he puts a little something in the narrative that doesn't really feel like it makes sense. On the other hand, his books tend to flow really well because the language he uses flows really well. A book by John Irving might slowed down based on what's going on rather than his word choice or something like that. There's hardly ever a hiccup in his writing. And he doesn't waste time with adverbs and adverbial phrases and also doesn't waste too much time trying to impress with colorful language and extended metaphors. He gets to the point and keeps going without worrying so much about trying to prove he's a good writer. He just merely does it.
It's easy to read most John Irving. As with many writers, however, his earlier works tend to be more worthwhile and timeless than those he publishes currently. Until I Find You and Last Night in Twisted River, for example, spend far too much time rehashing events and moments that have little to do with their story. On the other hand, John Irving is still a great writer, able to write story that delight in making us laugh and feeling something at the same time. Very few writers have that particular talent. Irving does. Even Last Night in Twisted River was able to hit those kinds of notes despite being one of his lesser works.
It takes a moment to get into John Irving. His stories often take a moment to get going, and if you're easily offended you'll probably find that John Irving isn't for you. Not just because of sexual variations throughout his books, but because of his political moments and the fact that they're pretty violent. You're not reading a family tale when you pick up John Irving. You're reading about the world we live in.
You might say that in the World According to John, we are all terminal cases.