Irving achieved critical and popular acclaim after the international success of The World According to Garp in 1978. Some of Irving's novels, such as The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have been bestsellers and many have been made into movies. Several of Irving's books (Garp, Meany, Widow) and short stories have been set in and around Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire where Irving grew up as the son of an Exeter faculty member, Colin F.N. Irving (1941), and nephew of another, H. Hamilton "Hammy" Bissell (1929). (Both Irving and Bissell, and other members of the Exeter community, appear somewhat disguised in many of his novels.)
Irving was in the Exeter wrestling program under Coach Ted Seabrooke both as a wrestler and as an assistant coach, and wrestling features prominently in his books, stories and life.
He also won the 2000 Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for his script The Cider House Rules.
Irving's career began at the age of 26 with the publication of his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. The novel was reasonably well reviewed, but failed to garner much of an audience. In the late 1960s, he studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. His second and third novels, The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage, were similarly received. At around this time, in 1975, Irving accepted a position as Assistant Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.
Frustrated at the lack of promotion his novels were receiving from his first publisher, Random House, Irving chose to offer his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1978), to Dutton, which promised him stronger commitment to marketing. The novel became a big international bestseller and cultural phenomenon, and was a finalist for the American Book Award (now the National Book Award) for hardcover fiction in 1979 (the award went to Tim O'Brien for Going After Cacciato). Garp won the National Book Foundation's award for paperback fiction the following year. Garp was later made into a film directed by George Roy Hill and starring Robin Williams in the title role and Glenn Close as his mother; it garnered several Academy Award nominations, including nominations for Close and John Lithgow. Irving makes a brief cameo in the film as an official in one of Garp's high school wrestling matches.
Garp transformed Irving from an obscure, academic literary writer to a household name, guaranteeing bestseller status for all of his subsequent books. The first of these was The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), which sold well despite receiving mixed reviews by critics and, like Garp, was quickly made into a film, this time directed by Tony Richardson and starring Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Beau Bridges.
In 1985, Irving published The Cider House Rules. A sprawling epic centered around a Maine orphanage, the novel's central topic is abortion. Perhaps the most obvious example of Charles Dickens's influence on Irving's writing, many have drawn parallels between it and Dickens's Oliver Twist, which both begins similarly and likewise treats of orphanhood. Irving followed it in 1989 with A Prayer for Owen Meany, another New England family epic centered around themes of religiosity. Again, the main setting is a New England boarding school, and inspirations for the characters can be found in many of Irving's influences, including The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the works of Dickens. In Owen Meany, Irving for the first time examined the consequences of the Vietnam War - particularly mandatory conscription, which Irving avoided since he was already a married father and a teacher when eligible for the draft. Owen Meany became Irving's bestselling book since Garp, and is now a frequent feature on high school English reading lists.
Irving returned to Random House for his next book, A Son of the Circus (1995). Arguably his most complicated and difficult book, and a departure from many of the themes and location settings in his previous novels, it was dismissed by critics but became a national bestseller on the strength of Irving's reputation for fashioning literate, engrossing page-turners. Irving returned in 1998 with A Widow for One Year, which was named a New York Times Notable Book.
In 1999, after nearly ten years in development, Irving's screenplay for The Cider House Rules was made into a film directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Delroy Lindo. Irving also has a cameo appearance as the disapproving stationmaster. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Irving an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Soon after, Irving wrote My Movie Business, a memoir about his involvement in creating the film version of The Cider House Rules. After its publication, Irving appeared on the CBC Television program Hot Type to promote the book. During the interview, Irving criticized bestselling American author Tom Wolfe, saying Wolfe “can’t write,” and that his writing makes Irving gag. Wolfe appeared on Hot Type later that year, calling Irving, Norman Mailer and John Updike his “three stooges” who were panicked by his newest novel, A Man in Full.
When The Fourth Hand was published in 2001 it became a bestseller. A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, a children's story originally included in A Widow for One Year, was published as a book with illustrations by Tatjana Hauptmann in 2004. Irving's most recent novel, entitled Until I Find You, was released on July 12, 2005.
On June 28, 2005, The New York Times published an article revealing that Until I Find You contains two specifically personal elements about his life that he has never before discussed publicly: his sexual abuse at age 11 by an older woman, and the recent entrance in his life of his biological father's family.
In recent years, his three most highly regarded novels, The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have been published in Modern Library editions. Owen Meany was adapted into the film Simon Birch (Irving disowned this adaptation, going so far as to request that all of the characters' names be changed for the film version). In 2004, a portion of A Widow for One Year was adapted into The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.
|Title||New England||Prostitutes||Wrestling||Vienna||Bears||Deadly accident||Absent Parent||Sexual variations|
|Setting Free the Bears|
|The Water-Method Man||adultery|
|The 158-Pound Marriage||swinging, ménage à trois, adultery|
|The World According to Garp||asexualism, rape, pedophilia, transsexualism, swinging, adultery|
|The Hotel New Hampshire||rape, gang rape, older woman/younger man, incest, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality|
|The Cider House Rules||lesbianism, adultery, rape, incest|
|A Prayer for Owen Meany||asexualism, incestuous desires|
|A Son of the Circus||transsexualism, homosexuality|
|A Widow for One Year||older woman/younger man, rape|
|The Fourth Hand|
|Until I Find You||older woman/younger man, lesbianism|
A literary technique that is often used by Irving is the story within a story. In addition, his novels have a character who is a writer.