The Aesthetics of Accessibility: John Irving and the Middlebrow Novel after 1975

Print Friendly

In John Irving's The World According to Garp (1978), the aspiring young author T.S. Garp submits his story "The Pension Grillparzer" to the scrutiny of his first love, aspiring literary scholar Helen Holm, and wins her hand in marriage. Thus made confident in the quality of his work, he also submits the story to a literary magazine, but receives a note of rejection stating that "the story is only mildly interesting, and it does nothing new with language or form."  Upon reading this note, both Garp and his mentor and English teacher, Old Tinch, suffer from a hefty dose of puzzlement. The latter suggests that the magazine may be seeking "newer fiction" to publish, but he professes not to understand what this "newer fiction"  that is, fiction "about it-it-itself" or "fiction about fi-fi-fiction"  is "really about."1  "Old" Tinch, whose name is no coincidence, thus characterizes "newer" or modernist fiction as primarily, even narcissistically, self-referential; his stutter, moreover, simultaneously renders such an aesthetic program defective, if not grotesque.

When, fifteen years later, Garp has become a bestselling author and the same magazine asks for a contribution, he retaliates by replying that he is "only mildly interested" in the magazine and "still doing nothing new with language or form,"2 a defense of his writing that defies modernism's (supposed) imperative to "make it new" in formal terms.3 Thus, as T.S. Garp matures as a man and writer over the course of the novel, modernist aesthetics  or what is polemically misread as modernist aesthetics evolves, in his own mind, from a form of writing of which he is hardly aware to a coherent movement that he considers "true" literature's adversary.  The rejection and ironization of modernism and, simultaneously, the formative power of modernism as the Other against which Garp defines his work are inscribed into his very name: his initials are those of one of modernism's most formidable figures, yet at the same time they are an abbreviation for "technical sergeant," the military rank of Garp's father. While the name "T.S. Garp" thus ironizes the fashionable mannerism of Eliot's use of the abbreviation, as well as the supposed ethereal refinement of his work, Garp  although transforming writing into a more down-to-earth technical craft  cannot do without the "T.S.," or without modernism.

Such "[s]cenes of opposition between modernism and the middlebrow," Tom Perrin has recently argued, "are characteristic, even defining, features of middlebrow novels" and "imply an opposition between modernism and maturity."4 Most importantly, by pitting itself against modernism, American middlebrow literature in the middle of the twentieth century defined its own aesthetic project consciously and coherently. Instead of striving to "make things new" on the level of language and form, middlebrow authors saw themselves as "remaking existing literary genres by adapting them to the conditions of modernity."5 One of the genres that middlebrow authors "remake" is the bildungsroman. Writing against modernist "anti-bildungsromane," epitomized by James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), these novels propose that "aesthetic experience might remain a guide to ethical life."6

John Irving's The World According Garp, I demonstrate in this essay, does exactly that. It can be read as a middlebrow bildungsroman  yet as a late-century postmodern one. Published in 1978, Garp does not simply emulate the midcentury middlebrow bildungsroman. The novel uses an indictment of modernism as a springboard, but it goes on to develop its own middlebrow aesthetics and ethics, and it takes on postmodernism, too. With regard to the present joint effort to "invent the middlebrow" to freshly consider the middlebrow field of inquiry the case of John Irving and his first bestseller allows me to make a broader intervention: I suggest that there is a distinct class of popular writing in the last quarter of the twentieth century that can usefully be described as middlebrow and that is also shaped by its relationship to postmodernism. Or, to put it another way: US American middlebrow writing did not "decline" after the midcentury, but in fact lived on, adapted to a new era.7

Outsiders to the field of middlebrow studies might not find it all that surprising that in a society with a strong middle class the middlebrow arts should have a perennial presence. The field of middlebrow studies at the present moment seems to suggest the opposite, however. The period between 1975 and the turn of the century has not been the focus of studies on the middlebrow and, in fact, Tom Perrin's recent, groundbreaking study on the aesthetics of the midcentury middlebrow novel may even  if inadvertently  suggest that the 1960s and early 1970s sounded the death knell for middlebrow literature. The middlebrow was first described as an emergent formation of the interwar period in England and the US8 and has been conceptualized in its midcentury formation, particularly in the US context, with studies usually breaking off in the 1960s.9 Perrin, taking his analysis into the year 1975, demonstrates how midcentury middlebrow aesthetics informed postmodernist writing and suggests that the middlebrow gave way to a popular postmodernism that had a similarly broad appeal. On the other hand, a lot of attention has recently been paid to what Beth Driscoll has termed the "new literary middlebrow" in the twenty-first century,10 a massive transformation of reading and book culture through digital technology and global media corporations that resulted in "the emergence of new literary institutions which at least superficially resemble aspects of the historical middlebrow."11

I read Irving's work as one piece of evidence that middlebrow literature continued to thrive between 1975 and the new millennium, when it was thought to have disappeared, and to sustain a tradition that can be traced back into the nineteenth century while remaking its aesthetic program for the conditions of postmodernity. My broad argument in this essay is that Garp integrates modernist and postmodernist techniques, as well as a progressive politics, into a realist narrative, but voids them of their function, which is usually to destabilize the relation between text and world and to undo the traditional social order. Instead, Garp contains such techniques in a grand récit of individual uplift and familial restoration governed by a strong authorial voice. The strand of middlebrow writing that I am tracing into the last quarter of the twentieth century is, hence, a strand that is characterized by middlebrow literature's most critically suspect trait: its oscillation between progressive ideas and a conservatism that ultimately leaves "social structures' legitimating belief system" in place.12 Given the conservative backlash that the US experienced politically in the 1980s, it may not be surprising that middlebrow literature from the late 1970s onwards captured and shaped these corresponding structures of feeling.

Middlebrow literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century remains a white spot on the map. Future discussions may find that Irving has predecessors, such as Joseph Heller or his mentor Kurt Vonnegut, who used postmodernist techniques to middlebrow ends; that contemporaries like Richard Brautigan or Anne Tyler engaged in ideological pursuits like Irving's, but within updated realist frameworks; or that he shares much with authors such as Barbara Kingsolver or Anita Shreve, who began publishing in the late 1980s to sketch just a tip of the iceberg of middlebrow literature between 1975 and the advent of the "new literary middlebrow." In this essay I take The World According to Garp as one possible entryway into this uncharted territory although there are surely a great number of others. I do so for three reasons.

