Study Guide

The World According to Garp Literature and Writing

By John Irving

Literature and Writing

"Writers do not read for fun," Garp would write later, speaking for himself. (3.19)

What a nerd. But Garp holds true to this maxim; we rarely see him name-drop other novelists because he's too busy writing himself.

"If I marry anybody, I'll marry a writer," Helen said. [...]

Garp had been trying to joke; Helen's seriousness made him nervous. (3.107-108)

Like many an artist, Garp is first inspired by the attention of the opposite gender. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Garp turns out to be a natural talent.

Her typewriter never paused for thought; Garp knew that its steady pounding would probably end his career as a writer before he could properly begin, "My mother never knew about the silence of revision," Garp once remarked. (5.35)

While Jenny has tons of interesting content to write about, she doesn't have the much-needed patience to present that content in its best possible form.

Garp's conviction that Franz Grillparzer was a "bad" writer seemed to provide the young man with his first real confidence as an artist—even before he had written anything. (5.51)

The young eat the old—this is especially true when it comes to the arts. You don't have to look very far back in history of literature to find examples of this in real life.

What Garp was savoring was the beginning of a writer's long-sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing ton of voice. (6.48)

Garp's early career is hindered by his difficulty finding his "voice." A writer's "voice" is hard to define, but is an integral part of any meaningful body of work.

His first novel [...] suffered from the pretentious weight of all that fascist history he had taken no real part in. His second novel suffered his failure at imagining enough. (8.218)

As Garp becomes an established author, he starts struggling to walk the line between what he understands as "imagined" fiction and "autobiographical" fiction. As we come to learn, this is a difficult balance to achieve.

He would say to her that it didn't matter; she should just tell him what she didn't believe. Then he would change that part. Every part she believed was true every part she didn't believe needed work. (10.133)

To be honest, fiction writers are a lot like con men. They don't care for silly concepts like truth—they just want you to buy what they're selling, hook, line, and sinker.

"I would rather be rich and wholly outside caring about what the idiots call 'serious,'" he told John Wolf. (16.8)

It doesn't matter if you're talking about books, paintings, or music—"serious" artists rarely become successful during their own lifetime. Garp is choosing the other path; he's selling out.

"A book's true when it feels true," she said to him, impatiently. "A book's true when you can say, 'Yeah! That's just how damn people behave all the time.'" (16.84)

Jillsy's unpretentious wisdom is just as insightful as a truckload of Garp's high-minded rhetoric. People want to see themselves—and the people they know and love—reflected back at them in the books they read.

At last, a Garp book for children and for grownups! It was, of course, like starting over. Going back to the beginning and getting a fresh start. (18.368)

Garp's final release—an illustrated edition of "The Pension Grillparzer"—takes Garp back to the realm of pure imagination. For the first time in a long time, he finally gets away from the autobiographical fiction that haunts his later career.