Hysterical Realism

White Teeth

Hysterical realism, also called ‘recherché postmodernism,’ is a term coined in 2000 by the English critic James Wood in an essay for ‘The New Republic’ on Zadie Smith’s novel ‘White Teeth’ to describe what he sees as a literary genre typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization and careful, detailed investigations of real specific social phenomena.

Wood uses the term to denote the contemporary conception of the ‘big, ambitious novel’ that pursues ‘vitality at all costs’ and consequently ‘knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being.’ He decried the genre as an attempt to ‘turn fiction into social theory,’ and an attempt to tell us ‘how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.’ Wood points to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon as the forefathers of the genre, which continues in writers like David Foster Wallace and Salman Rushdie.

In response, Zadie Smith described hysterical realism as a ‘painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own ‘White Teeth’ and a few others he was sweet enough to mention.’ Smith qualified the term, though, explaining that ‘any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna.’

Wood’s line of argument echoes many common criticisms of postmodernist art as a whole. In particular Wood’s attacks on DeLillo and Pynchon clearly echo the similar criticisms that Gore Vidal and other critics lodged against them a generation earlier. The ‘hysterical’ prose style is often mated to ‘realistic,’ almost journalistic, effects, such as Pynchon’s depiction of 18th century land surveys in ‘Mason & Dixon,’ Don DeLillo’s treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald in ‘Libra,’ or Robert Clark Young’s treatment of the arcana of U.S. Navy life in ‘One of the Guys.’

This extravagant treatment of everyday events can be found in the work of earlier authors, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita,’ Harry Stephen Keeler’s meganovels such as ‘The Box from Japan,’ and Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ novels. Earlier precursors include ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne, often cited as the first postmodernist novel, and ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ by Robert Burton. A less ‘hysterical’ version of such a juxtaposition of essay and narrative passages can be found in the work of Milan Kundera.

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