First, the novel has a particular place in American literary history: Garp was not just popular but, as contemporary commentators had it, a "cultural phenomenon": it was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1979, sold 3 million copies after its release as a paperback in 1980, won the National Book Award in paperback in that year, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 25 weeks, and was adapted for the screen in a 1982 film.13 Moreover, the country was swept by what has been described as "Garpomania," a cult of the novel that found its expression in Garp t-shirts and other merchandizing avant la lettre.14 It was culturally important, and my reading of it as a manifesto for the ongoing need for middlebrow literature may help explain why the novel resonated so strongly with a broad and passionately engaged readership.

Second, Garp may be the novel of the period that most self-consciously proclaims the ongoing relevance of an (updated) middlebrow aesthetic program. In the two scenes I related at the beginning of this essay, for instance, Garp declares its own aesthetics in opposition to modernism and thus very explicitly fashions itself both as an heir to the midcentury middlebrow tradition and as a literature very different from modernism's heir, postmodernism. Garp's career as a writer, moreover, mirrors Irving's own career up to and including Garp. Garp's bildung can thus also be read as a mise en abyme for Irving's as I do in this essay.15

Third and relatedly, John Irving spelled out his own aesthetic program immediately after the publication of Garp in three essays, entitled "The Aesthetics of Accessiblity: Kurt Vonnegut and his Critics," "In Defense of Sentimentality," and "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed."16 While Irving never uses the term "middlebrow," he outlines and valorizes an aesthetic that exactly fits the bill of the middlebrow tradition.  Hence, he can be seen as one of the late-twentieth century's most eloquent spokesmen for the middlebrow. He defends "readability," declares entertainment and catharsis to be the goals of good literature, and argues for the need of a moral vision in any work of fiction.17 Novels should "make us wish we were better," and sentimentality "bath[ing] the heart in tears" should teach the reader to access her innate decency, kindness, and generosity.18 Most notably, Irving advocates for a novelistic form he dubs "responsible soap opera."19 Though Irving develops such aesthetic ideals in discussing and defending the work of Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Dickens, his three essays can, in fact, be read as a summary defense of his own writing in Garp and his following novels. One of the reasons why Irving has never been discussed as a middlebrow author may be that he used his non-fiction effectively to align himself with Dickens, who wrote before the so-called "great divide"20 and is generally viewed as a "classic," as well as with Vonnegut, an author seen as postmodern.21

There are two possible reasons why Irving, at this particular moment in time, might have needed to explicitly assert the robustness of the middlebrow tradition, in fiction as well as non-fiction. One is autobiographical: trained at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, Irving had published three critically acclaimed but largely unread postmodernist novels since 1968. In the attempt to reinvent himself as a popular author of realist fiction, he may have felt the need to explicitly negotiate and justify his own shift from postmodernist writing to a middlebrow aesthetics adapted to postmodern times. His subsequent novels of the 1980s The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules (1985), and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) can be characterized as more straightforwardly realist and do not employ or grapple with post/modernist techniques to the extent Garp does. In that sense, Garp and Irving's critical essays may be seen as the late-1970s manifesto that allowed him and other middlebrow authors to adopt an updated realist framework for writing after postmodernism. The second reason is that, as Tom Perrin has shown, works of popular postmodernism from Nabokov to Pynchon dominated the bestseller lists in the 1960s and early 1970s.  The publication of Garp in 1978 may be seen as the moment when middlebrow writers began a counterattack against a literary formation that had taken over what had previously been "their" segment of the market  by incorporating, even "cashing in" on, postmodernist techniques while at the same time re-functioning them to middlebrow ends.

In the remainder of this essay, I will describe Garp's re-functioning of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics for a middlebrow bildungsroman. In a first step, I look at what is middlebrow about Garp, and how modernism and postmodernism are conceptualized or, in Perrin's words, "productively misread" to serve as the middlebrow's Other within the novel.22 I then focus on its use of modernist and postmodernist techniques and its containment of progressive politics within a conservative master narrative, particularly in its treatment of feminism and feminists. In a last step, I will demonstrate that a symptomatic reading of Garp as opposed to a middlebrow reading can uncover the text's suppressed ideological maneuvers. As Garp is, indeed, trying to suppress its own patriarchal, conservative underpinnings, the novel does not subscribe to an "aesthetics of disavowal."23 The novel thus differs significantly from the midcentury middlebrow epics that Tom Perrin discusses and that, as he argues, give way to a popular postmodernism in the 1960s and 1970s. Garp and Irving's oeuvre as a whole demonstrate that there is more than one strand of middlebrow literature that emerges after midcentury: middlebrow literature did evolve into popular postmodernism, but in another incarnation it also revitalized the bildungsroman tradition.

Garp as a Middlebrow Bildungsroman for Postmodernity

It is easy to see that Garp follows the conventions of a bildungsroman. It tells the story of its protagonist from his birth (even from his conception) to the end of life (and the end of the lives of his progeny). It models the successful integration of its protagonist into society and thus serves as a training field for its reader. The bildungsroman is a quintessentially middlebrow genre: it offers the reader a "sentimental education,"24 and this specific didactic impetus the pragmatic advice on "the business of living,"25 brought home through the text's work on the reader's affects is typical for middlebrow literature.26

But Garp shares a number of other characteristics with the middlebrow more generally. The novel centrally treats private issues like courtship, childrearing, and relationships between family members and is predominantly set in small-town New Hampshire, for instance. It thus displays an acute personalism and localism that been have described as hallmarks of the middlebrow.27 Because the novel's protagonist writes from a family home, is his children's primary caretaker, and oversees the domestic chores, it also resembles the domestic novel, the female bildungsroman. The middlebrow is typically both "female" (in subject matter and reader address) and "feminized" (in terms of extrinsic judgment).28 The World According to Garp also partakes in the middlebrow as a progressive tradition that harks back to political sentimental fiction of the mid-nineteenth century.29 To note only a few elements that challenge the traditional social order (though only to firmly reinstate it on another level), Garp features Jenny Fields, a single mother by choice; Robert/a Muldoon, a male-to-female transsexual; and, of course, Garp, who takes on a number of traditionally feminine roles, bends gender through cross-dressing, befriends Roberta, and, in consequence, defines "family" in terms of elective affinities rather than blood relationships.

The middlebrow aesthetics that Garp eventually embraces and that Garp embodies may be called, in Irving's own words, a democratic "aesthetics of accessibility."30 The ethics or "vision"31 that characterizes Garp's life and Irving's writing is one of familial belonging, "common decency," and hopefulness.32 The mature man and writer Garp, who eventually finds his place as an unalienated individual in postmodern times, is shown to be "full of sympathy," and he and his work have become "a soft touch in the real world."33 To become "a soft touch in the real world" is, moreover, an apt image for the goal of the sentimental education in middlebrow aesthetics and ethics with which the novel provides its readers.

