Based on the low sales of John Irving's first three novels, no one would have expected his fourth novel to be a bestseller, selling over 100,000 copies in hardcover and 3 million copies in paperback (Davis and Womack 174). However, several factors played into The World According to Garp's success. Firstly, large sums of money were spent on advertising the book in a unique way. The author's persona is also a factor. Also, the book was written in a mode that was very popular at the time, both in academia and also in the reading public, metafiction or the "New Fiction." This was a style he shared with his mentor, Kurt Vonnegut. Irving's 1979 essay on Vonnegut also illuminates some factors in his own success with The World According to Garp. Another reason for the book's popularity is its subject matter and the resolution of the dilemmas presented in such content in an essentially conservative manner.
In 1978, The World According to Garp by John Irving was published by E.P. Dutton. It followed three well-reviewed but not economically successful novels, published by Random House. These were Setting Free the Bears (1968), The Water-Method Man (1972), and The 158-Pound Marriage (1976) (Harter 5, Reilly 2). Nothing pointed to the success of The World According to Garp. Perhaps it all had to do with advertising: Irving alleged that Random House wasn't properly advertising his books and then went to E.P. Dutton, where the famous editor Henry Robbins, who had his own imprint within the company, recognized his genius and paid him well (Reilly 77). It became number 14 on the bestseller list as a hardcover and when it was released in 1979 as a paperback by Pocket Books, it was heavily advertised and had enormous sales (Reilly 77). Even bus-side signage was employed by the campaign, a campaign that also included t-shirts and sweat-bands (Reilly 77). The phrase, "I Believe in Garp," figured prominently in the paperback advertising. $200,000 was used for the paperback advertising campaign (Reilly 77). In 1979, the novel was given the American Book Award (Davis and Womack 174). By the time the movie was released in 1982, the bestseller was already four years old, suggesting that the novel was steadily consumed during that considerably long time period. In the Publishers Weekly charts, the hardcover release debuted at number fourteen, peaked at number four, and remained on the list for 32 weeks. In the New York Times charts, the hardcover release debuted at number nine, peaked at number four for a week, and was on the charts for a total of sixteen weeks. For the paperback, it debuted at number four in Publishers Weekly, peaked at number one for thirteen weeks, for a total of 41 weeks. The paperback debuted at number five in the New York Times, peaked at number one for four weeks, for a total of forty weeks (Justice 160).
Another reason for the book's bestseller status may have also been the John Irving's persona. After the success of The World According to Garp, he became very popular, appearing on the cover of Time magazine when The Hotel New Hampshire was published (Harter and Thompson 1). Through his author photographs and the subject matter of his earlier novels, Irving got the reputation of being a handsome, athletic man. This can be seen in the author's picture, where he is standing with his arms crossed, looking quite athletic. Irving's image is also seen in the fact that T.S. Garp, the novel's main character, is a wrestler who also jogs and works out frequently. Many of the bestsellers for 1978 don't seem to have much in common with Garp, but one may shed some light on the book's success. That book is The Complete Book of Running by James Fixx, number 3 on the non-fiction chart for 1978. People were really into jogging and being fit during this time period. Over the years, Irving has also come to be known as a family man and is often pictured with one or more of his sons, usually wrestling with them. All of these aspects of Irving's persona are present in his character T.S. Garp as well and the novel helped to create a public persona for Irving.
Many reviewers noticed the advertising campaign for the novel and called its seriousness into question. John Irving has often stated that he is an author who seeks to be entertaining and serious at the same time. He feels like he should write in a way that his audience will be able to understand him. This is a quality he attributes to the work of his mentor, Kurt Vonnegut (Irving 41-42). Irving has said that "Art has an aesthetic responsibility to be entertaining. The writer's responsibility is to take hard stuff and make it as accessible as the stuff can be made. Art and entertainment aren't contradictions" (Harter and Thompson 102). Some people point to Irving's 1979 essay on "Kurt Vonnegut and his Critics," which appeared in The New Republic as a definitive statement about Irving's artistic viewpoint, especially during the period in which he wrote The World According to Garp (Davis and Womack 174)). In the essay, Irving talks about catharsis as a neglected idea, but as idea he tries to use in his fiction. He writes, "people do want entertainment, certainly; but I think they also want things that are fundamentally upsetting, which - easy or hard to read - good literature usually is. Catharsis - perhaps it is also an unpopular word today, or at least an old-fashioned one - relies on upsetting readers. You purge fear through evoking it, you purify pain by rendering it, you bathe the heart with tears" (Irving 44). The World According to Garp provides a sort of catharsis, after all the violence and tragedy, one feels like some positive thing has been achieved by the end of the novel.
