Even John Irving's mother has come to expect the lurid elements of her son's work. "Christ! Another dildo?" she exclaimed when presented with an excerpt from the writer's novel-in-progress, A Widow for One Year. "I tried to explain to her that there were differences among dildos, and that a dildo from a previous novel and a current novel are not the same," Irving said on the West Coast leg of a recent tour introducing his book (as yet without a publisher) and the upcoming film productions of The Cider House Rules and A Son of the Circus.
Irving eschews Ernest Hemingway's approach: Write what you know. This conviction has left him free to explore life beyond the pale: In The World According to Garp, a group of women cut out their tongues in empathy for a rape victim; in The Hotel New Hampshire, a brother and sister enjoy an incestuous relationship; and the pint-sized Christ figure in A Prayer for Owen Meany saws off his best friend's trigger finger to make him ineligible to fight in Vietnam.
The 55-year-old New England native is opinionated and passionate about his métiers -- writing and wrestling -- and he uses each to explore the world of rules, manners, and civility, and the consequences of breaking social codes.
Q: You view censorship as an oppressive, puritanical practice. Considering the violence in your books, you clearly have a stake in this issue.
A: You can't say you're going to ban something in the name of good taste, because then you have directed someone to play the role of good-taste police. We permit bad taste in this country. In fact, we even encourage it -- and reward it in all manner of ways.
Moreover, it's magical thinking to imagine that the reason unspeakable things are being perpetrated by younger and younger people is that they've fallen under the influence of seductive, lascivious, prurient, and violent material in books, films, television.
It seems to me that a great deal of this type of censorship has to do with absolving parents of responsibility -- parents who just plop their kids in front of the television and leave them there hour upon hour.
If you feel so strongly about what's on television, don't have one. If you feel strongly about people having abortions, don't have one. But we are a country that likes to be punitive. We want to restrict. It is a kind of religious fervor run amuck.