Through confronting contemporary challenges to the social order, particularly to gender roles and boundaries, Garp thematically takes the bildungsroman into the postmodern era, but I also argue that the novel positions itself against a postmodernist aesthetics and ethics. As Tom Perrin has pointed out, the term "postmodern" might "no longer a critically useful category,"34 because categories that sought to differentiate modernism and postmodernism, such as Brian McHale's epistemological versus ontological dominant, have meanwhile collapsed.35 I am holding onto the concept, however, because Garp is clearly writing against an aesthetic formation that the text suggests is contemporary but that looks a lot like an extension of modernism.  Postmodernism in this essay, then, is a descriptor for the "other" aesthetics against which Garp pits its own aesthetic philosophy. This "other," contemporary aesthetic is seen in Garp as another stage in a tradition of ostensibly "difficult," inaccessible, and ethically irrelevant literature against which the middlebrow tradition has defined and continues to define itself.


Garp and Modernist Technique

I have opened this essay by citing two scenes in Garp where modernism is cast as the middlebrow's Other because these moments typify the way in which the novel engages with and integrates elements of both modern and postmodern literature. First of all, Garp and Old Tinch intuitively cast modernist aesthetics as opaque, and Garp eventually comes to reject the proponents of a modernist aesthetics for their pretensions. The novel has its characters discuss the opposition between post/modernism and the middlebrow on the level of plot: modernist as well as postmodernist aesthetics, it should be stressed, are more of a thematic than a formally manifest concern in Garp.

But second, the scenes show that Garp does integrate post/modernist techniques on a formal level, too, and thus occasionally goes beyond a discussion of post/modernism within the storyworld. The scenes also suggest to what end Garp employs such techniques, when it chooses to do so. For one, by including such meta-reflections on writing and the novel at all, Garp asks the questions of the modernist künstlerroman, even if to modulate the answers. Moreover, the naming of T.S. Garp and the title of his rejected story brim with intertextual references and meta-reflexive irony. In addition to the play with "technical sergeant," his controversial conception and naming are also connected to Randell Jarrell's poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Franz Grillparzer and his novella "The Poor Fiddler," moreover, function as young Garp's antipodes.36 Where Garp integrates such "modernist" intertextuality, however, it adds no layer of meaning to the text. Irving's novel, indeed, is postmodernist in this sense: for those readers who can decode the references, they create gratuitous postmodern textual "jouissance"37 and, simultaneously, middlebrow "reverence" for Irving's craft in weaving this intertextual web.38 For those readers who miss the references, however, no meaning is lost: the novel still functions as an effective sentimental education on the relationship between reader, characters, and author and on how to live a better life. And those readers who momentarily might have abandoned themselves to the pleasure of the "texte scriptible" cannot overlook or ignore the dominant structure of a coherent narrative of uplift that is adorned, rather than shaped, by post/modernist textual play. Modernist technique, in other words, is here employed inconspicuously: its elements potentially add a position from which the text can be approached through postmodernist textual "pleasure," but meaning and the novel's sentimental didacticism are carried by its realist narrative.

Another case where non-realist technique adds an entertaining rather than meaning-making layer to the text is Garp's use of Eliot's "mythical method" which, in Eliot's mind, superseded the "narrative method" of realism.39 Garp's various stories of rape, rescue, and subsequent transformation take Ovid's Metamorphoses as their structural pre-text; the story of Philomel relates directly to the story of Ellen James.40 Ellen James is raped and her rapists, like Philomel's brother-in-law Tereus, cut her tongue out unaware that at eleven years old, Ellen can write and thus accuse them of their deed, just as Philomel could weave and thus communicate her story to her sister Procne. Towards the end of Garp, Garp adopts Ellen James, makes her part of his family, and enables her to express herself in poetry and thus brings about an Ovidian transformation. Yet again, the reader does not need to understand the reference to the pre-text to understand Ellen James' story and her role in the novel, but can, if s/he recognizes it, take pleasure in the text and pride in her or his own learnedness. The connection of Garp to T.S. Eliot, which is once more underlined by the use of the myth of Philomel in both Garp and The Waste Land (in "A Game of Chess"), similarly creates intertextual complexity and a potential occasion for "jouissance" for the reader, without creating a surplus of meaning. Irving tips his hat to Eliot's "mythical method," but remains firmly loyal to realism's "narrative method."

An even more striking case of modernist intertextuality or postmodernist pastiche, for that matter is the inclusion of Garp's stories and parts of his novels in the narrative.41 Embedded in Garp, the reader finds Garp's first story "The Hotel Grillparzer," the story "Vigilance," with which he unsuccessfully tries to free himself from writer's block after the publication of his second novel, and the first chapter of Garp's third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, which he writes after the accident that kills his son Walt and leaves his older son, Duncan, with only one eye. These fictions within the fiction, however, stand by themselves with regard to plot: they do not comment or relate to events much less propel them in the narrative of Garp's life. On the level of implicit meta-poetic commentary, these fictions within the fiction may be seen as having an important function within the novel, because they illustrate Garp's writing. However, the reader gets a rather precise idea of the different stages of his writing even without those samples: they are amply discussed by the narrator and in dialogues between Garp and other characters in the framing narrative.  In other words, Garp remains a fully transparent and effective narrative even if the reader skips over the embedded fictions. Once again, what Irving is doing here, with regard to modernist and realist aesthetics, is to "have [his] cake and eat it, too" within a middlebrow aesthetics that registers and integrates other literary modes that challenge it, but stays loyal to accessible, realist authorial narration and thus re-functions these modes towards its own ends.42


Garp and the Postmodernist Mode

Garp's registering and re-functioning of techniques that I would identify as specifically postmodernist are, once more, played out predominantly on the thematic rather than formal level. Raymond Wilson has argued that Garp is a postmodern novel because it reuses "previous forms" in the manner of a Barthian "literature of replenishment."43 He convincingly suggests that "Garp recapitulates within itself a history of the twentieth-century novel" the education of Garp, in other words, is mirrored by what may be called the education of the novel.44 The text shifts from "an early twentieth-century mode" of the modernist bildungsroman to "a midcentury novel of manners, a section of Garp that approximates the aura of an Updike novel or Cheever story" to a "postmodern mode."45 Yet the "mode" to which Wilson refers is created by theme rather than formal technique.