John Irving has an interesting relationship to the academy. He got a MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where he studied under Kurt Vonnegut and Vance Bourjaily. This meant that he could be a writer-in-residence or writing professor. He did in fact hold these jobs at various colleges in the Northeast until the success of The World According to Garp made this source of income no longer necessary (Davis and Womack 174-75). The success of The World According to Garp also severed Irving from the academy in another way; the popularity of the novel caused his work to subsequently be viewed with suspicion in the academy. In other words, in the time period surrounding the publication of The World According to Garp, Irving held a position that was both within and without of the academy.
Irving writes in a style that Dickens was known for, as well as Thackeray and a host of other nineteenth-century authors (Harter and Thompson 84). Some other authors that are mentioned in conjunction with The World According to Garp are Laurence Sterne, Frank Norris, Rabelais, Franz Grillparzer, Henry Fielding, and Theodore Dreiser (Harter and Thompson 82, 83, 84). The novel itself contains allusions to Sterne's Tristram Shandy (a possible source for Garp's initials, T.S.?), Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations (Miller 92, 95-96). This level of intertextuality is rarely seen in bestsellers produced solely for entertainment. Larry McCaffery wrote that "Like Dickens and Gunter Grass ? Irving is a natural-born story teller who transcends the categories of ?academic' and ?popular' fiction writer" (Reilly 78). One very Dickensian and literary thing Irving does is write an epilogue for the novel. Harter and Thompson call this epilogue "a brilliant tour de force of barely thirty pages, details the lives (and often maimings or deaths) of virtually every major figure in the Garpian/Dickensian menagerie" (83).
The World According to Garp can be considered a work of humanism. One way in which this can be seen is in the life-like, three-dimensional portrayals of the characters in the novel. Many reviewers commented on this aspect of the novel, especially Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone. Kurt Vonnegut is also known for his humanism. In his essay on Vonnegut, Irving writes, "As a cause ? not to mention a literary theme ? "common decency" is worth praising"(Irving 46). This theme unites the two writers.
One type of writing that The World According to Garp has been classified as is metafiction, which in the simplest terms, refers to writing about writing. Fiction that employed metafiction is sometimes called the "New Fiction." This literary movement was very popular in the academy during the 1960s and 1970s. Some figures of this movement were John Barth, Robert Coover, and William Gass. Irving does not like to be placed in this movement, but one cannot deny that he is writing about writing in The World According to Garp. Perhaps this is another reason for its bestseller status, it was read by serious readers interested in Barth and others writing in this vein. Also, readers may have heard of metafiction or the "New Fiction" and wanted to read an accessible novel in the movement. Larry McCaffery writes that "Garp may be, above all, a funny and poignant family saga, but it is also a sophisticated metafictional investigation into the writer's relationship to his work, the nature of art and the imagination" (Harter and Thompson 88). It is also said of Irving that he "views the Barthian penchant for metafictional discourse and analysis as sounding the death knell for the novel as a lively art form" and that he "differs markedly from ? Gass, Pynchon, or Barth" (Harter and Thompson 88, 89). Priestley puts it well when he writes, "Irving resembles both ?the Victorian novelist' ? and the ?new novelist' who writes fiction about fiction" (Harter and Thompson 89).
