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 totalizing 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 colonization 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.).
Some books described as examples of hysterical realism are:
- Pynchon, Thomas (1973). Gravity's Rainbow.
- Rushdie, Salman (1981). Midnight's Children.
- Wallace, David Foster (1996). Infinite Jest.
- Delillo, Don (1997). Underworld.
- Pynchon, Thomas (1997). Mason and Dixon.
- Rushdie, Salman (1999). The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
- Smith, Zadie (2000). White Teeth.
- Eggers, Dave (2000). A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
- Fuguet, Alberto (2000). The Movies of My Life.
- Franzen, Jonathan (2001). The Corrections.
- Eugenides, Jeffrey (2002). Middlesex.
- Kleeman, Alexandra (2015). You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.
- American realism
- Genre studies
- Literary realism
- Literary theory
- Magic realism
- Realism (arts)
- Yates, Elliot J. (May 2014). The Other Side of Realism: David Foster Wallace & The Hysteric's Discourse (PDF) (B.A. thesis). University of Melbourne.
- Wood, James (24 July 2000). "Human, All Too Inhuman: On the formation of a new genre: hysterical realism". The New Republic.
- 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.
- Pégon, Claire (2005-10-15). "Madelena Gonzalez. Fiction after the Fatwa - Salman Rushdie and the Charm of Catastrophe". E-rea. Revue électronique d'études sur le monde anglophone. 3 (2). ISSN 1638-1718.
- Zalewski, Daniel (2002-12-15). "The Year in Ideas; Hysterical Realism". The New York Times.
- Wood, James (20 November 2000). "Hysterical realism". Prospect Magazine.
- "We had to get beyond irony: How David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and a new generation of believers changed fiction". Salon. 2016-03-28. Retrieved 2020-10-13.
- "The Movies of My Life". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-10-13.
- Gilmartin, Sarah (21 March 2013). "You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine review: Suffering single white females". The Irish Times. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
- Chotiner, Isaac (26 June 2018). "How the New Yorker's Literary Critic Approached Writing a Novel of His Own". Slate Magazine.
- Derbyshire, Jonathan (9 December 2009). "The hysteric moment". Global Current Affairs, Politics & Culture.
- Hallberg, Garth Risk (13 January 2012). "Why Write Novels at All?". The New York Times.
- Hanson, Matt (10 January 2020). "James Wood and the Art of Criticism". The American Interest.
- Ihara, Nathan (17 June 2009). "How Fiction Works: King James and the Battle for the Novel". LA Weekly.
- Kirsch, Adam (4 June 2015). "Joshua Cohen, Great American Novelist, IRL". Tablet Magazine.
- Konstantinou, Lee (28 March 2016). "We had to get beyond irony: How David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and a new generation of believers changed fiction". Salon.
- Lorentzen, Christian (2 July 2015). "The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace". Slate Magazine.
- McDermott, Alice (10 September 2013). "'Someone' Quietly Mesmerizes With Intimate, Ordinary Story". NPR.
- Miller, Daniel (28 February 2009). "Clearing away dead Wood?". Prospect Magazine.
- Wood, James (7 June 2018). "Mannered, Pretty 'Upstate' Is Quiet To A Fault". NPR.