The first part of Garp is set in Steering, the boarding school where Garp and his mother live until his graduation, and in Europe, where they start their writing careers. In virtue of these settings and stories of initiation into sex, death, and literature Garp resembles the modernist bildungsroman. Similarly, Garp and Helen's early married life and their infidelities characterize the middle section of the novel and make it thematically akin to Updike or Cheever. The last part, which begins with the car accident and ends with Jenny's and Garp's assassinations, represents Garp's world as full of fear and paranoia, allegorized by the figure of the "Under Toad." Garp's writing mirrors these stages in the history of the novel, too. As the reader can gather from narratives included in the text and the commentary on the ones that are not included, Garp's writing is influenced by these stages thematically, but like Irving's maintains a realist-mimetic technique and an overtly chronological narration throughout. Procrastination, his first novel, is set in Vienna during WWII and, according to one review cited in the text, "encompasses the longings and agonies of youth"; it is thus related to the bildungsroman and "European" modernism.46 Second Wind of the Cuckold, then, is a thinly disguised parody of Garp's and Helen's mid-marriage affairs a comedy of manners. His third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, tells the story of a detective whose wife was raped and murdered and who spends the rest of his life watching out for Hope Cavendish, who barely escapes murder after being raped.  Raping and killing are staged for the reader in spectacular, unsparing detail; in fact, the rapist's dead body, splayed out in the driver's cabin of his truck, is described in terms of a macabre piece of art. This third novel is thus set in a world seen through a postmodern lens in which images of violence become mere simulacra while also hewing to the brutality typical of the genre of hardboiled detective fiction, thereby merging "high" and "low" in a postmodernist gesture.

With each novel, Garp suggests, Garp has consciously tried to amend previous shortcomings. He comes to see his first, historical novel as deficient because it strays too far from his own experience; his second, too close to autobiography, does not transform personal experience into a "better" story by the power of imagination and is thus, ultimately, doomed to irrelevance. In his own and most of his readers' view, The World According to Bensenhaver is his "truest" and most relevant novel because it is based on experience transformed by the imagination, but it lacks the "soft touch" of imagining the possibility of a slightly better world, or the "soft touch" of a hopeful ending even though its main character is called Hope. Bensenhaver, which promises the reader masochistic pleasure but no redemption, may be seen as Garp's "popular postmodernist" novel. After Bensenhaver's best-selling success, Garp experiences his longest period of writer's block, precisely because he lacks access to humanity's shared goodness, which is necessary to imagining a hopeful ending.

In the remaining third of Garp, Garp eventually breaks free from his block by republishing his very first story. Irving performs with Garp an aesthetic and ethical return to "The Pension Grillparzer," which is also a return to the form of the middlebrow bildungsroman, updated to present conditions. "The Pension Grillparzer" is re-published with illustrations contributed by Garp's son Duncan. Not coincidentally, this piece of writing is instrumental in emotionally knitting together the Garp family throughout Garp's life. It first wins Helen's hand and then projects Garp into a future lineage of artists by providing ten-year-old Duncan with his first opportunity to go public as the illustrator and painter he grows up to become. The republication and filial rejuvenation of "The Pension Grillparzer" renew not only Garp, the writer, but also Garp, the man, husband, and father. Not coincidentally either, the story paratextually pays homage to Franz Grillparzer; thus looking backward in history rather than forward it makes Garp an heir to a genealogy of great writers. Garp then begins writing his fourth novel, My Father's Illusions, and finally achieves maturity as a writer, striking the balance between memory and imagination, despair and kindness, critical acclaim and commercial success. What Garp consciously writes against in this novel, which depicts a father's attempts to make the world safe for his children, is the postmodern fragmentation of the world that can no longer be held together by a grand récit and the fragmentation of the individual that can no longer attain wholeness through aesthetic Bildung.

The dynamics of Garp's development as a writer simultaneously make for Garp's postmodernity and middlebrowness. In providing constant commentary on Garp's writing, Garp implicitly critiques the twentieth-century novel at large and can thus be seen as postmodern "historiographic metafiction," recalibrating the history of the novel.47 Garp's development, however, goes beyond the postmodern and, as I argue, the mature Garp emerges as a postmodern middlebrow writer. Granted, Garp cannot finish his novel: he is killed by a radical feminist. In this way, postmodern violence and paranoia seem to call into question whether the creation of a successful middlebrow work of art in postmodern times is viable after all whether a novel can, in fact, take on postmodernism and at the same time promise uplift and provide a sentimental education.

If, however, the character Garp is cut short before narratively overcoming postmodern violence and disintegration in My Father's Illusions, the author Irving programmatically offers a grand récit of an ordered world, individual wholeness, and successful sentimental Bildung with Garp itself a fourth novel just like Garp's. By way of its title, The World According to Garp, Irving's novel paratextually reaches beyond Garp's popular success with The World According to Bensenhaver and his adoption of an anti-modernist stance.48 The World According to Garp is thus suggested to the reader as a counterpart to Garp's My Father's Illusions that leads Irving's work to its logical anti-postmodernist conclusion outside of the story world. Garp (almost) and Garp (successfully) develop a middlebrow aesthetic beside and beyond postmodernism. As Irving signals paratextually that his novel reaches beyond the character Garp's aesthetic vision in Bensenhaver so his narrator's story reaches well beyond Garp's violent, "postmodern" death: the narrator's omniscient power concludes the narrative, accounts for each character, and projects their lives into a hopeful future in a long epilogue.

One might argue, however, that Garp displays other postmodern characteristics that escape eventual containment within a middlebrow realist narrative. Kim McKay has demonstrated that the conflict between memory and imagination with which Garp has to struggle in his writing is mirrored by the conflicting voices that the narrator adopts that of the biographer and that of the fiction writer.49 The voice of the biographer is characterized by dwelling on dates and historical facts of Garp's life and by quoting from a variety of sources: letters to and from Garp, reviews of his work, and excerpts from what is supposedly Garp's unpublished journal. The voice of the fiction writer or narrator is characterized by instances of interiority. It is clear from the start that this narrative voice is omniscient, as there are multiple internal focalizers. Moreover, the narrator employs what Elke Weiß has called the Dickensian "Dear reader" gesture: there are long stretches of overt "telling" and judging interspersed within a more covert "showing" of events.50 The explicit double-voicedness that Garp exhibits could be read as a way in which the novel, in postmodern fashion, questions the ontological status of fiction.51 Moreover, in representing Garp's bildung as a writer, Garp as I have shown above makes almost excessive use of fictions within fiction, and could thus similarly be read as undermining the novel's referentiality.

