Hysterical realism, also called recherché postmodernism, is a term coined in 2000 by English critic James Wood to describe what he sees as a literary genre typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization, on the one hand, and careful, detailed investigations of real, specific social phenomena on the other.
Wood introduced the term in an essay on Zadie Smith's White Teeth, which appeared in the July 24, 2000 issue of The New Republic. Wood uses the term pejoratively 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 readers "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, Wood says, in writers like David Foster Wallace. 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 [Wood] 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.” She also noted “David Foster Wallace's mammoth beast Infinite Jest was heaved in as an exemplum, but it is five years old, and is a world away from his delicate, entirely ‘human’ short stories and essays of the past two years, which shy away from the kind of totalising theoretical and thematic arcs that Wood was gunning for. If anyone has recently learned a lesson about the particularities of human existence and their separation from social systems, it is Wallace.”
Wood's line of argument echoes many common criticisms of postmodernist art generally. In particular, Wood's attacks on DeLillo and Pynchon clearly echo similar criticisms other critics had already lodged against them a generation earlier. The "hysterical" prose style is often paired with "realistic"—almost journalistic—effects, such as Pynchon's depiction of 18th century land surveys in Mason & Dixon, and Don DeLillo's treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra. Yet as Zadie Smith notes, “People continue to manage this awesome trick of wrestling sentiment away from TV's colonisation of all things soulful and human, and I would applaud all the youngish Americans - Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace, Eggers, Moore - for their (supposedly) small but, to me, significant triumphs. They work to keep both sides of the equation - brain and heart - present in their fiction. Even if you find them obtuse, they can rarely be accused of cliché...” (op. cit.)
List of books often associated with Hysterical Realism
Some books described as examples of hysterical realism are:
- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
- Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
- Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
- Underworld by Don Delillo
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
- The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- History of modern literature
- Literary theory
- American realism
- Magic realism
- Literary realism
- Genre studies
- Realism (arts)
- James Wood, "Human, All Too Inhuman," The New Republic Online
- Smith, Zadie (2001-10-13). "This is how it feels to me". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-03-21. and archived.
- "The Hysterical Realism Reading List". ANOBIUM. Retrieved 2018-09-21.
- DANIEL ZALEWSKI (2002-12-15). "The Year in Ideas; Hysterical Realism". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-09-21.