John Irving, by all accounts a sensitive and likable fellow, appears to be encountering the cruelest lesson that America teaches to writers who achieve enormous success: The price of it is very high. Irving does not present an appetizing spectacle as he flounders about in the limelight, careening wildly from ardent defense of his literary purposes to equally ardent pursuit of the fruits of celebrity.
"The Hotel New Hampshire," Irving's fifth novel, has just been published; like much of his previous work, it deals in a frequently comic way with family matters. The reviewers have been mixed but generally respectful; that respect acknowledges the position Irving earned by writing "The World According to Garp," one of the few American novels of the postwar years that stands a reasonable chance of being read for a few decades. What for the most part the reviews have declined to say -- whether out of good manners or timidity or whatever else, who knows? -- is that some of the respect Irving won with "Garp," he has forfeited with "Hotel." It is a novel designed more to please his large cult than to move his writing in new and interesting directions.
It's difficult to avoid the conclusion, after reading all the defenses and explications of the novel that Irving has offered in newspaper and magazine interviews, that he may be no less aware than anyone else of the novel's yawning weaknesses: its aimless plotting, its gratuitous and meaningless violence, its sophomoric, crypto-Vonnegutian aphorisms -- most of all its blind, relentless borrowing from "Garp." He has set up an elaborate apologia on the novel's behalf, evidently designed to anticipate and disarm the objections of reviewers; it consists of a condescending delineation of the novel's themes -- as if any mildly acute sixth-grader couldn't spot them -- and a plea that the reviewers are out to get him.
Maybe they are. There's an old authors' complaint that reviewers envy writers their successes and yearn to punish them. There may be some truth to it; the scalpels and hatchets always seem freshly sharpened for the book that follows a writer's first major commercial success. But in making this complaint, Irving and other writers fail to acknowledge a companion truth: that successful books often are followed by failures.
It's as simple as that; no reviewers' conspiracy is involved. For one thing, a book as good as "Garp" raises expectations that any writer would be hard-pressed to meet. For another, when a writer becomes a celebrity, he loses the privacy and solitude so essential to concentration on serious work. For yet another, the writer is faced with an exceedingly strong temptation to feed his readers the same meal once again, hoping that they will consume it with the same great pleasure that they did the first.
This I think is what John Irving has done, though I do not believe he set out to do so. It is evident from his interviews that Irving has a deep need to please and is eager for praise. The kind of adulation he received because of "Garp" must make him feel very good and must be difficult to let go; "Hotel," a book so damned "nice" you want to kick it in the pants, seems to me an effort to curry some more of that devotion, to lure to the Irving doorstep in bucolic Vermont some more wide-eyed and worshipful pilgrims from the Land of Nod.
But the meal that was so rewarding the first time is mere mush the second. The themes Irving explored so inventively in "Garp" -- violence, danger, familial and communal love -- are simply rehashed in "Hotel." Worse, the novel has a cute, cloying tone that for me finally became unbearable; Irving's aphorisms are just the right length to be displayed on T-shirts ("Sorrow floats"; "You've Got to Get Obsessed and Stay Obsessed"), and they express precisely the right sentiments, and soon, no doubt, they will be worn by sophomores from coast to coast.
"Hotel" is a bighearted, gooey lump of a book, yet such is the nature of the great American success machine that it has received far more attention in advance of publication than did "Garp." The success machine, like so many of the prizes we bestow, is always a few steps behind the beat; thus Faulkner won a Pulitzer for his worst novel, "A Fable," while its great predecessors went unread. Now Time magazine, which failed to rouse itself for "Garp," puts Irving on the cover for "Hotel." Now Irving is in great demand for the television shows, the personality magazines, the babblers and the gabblers -- all are hot on his trail.
And Irving is leading them a merry chase. He has a word for every scrivener, a hearty pose for every photographer. He is the point man for a phalanx of promotion and publicity. And who can blame him? Listen, we are talking about very, very big money, hundreds of thousands of dollars -- hell, sooner or later millions -- for a writer whose first three novels made beelines for the remainder tables, a writer who was admired by a small circle of readers but was otherwise almost totally unknown. Irving has earned his big payday; who can blame him for wanting to make it just a little bit bigger?
So on and on he goes, to the interviews and the receptions and the television shows and the publication parties. It is all very heady and it can all be very destructive. It has everything to do with commerce and nothing to do with art. It is also an old story, going back at least as far as Jack London, perhaps our first literary celebrity. In a novel called "Martin Eden," based closely on his own life, he told the story of a writer who, after years of neglect and penury, at last strikes it rich. He is feted and lauded at a men's-club banquet, where he thinks:
"My God! and I was hungry and in rags . . . Why didn't you give me a dinner then? That was the time. It was work performed. If you are feeding me now for work performed, why did you not feed me then when I needed it? . . . No you're not feeding me now for work performed. You're feeding me now because everybody else is feeding me and because it is an honor to feed me. You are feeding me now because you are herd animals; because you are part of the mob; because the one blind, automatic thought in the mob-mind just now is to feed me. And where does Martin Eden and the work Martin Eden performed come in all of this?"
That novel was published in 1909. More than seven decades later it remains the definitive depiction of the perils that await the author who trips giddily into celebrity. I wish Irving would consider the lessons it offers him, the central one being: Now that all this money is in the bank, get back to serious work before it's too late.