Instead of using these metafictional strategies to lay bare the text's artificiality and suggest its non-referentiality, I argue that Irving employs them to the opposite effect. The tension between the referential voice of the biographer and the imaginative voice of the narrator is, indeed, rather pronounced at the beginning of the novel. McKay and Weiß also suggest that, because the autobiographer's voice returns in the epilogue, the tension is sustained throughout the novel. The autobiographer's "quoting" voice, however, only returns at the epilogue's very beginning and, I suggest, does so only in order to showcase the way in which the novel resolves the potential separation of fiction and the real world.  "An epilogue," the narrator quotes Garp, "in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future."52 The narrator goes on to trace the life stories of all characters that played a part in Garp's life until their end and allows only the youngest member of Garp's extended family, Jenny Garp, to survive the end of the narrative. He provides this information in the mode of the omniscient, authorial narrator who can represent the interiority of all of his characters. By way of Garp's quip about epilogues and by "wrapping up the past" through projection into the future, the text suggests a relationship between fiction and the world that is less concerned with whether fiction can grasp and represent reality meaningfully than with its capacity to imagine a "future," better world. Garp's self-declared function, then, is not to represent a copy of reality, but to represent and imagine reality in such a way that it can model a better reality for the reader or, in the postmodern paranoid version put forward by Garp, to "warn" him or her about the future. Sentimental didacticism rather than the truthful representation of the world as a novelistic goal is underlined by the narrator's "Dear Reader" mode. Fact and fiction, in this view, are not opposed, but in fact need to be integrated into both art and life: life, if lived according to Garp's sentimental education, will reward one with a good ending, just like it does characters in Garp's fictional world.

Similarly, the interpolation of fictions within fiction does not destabilize the status of the novel as a relevant intervention into reality. Specifically, Irving relates his novel (The World According to Garp) to the novel within the storyworld of Garp (The World According to Bensenhaver) by way of its title, a paratext that by its very nature is related to the "real-world" author rather than to the narrator. Moreover, Irving establishes parallels between his own writing and Garp's My Father's Illusions, for instance, clearly anticipates Irving's own novel The Hotel New Hampshire (1981). Thus, Irving's fifth novel exists in the storyworld of Garp.  By nesting the real world into his fictional one in a gesture of postmodernist play while adhering, formally, to a mimetic-realist mode and authorial narration, Irving creates a seamless connection between the real and the fictional world rather than questioning their relation. In the same way, he also represents narrator, characters, author, and readers as part of one affective community a hallmark of middlebrow literary practices.53

In The World According to Garp, the effects of modernist and postmodernist technique such as the creation of more complex meaning through intertexts and a destabilizing of the referential character of narrative are contained or neutralized by the "embracing tone of voice"54 and vision of the omniscient narrator who can "imagin[e ...] the whole"55 and weave it into one seamless, hopeful narrative. Garp is as "accessible" as it is, and can usefully be described as postmodern middlebrow, because post/modernist formal experiment never overwhelms or makes illegible the chronological narrative of bildung.


Garp's Progressivism and Conservative Containment

Progressive rather than formally experimental elements of Garp are neutralized in a similar fashion: through the ordering vision of the authorial narrator. Jenny Fields, for instance, becomes a feminist icon, but does so against her will, as the authorial narrator stresses while reporting her thoughts.56 She conceives of her best-selling autobiography A Sexual Suspect not as a feminist statement, but as a defense of her own, private choice to live without a husband and still have a child, and "never wholly understood how 'political' a book it was or how it would be used as such as book."57 Similarly, Garp rejects political interpretations of his private life. When an interviewer suggests that Garp has learned a lesson from his feminist mother and adopted a feminine role for himself, Garp protests: "'I'm doing what I want to do ... Don't call it by any other name. I'm just doing what I want to do and that's all my mother ever did, too. Just what she wanted to do."58 The authorial narrator does not undermine this statement in any way. Living out progressive gender roles is cast in Garp as a personal choice, not a political act. Testing out progressive "politics" in the private realm while disavowing their larger societal implications, or folding progressive politics safely back into a larger conservative narrative, has been seen as typical of middlebrow literature. Lauren Berlant's account of the project of "liberal national sentimentality" captures the exact ideological dynamics that Garp performs. Those subscribing to this sentimental and, I would claim, middlebrow project "become public on behalf of privacy and imagine that their rupture of individuality by collective action is temporary and will be reversed once the national world is safe, once again, for a return to personal life." Garp and characters such as Jenny Fields engage in a "sentimental politics" whose goal is, in fact, its own eradication.59

In Garp, the notion that living out alternative gender roles is a personal, unproblematic, unpolitical choice is made convincing because, as Marilyn French has stressed, "according to Irving [the world] is on the whole a lovely place... The important people in this world are essentially androgynous, capable of living out all parts of themselves...Since it is androgynous, Garp's world is also a place of sexual equality."60 In this world of sexual equality, Garp, Jenny, Helen, and transsexual Robert/a Muldoon do not meet with any rejection by their families or society because of their non-traditional choices. Their choices, in fact, become problematic for them only when they are instrumentalized politically by feminist activists: Jenny is killed by a husband who did not appreciate his wife's feminist awakening after reading A Sexual Suspect, and Garp is killed by a feminist because Garp is cast by activists as a misogynist who perfidiously uses his feminist mother as a cover-up for his sexual crimes. Feminist activism is rendered an extremist aberration, and it convincingly comes across as such in a world without apparent gender discrimination, which is imagined by Garp's narrator and evoked through realist aesthetics. This authorial narrator's vision thus invalidates the perspective of feminist activists in the novel, while allowing for progressive gender roles only within a clearly delimited field. As the epilogue suggests on the level of discourse, and as Garp's vision of a father making the world safe for his children suggests on the level of story, alternative gender roles can be lived out only in the realm of an elected, patriarchally oriented family, in which living out one's individuality always contributes to a familial sense of belonging for all.


Reading Garp Symptomatically

If we read Garp in the middlebrow fashion that the novel itself prescribes, the personal remains personal and signifies a realm of harmony and belonging. If we trust the authorial narrator's voice and take the "world according to the novel" as a meaningful representation of the real world despite all postmodernist ontological doubt, the political, in turn, becomes disruptive, extremist, and violent. Yet I want to suggest that Garp also allows for more academic ways of reading. Unlike the middlebrow epics of the midcentury, which Tom Perrin has claimed exhibit the chasm between reality and the texts' utopian hopeful endings openly and build on their readers' capacity for "disavowal," Garp works hard to conceal exactly that chasm. Because Garp integrates modernist and postmodernist elements and welds them together through a realist narrative, then, the novel cannot but create what Janice Radway has termed "ideological seams."61 Opening up those seams through more "academic" modes of reading, as I will do in a moment, can potentially undo the androgynous world according to Garp. Since the novel privileges a middlebrow mode of trustful reading, however, these seams should not be seen as automatically unravelling and "subverting" the authorial narrator's overall conservative vision.