In fact, Irving "rewrites" some of his previous novels in The World According to Garp, referring to them by other names (Miller 107). According to Miller, "Irving does not resort to such repetition of materials in order to build some mythical world like Faulkner's, but out of an apparent need to come to grips with them himself"(88). T.S. Garp's first novel, Procrastination refers to Setting Free the Bears, Second Wind of the Cuckold refers to The 158-Pound Marriage, The World According to Bensenhaver refers to The World According to Garp, and Garp's unfinished novel, My Father's Illusions refers to Irving's future novel, The Hotel New Hampshire (Campbell 80, Miller 107). In fact, the part of the book regarding The World According to Bensenhaver reveals much about the politics of the bestseller, especially one that contains a lot of sex and violence like The World According to Garp itself. It talks about some of the advertising techniques that can be used to promote a bestseller. It also is a meditation on the unpredictable nature of the bestseller, as is shown by the minor character Jillsy Sloper, a maid that the editor John Wolf gives books to read, and if she likes it, it is bound to become a bestseller. No real explanation is given by her as to why she actually likes it. Also, another way that a book is marketed is by releasing chapters ahead of publication in magazines. Ironically, the only place The World According to Bensenhaver can be published is in a pornographic magazine called Crotch Shots. The World According to Garp itself was published in several similar magazines: Penthouse, Playboy, and Swank.
Feminism is a major theme in The World According to Garp. It is seen in the discussion of rape, of male lust, of gender roles (Garp doing the housework while Helen works), and of transgender issues (Roberta Muldoon's sex change). Garp's mother, Jenny Fields is a major feminist figure in the novel. Irving critiques some aspects of feminism that are two radical through creating a fictional group called the Ellen Jamesians, who cut their tongues out to protest rape. Feminism was a major issue of the 1960s and 1970s and certainly John Irving's intelligent critique of it in the novel was part of the novel's appeal.
Many reviewers were troubled by the sex and violence, which sometimes occurs simultaneously in the novel. This may have been one reason that the book was a bestseller, because of its lurid parts, of which there are several. Further added to this theme of sex and violence is black humor or gallows humor as it is also known. This is also an aspect of Kurt Vonnegut's writing. Josie P. Campbell writes that, "The insistence on lust, particularly male lust, as an essential, natural drive is one of the more troubling aspects of this novel" (80). However, the novel is about going beyond all the sex and violence to achieve something positive, Harter and Thompson write, "Caught in a world where absurd violence abounds and traditional sexual roles and identities are no longer literally or psychologically viable, ? Garp struggles to create a wholesome, vital family life and simultaneously to create art" (78).
According to Miller, "Irving's attitudes toward sex and marriage ? are quite conservative, despite the salacious content of much of his fiction; he has little patience, really, with sexual experimentation, loud causes, and trendy solutions"(Miller 120-21). This might be another reason for the popularity of the novel. Again, Miller writes of T.S. Garp's "gradual evolution in sensibility from the sex-limited awareness of a confused, aggressive maleness to the broader vision and constructive conservatism of mature fatherhood"(Miller 114). Irving really does write about the concerns that many parents have about protecting their children, which gives the book a very personal and emotional touch to such an audience.
The World According to Garp continues to be read today in 2006, almost thirty years from its first publication. It continues to endure as both a funny and profound book. Gabriel Miller gives some very good ideas about why it continues to be so popular; "The World According to Garp is at once a personal masterpiece, an important contemporary artifact, a clear explication of Irving's moral and aesthetic vision, and a certification of his talent. It signals the arrival of a writer in full command of his abilities, entering upon the mature phase of his career" (89). Although it was widely viewed and talked about at its release, the movie version has fallen out of favor, even though it stars some famous actors and actresses such as Robin Williams, Glenn Close, and John Lithgow. The movie was written by Steve Tesich and directed by George Roy Hill. George Roy Hill directed the movie version of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five ten years earlier in 1972 (imdb.com).
Campbell, Josie P. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Davis, Todd F. and Kenneth Womack. "John Irving." in Dictionary of Literary Biography 278.
Harter, Carol C. and James R. Thompson. John Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
"The Internet Movie Database" www.imdb.com
Irving, John. "Kurt Vonnegut and His Critics." The New Republic. 22 September 1979: 41-49.
Justice, Keith L. Bestseller Index. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.
Marcus, Greil. "Worlds apart: from Garp to Gore." Rev. of The World According to Garp, by John Irving. Rolling Stone 27 July 1978.
Miller, Gabriel. John Irving. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982.
Reilly, Edward C. Understanding John Irving. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1991.