4 lessons for writers in The World According to Garp

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

How John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp touches on the dreams and realities of writing for a living.

1. To be a writer, you have to write

Some writers learn from courses, teachers and other authors. Not Garp. He goes so far as to declare “whoever heard of going to college to be the best at writing?”

That doesn’t mean he just sits back and waits for the words to fall onto paper by themselves, though. He works at it, writing one short story every month (some of which we’re told aren’t that good).

Garp’s driven to write because – he claims – it’s his way of winning a girl’s heart. But underneath that, Garp experiences the world as a writer. Like the way he tells stories to soothe himself, even when he’s supposedly telling his kids a bedtime story.

Later, he pens one violent, vulgar novel as a way of exorcising the terrible things that happen to him and his family. Things happen, and writers write about it, and that really is all you need to do to call yourself a writer.

2. The writer’s job is to notice

“writers, Garp sadly knew, were just observers – good and ruthless imitators of human behavior.”

As a young man, Garp decides to move to Vienna and ‘be a writer’, but then his mother decides she’s going with him.

As if that weren’t galling enough, it’s Jenny who bashes out her autobiography at warp speed, while Garp doesn’t seem to do much writing at all.

Instead he spends his time wandering around Vienna, visiting museums and prostitutes – yet it’s by spying on the city like this that Garp finally discovers his story and its characters. The result is a short story, The Pension Grillparzer (which itself contains a short story).

The writer’s job, Garp concludes, is to look at and learn about the world, and then imagine all the things which might happen in it – however bizarre they might be.

3. Revenge is a dish best served cold

Being a published writer means sending your work to agents and publishers and, invariably, being rejected. When Garp submits The Pension Grillparzer, one magazine responds:

“The story is only mildly interesting, and it does nothing new with language or with form. Thanks for showing it to us, though.”

Ouch.

Fifteen years later Garp publishes his third novel, and the same editor writes a very flattering letter inviting him to send over any new writing for consideration. Garp’s reply?

“I am only mildly interested in your magazine, and I am still doing nothing new with language or with form. Thanks for asking, though.”

In the real world, it’s rarely worth burning writing bridges like this – yet it’s gratifying to imagine just how you might do it if the opportunity ever comes your way….

In the meantime, published writers by definition must submit their work – even if it means facing rejection.

4. Writing books isn’t the same as selling books

Writing takes talent and effort in roughly equal measure. Selling books also takes talent and effort – yet commercial and creative endeavours are usually quite distinct, at least when it comes to writing. For Garp, what bridges the two worlds is a brilliant editor.

That isn’t to say that John Wolf, Garp’s editor, is uncritically supportive. He takes one look at Garp’s novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, and exclaims, “How can there be any more of this? There is entirely too much of it as it stands!”

Wolf is finally able to translate Garp’s demands for the book into a publishing success story. He knows his markets and – more importantly – he understands what readers want, and that’s half of the value of a good editor.

John Wolf also reveals another literary truism: readers read “To find out what happens”, not because they believe in ‘art’ or literary bells and whistles. Many writers dream of transforming language like James Joyce – but to sell books, commercially sensitive feedback is key.


The World According to Garp, by John Irving

Quoted edition published by Black Swan, 2010

Other books like The World According to Garp
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany (same author)
  • The Shining (writing metaphors)
  • On Writing, by Stephen King (lessons for writers)
  • Goodbye to Berlin (observational fiction, cities)

Picture credit: Florian Klauer