Garp's use of the Philomel myth, mentioned above, is one example of the novel's integration of techniques that challenge the realist paradigm and may threaten the author's unifying vision of the textual world. The myth provides an intertext not only for the story of Ellen James, but also for the group of Ellen Jamesians activists who have cut out their tongues in order to "speak" that which cannot be spoken and condemn the act of rape. These activists group around Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, and start to employ terrorist means as a response to rape. They live in a revengeful, murderous sisterhood similar to that of Philomel and Procne: they try to make men pay for sexual crimes, and Garp becomes their target. Yet while Ovid saves and transforms the sisters (along with the rapist Tereus) into birds, Garp does not save and transform the Ellen Jamesians. In a symptomatic reading, this emerges as a telling variation from the pre-text and may help critique Garp's problematic "feminism." The novel does not redeem the Ellen Jamesians in fact, they eventually kill Garp. Hence, at the end of the novel there is no sense that anything productive, anything that positively transforms society, will ever come out of Ellen Jamesian activism a fact that stands out harshly and reveals the exclusionary undercurrent of Garp's creation of a harmonious post-gender and, hence, post-feminist world if read against the Ovidian pre-text. The "mythical method" thus potentially does create new meaning in Garp as it does in modernist texts, but in doing so it pulls against the unifying voice of the authorial narrator that the novel urges the reader to trust and follow and that a reader committed to middlebrow modes of reading will trust and follow. A similar case could be made with regard to the novel's excessive use of mise en abyme.

In the last analysis, however, Garp in middlebrow fashion provides readers with a sentimental education in how to read the novel: to take narrator and author as one's undeceiving interlocutors and the storyworld as the real world, in which characters model fulfilling ways of living. The novel ends with the narrator's epilogue, in which he accounts for every character in the novel and thus like Garp in his last novel "imagines the whole, sad histories of his fictional family."62 Because Garp purports to represent real life, each character eventually dies, but the novel concludes happily nevertheless. Its ending is not tentatively happy or open: it is overtly hopeful and assures the reader that if we have "energy" that is, if we live purposefully and in contexts of familial belonging death is defied: it is defied through lives lived meaningfully and through lives that beget new life, as that of Jenny Garp, who lives on as the novel ends. Meaning and belonging are within our grasp, the novel suggests, if we only try hard enough. Garp here rather overtly activates the middlebrow ideology of possessive individualism. Such optimism does not appear suddenly, as a deus ex machina to heal the wounds of the postmodern condition, but as the ethics toward which Garp has labored throughout the years of his bildung and which the reader finally reaches, too.

Tom Perrin has argued that the middlebrow bildungsroman of the midcentury features ambivalent but hopeful endings, which have been criticized as contrived because they allow for imagining truly happy endings. The middlebrow aesthetics of hopeful endings rested on the reader's willingness to disavow the complexity of the real world these novels were representing. Perrin has suggested, moreover, that due to the increasing tension between the representation of a complex world and hopeful endings, "disavowal" became more precarious, and the viability of the middlebrow insistence on such hopeful endings slowly disintegrated as the 1960s drew to a close. The middlebrow, in this reading, was replaced by "the full-scale fetishism of popular postmodernist fiction" by the likes of Thomas Pynchon or John Barth.63

My reading of Irving as a writer who integrates postmodern challenges into a narrative that is ultimately controlled by an authorial voice and that can still come to a hopeful ending has demonstrated, however, that there is another direction in which the middlebrow turns during the 1970s. Garp, I want to suggest, specifically works to overcome the tentativeness, the contradictions, and the fragile "aesthetics of disavowal" that characterize the midcentury middlebrow novel refracted through modernism.64 It does so by narrating its hero's successful "sentimental education" and his emergence as an unalienated individual within a clearly defined space in family and society, while incorporating and confronting the formal as well ethical challenges of postmodernism and the postmodern era. The novel thereby harks back to earlier twentieth-century incarnations of the middlebrow and updates them in the face of postmodernist fragmentation, despair, and paranoia.  In so doing, it proposes what Irving himself has called an "aesthetics of accessibility" that implies a moral vision.65 Instead of giving way to popular postmodernism, The World According to Garp remakes the form of the midcentury middlebrow novel to withstand relinquishment of the possibilities of novelistic referentiality and aesthetic education.

Birte Christ is Assistant Professor of American Literature and Culture at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Germany, and currently a Feodor Lynen Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at Amherst College. She has published Modern Domestic Fiction (2012), which treats women's serial novels and their role in the construction of a middlebrow feminism and middlebrow tastes in the early twentieth-century US.

I would like to thank Leonie Schmidt for sharing her research on Irving with me and prodding me to overcome my (unreflective, highbrow) misgivings regarding his work; see Regina Leonie Schmidt, "Families by Choice? Friendship and Belonging in the Novels of John Irving" (M.A. Thesis, University of Gießen, 2013).

