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 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 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 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 some 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, and Don DeLillo's treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra.
- History of modern literature
- Literary theory
- American realism
- Magic realism
- Literary realism
- Genre studies
- Realism (arts)