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Scott Lax Blog

John Irving on Being Serious

I recently read a short interview with the great novelist John Irving, author of such books as "The World According to Garp," "Cider House Rules," and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I admire Irving for many reasons. One is that he successfully writes literary fiction and it sells. That's no small accomplishment, and no accident. Irving believes in story telling; he has as his influences Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville. Like them, Irving manages to combine wonderful language with intricately plotted stories.

Too often today, fiction may be considered literary when its language is lovely or creative, but its plot almost non-existent, muted, or small. Plot-driven fiction, of the type by masters of that craft such as James Patterson, is filled with clunky, clichéd, sometimes awful writing, though the plots may be interesting and fun for readers. I can't handle them -- the writing is just too lazy. Still, I give that kind of book (and author, or teams of writers in some cases) credit for their plots. But that's about it.

There has to be a middle ground: one that contains the flowers of literary writing and the food of plot. John Irving inhabits that middle ground, that place, that island, and I'm glad of it. He writes beautifully and weaves intricate plots; he shows there is still a market for that kind of writing.

Daniel Stashower asked Irving, in AARP magazine, "What does 'Woe to him that seeks to please rather than to appal!' -- a quote from "Moby Dick" -- mean in your own work?"

"Be serious," Irving replied. "Life hurts. Reflect what hurts. I don't mean that you can't also be funny, or have fun, but at the end of the day, stories are about what you lose."

I agree with Irving. You can be funny, but life is serious business. If you want to be a serious writer -- and this is what I tell my students -- you need to shine a light into dark corners. That means you may find some gnarly things there, things that are hard to look at, much less write about. One corner may be clean and bright, but another may be filled with loss, grief, and hurt. That's where serious writing comes in. You have to be willing to go there, to show those corners, to write from deep in your soul, and do so in a way that brings the comfort and joy of expert story telling to your readers.

Irving does that. If you read his novels, you may laugh until you cry. And then you may cry. Yet you'll come out of his novels knowing more about the human condition. I think that's the finest thing an author can do for his or her fellow human beings.  Read More