  1. John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 181. []
  2. Ibid., 182. []
  3. See Tom Perrin, The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction: Popular US Novels, Modernism, and Form, 1945-75 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 2. For a longer discussion of the modernist discourse of the "new" and its impact on middlebrow literature in the early twentieth century, see Birte Christ, Modern Domestic Fiction: Popular Feminism, Mass-Market Magazines, and Middlebrow Culture (Heidelberg: Universitätverlag Winter, 2012), 35-45. I am speaking here of modernism's "supposed" imperative to "Make it new!" because, as Michael North has recently shown, the slogan was not known to, much less consciously adopted by, modernist writers during the first half of the twentieth century. Rather, this injunction was picked "out of the welter of Pound's prose for the first time" by Hugh Kenner in 1950 and became an "all-purpose label for modernist novelty" in scholarship in the years that followed. Michael North, Novelty: A History of the New (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 169. "Make it New!" is a retrospective, 1950s attribution of a rallying cry to the modernist movement, but its currency in academic criticism at midcentury can explain why American middlebrow authors at that time misread modernism, as Perrin suggests, as a movement that was primarily interested in formal innovation to the detriment of accessibility and coherence. []
  4. Perrin, The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction, 1. []
  5. Ibid., 2. []
  6. Ibid., 14. []
  7. Ibid., 15. []
  8. Monographs and collections that emphasize the middlebrow as a formation of the 1920s and 1930s include Joan Shelley Rubin's and Janice Radway's studies, which were foundational in the US context: Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992) and Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). See also Nicola Beauman, A Very Great Profession: the Woman's Novel 1914-1939 (London: Virago, 1983), Amy Blair, Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s, ed. Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003), Rosa Maria Bracco, Betwixt and Between: Middlebrow Fiction and English Society in the Twenties and Thirties (Parkville: University of Melbourne Press, 1990) and Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1993), Christ, Modern Domestic Fiction, Julia Ehrhardt, Writers of Conviction: The Personal Politics of Zona Gale, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Rose Wilder Lane, and Josephine Herbst (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), Faye Hammill, Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture Between the Wars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), Jaime Harker America the Middlebrow: Women's Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship between the Wars (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), and Transitions in Middlebrow Writing, 1880-1930, ed. Kate MacDonald and Christoph Singer,  (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2015). []
  9. For conceptualizations of the midcentury middlebrow that break off around 1960, see, for instance, Middlebrow Literary Cultures: The Battle of the Brows, 1920-1960, ed. Erica Brown and Mary Grover  (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2012), Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Gordon Hutner, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 (Charlottesville: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), Lise Jaillant, Modernism, Middlebrow, and the Literary Canon: The Modern Library Series, 1917-1955 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014), Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945 - 1961 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), Vanessa Künnemann, Middlebrow Mission: Pearl S. Buck's American China (transcript, Bielefeld, 2015), and Ruth Pirsig Wood, 'Lolita' in 'Peyton Place': Highbrow, Middlebrow, and Lowbrow Novels of the 1950s (New York: Garland, 1995). []
  10. Beth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). []
  11. David Carter, "Middlebrow Book Culture," in Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture, ed. Laurie Hanquinet and Mike Savage (New York: Routledge, 2016), 362. Other studies that look at the phenomenon of the new literary middlebrow include Timothy Aubrey, Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for the Middle Class (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), Jim Collins, Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), Cecilia Konchar Farr, Reading Oprah: How Oprah's Book Club Changes the Way America Reads (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah's Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), Danielle Fuller and DeNel Sedo Rehberg, Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture (New York: Routledge, 2013), Theodore G. Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), and John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Polity, 2010). []
  12. Janice Radway, "The Utopian Impulse in Popular Literature: Gothic Romances and 'Feminist' Protest," American Quarterly 33, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 161. []
  13. The Critical Response to John Irving, ed. Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack (Westport: Praeger, 2004), 1. []
  14. R. Z. Sheppard, "Life into Art," Time Magazine, August 1981, 50. []
  15. My argument that the character Garp can be read as the author Irving, particularly with regard to his function as a model middlebrow writer, seems to go not only against Irving's own assertion that "there is very little relationship between Garp's early writing career and mine," but also against his suggestions as to how his novels and fiction in general should be read: there should be no short circuit between author and characters.  See, for instance, Michael Priestley, "An Interview with John Irving," New England Review, January 1979, 490; Larry McCaffery and John Irving, "An Interview with John Irving," Contemporary Literature 23, no. 1 (Winter 1982): 2-4; and John Irving, "The World According to Garp: An Afterword," The World According to Garp (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 611. Reading Garp as a model of how Irving would like to see himself and be seen as an author, and thus as autobiographical in that sense, however, is suggested by the text itself and, for Irving, may even fall into the realm of imaginatively "improving" on autobiographical facts or using the autobiographical in such a way that it accrues meaning beyond the autobiographical, in this case outlining an aesthetic program for his own work and, by extension, for the contemporary novel. []
  16. John Irving, "The Aesthetics of Accessiblity: Kurt Vonnegut and his Critics," The New Republic, September 1979; John Irving, "In Defense of Sentimentality," New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1979; John Irving, "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed," New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1982. []
  17. Irving, "Aesthetics," 42. []
  18. Ibid., 44. []
  19. Ibid., 48. []
  20. See Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986). []
  21. Only Jane Hill Bowers mentions the "problem with middlebrow fiction" in her appreciation of John Irving, but does not go on to claim Irving as a middlebrow author, in "John Irving's Aesthetics of Accessibility: Setting Free the Novel," The South Carolina Review 16, no. 1 (1983): 40-41. While the link is not central to the goal of thinking about middlebrow literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century, this essay does also link existing scholarship on Irving to the field of middlebrow studies for the first time. Although John Irving has combined critical acclaim and commercial success over the past four decades, scholarly work on his novels is comparatively sparse. This, of course, might in itself be seen a telltale piece of circumstantial evidence that suggests that John Irving has always implicitly been seen as "just" a middlebrow writer. The existent criticism generally falls into two categories: there are studies that admiringly or depreciatingly try to explain his popular success, and studies that explicitly or implicitly try to "elevate" Irving to the status of postmodern writer. Criticism on John Irving, in this sense, displays exactly the tension between the postmodern and the popular that Garp negotiates. Without the conceptual category of the middlebrow, however, the postmodern and the popular in Garp and Irving's other works remain irreconcilable for this criticism. The scholarly work on John Irving comprises three early book-length appreciations of his writing that focus on themes and the relation of Irving's work to his autobiography, one critical companion for high-school use, two monographs published in 2002 and 2011 (one of them in German), and two volumes that collect the critical response to John Irving. Of the latter, Todd Davis and Kenneth Womack's volume assembles mainly reviews, while Harold Bloom's edition of eleven scholarly articles, published in 2001, collects virtually all the in-depth scholarship that has been published on Irving outside of monographs. See Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson, John Irving (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986), Gabriel Miller, John Irving (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982), Edward C. Reilly, Understanding John Irving (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), Josie P. Campbell, John Irving: A Critical Companion (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998), Elke Weiß, John Irving und die Kunst des Fabulierens (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2002), Bouchra Belgaid, John Irving and Cultural Mourning (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011), The Critical Response to John Irving, ed. Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack (Westport: Praeger, 2004), and John Irving, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001). Examples of studies that try to explain Irving's popular success are Joseph Epstein, "Why is John Irving So Popular?" in John Irving, ed. Harold Bloom, 39-47, and Bowers, "John Irving's Aesthetics of Accessibility," 38 - 44; examples of studies that analyze Irving as a postmodern writer are Raymond J. Wilson III, "The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World According to Garp," Critique 34, no. 1 (Fall 1992): 49-62 and Kim McKay, "Double Discourses in John Irving's The World According to Garp," Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 457-75. []
  22. Perrin, Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction, 2. []
  23. Ibid., especially 91-108. []
  24. With Janice Radway, I understand middlebrow fiction as essentially didactic, providing readers vicarious experiences and functioning as training field for navigating both the modern world and literary culture.  See Radway's A Feeling for Books, especially 261-263, and Christ, Modern Domestic Fiction, 51-61. Radway takes her concept of "sentimental education" from Clifford Geertz's study of the Balinese cockfight, but she also seems indebted to Bourdieu's reading of Flaubert's L'Èducation sentimentale in The Rules of Art. See Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996). []
  25. Dorothy Canfield, quoted in Jennifer Parchesky, "The Business of Living and the Labor of Love: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Feminism, and Middle-Class Redemption," Colby Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2000): 29. My use of "pragmatic advice" is intentional, as middlebrow didacticism is directly connected with pragmatist philosophy and the notion of "art as vicarious experience." See Jaime Harker, "Progressive Middlebrow: Dorothy Canfield, Women's Magazines, and Popular Feminism in the Twenties" in Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s, ed. Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith (Boston: Northeastern University Press,  2003), 114 and America the Middlebrow, 8-19. []
  26. See, for instance, Klein, Cold War Orientalism, 64; Jennifer Parchesky, "'You Make Us Articulate': Reading, Education, and Community in Dorothy Canfield's Middlebrow America" in Reading Acts: U.S. Readers' Interactions with Literature, 1800-1950, ed. Barbara Ryan and Amy M. Thomas (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002), 236; see also Christ, Modern Domestic Fiction, 54-57. []
  27. Radway, A Feeling for Books, 178-79. []
  28. Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow, 29. []
  29. Harker, America The Middlebrow, 1-21. []
  30. John Irving, "The Aesthetics of Accessibility," 41-49. []
  31. Compare Irving praising Kurt Vonnegut's moral "vision" via John Gardner, "The Aesthetics of Accessibility," 45, and Priestley's reference to Irving's "personal vision" in "An Interview," 495. []
  32. Irving has repeatedly embraced "decency" as a "cause" and "literary theme"; he adopts the term "common decency" from Kurt Vonnegut, see "The Aesthetics of Accessibility," 46; elsewhere he speaks of "human decency." See for instance, John Irving, "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed," 23. []
  33. Irving, Garp, 564. []
  34. Perrin, Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction, 111. []
  35. On the distinction see Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987), 9. []
  36. See Irving, Garp, 31, 125-129, and 138. It is notable that, as is the case with "T.S." Eliot, Garp cannot do without his supposed antipode "Grillparzer." Moreover, it might be argued that the young Garp mistakenly distances himself from Grillparzer while he and Irving in fact share a great number of similarities with Grillparzer, for instance with regard to the Austrian author's conflicting leanings towards both conservative and progressive ideas or his veneration of the baroque and siglo d'oro literature. Garp thus ironically plays with the modernist and middlebrow anxiety of influence. One could argue that calling the novel's main character "T.S." even works to confirm a middlebrow aesthetics because, as Tom Perrin has argued, T.S. Eliot can be seen to have eventually renounced the modernist "aesthetics of indeterminancy ... [as] a symptom of, rather than a solution to, the problems of modern life." Perrin, The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction, 13. []
  37. See Roland Barthes's differentiation between plaisir and jouissance in Le Plaisir du Texte (Paris: Éditions Seuil, 1975); in Le Plaisir, Barthes also distinguishes between the readerly and the writerly text, which arguably Garp as a middlebrow künstlerroman is trying to bridge. []
  38. On "reverence" towards literature as a posture central to middlebrow literary culture, see Driscoll, New Literary Middlebrow, 21-23. []
  39. T.S. Eliot, "Ulysses, Order, and Myth," in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt, 1975): 178.  See also Denis Donoghue, "Yeats, Eliot, and the Mythical Method," The Sewanee Review 105, no. 2 (Spring, 1997): 206-226, here especially 207-208. []
  40. See also Miller, John Irving, 113-114, Harter and Thompson, John Irving, and Campbell, John Irving, 82-86. []
  41. See also McKay, "Double Discourses," 461-465. []
  42. Priestley, "An Interview," 497. []
  43. Wilson, "The Postmodern Novel," 50. []
  44. Ibid., 53. []
  45. Ibid., 53, 55, 57. []
  46. Irving, Garp, 197. []
  47. See Linda Hutcheon, The Poetics of Postmodernism (New York, Routledge, 1988), especially 105-123. []
  48. Since titles, as well as other paratexts, can be seen as originating with the author of a novel rather than with its narrating voice(s), we can attribute this move of "reaching beyond" the modern middlebrow to Irving himself without lapsing into the easy autobiographical criticism that both Garp, the writer, and Irving, the writer, reject as "beside the point." John Irving, "The World According to Garp: An Afterword," The World According to Garp (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 611. []
  49. See McKay, "Double Discourses." []
  50. Weiß, John Irving, 58. []
  51. See McHale, Postmodernist, 9. []
  52. Irving, Garp, 567. []
  53. On this sense of a community among readers, authors, and middlebrow mediators that mirrors the dynamics of readers' identification with fictional characters, see Christ, Modern Domestic Fiction, 25, 57-61; see also Harker, America the Middlebrow, 3; Klein, Cold War Orientalism, 65; and Parchesky, "'You Make Us Articulate,'" 229-258. []
  54. Irving, Garp, 160. []
  55. Ibid., 564. []
  56. Ibid., 185 and 488. []
  57. Ibid., 185-186. []
  58. Ibid., 188-189. []
  59. Lauren G. Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 22. []
  60. Marilyn French, "The Garp Phenomenon," in The Critical Response to John Irving, ed. Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack (Westport: Praeger, 2004), 75. []
  61. Janice Radway, "Identifying Ideological Seams: Mass Culture, Analytical Method, and Political Practice," Communication 9, no. 1 (1986), 93-123. []
  62. Irving, Garp, 564. []
  63. Perrin, The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Literature, 136. []
  64. Ibid., especially 91-108. []
  65. John Irving, "The Aesthetics of Accessibility," 41-49; see also Bowers, "John Irving's Aesthetics of Accessibility" and Donald J. Greiner, "Pynchon, Hawkes, and Updike: Readers and the Paradox of Accessibility," The South Carolina Review 16, no. 1 (1983): 45-50. []