Hysterical realism  

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"It is interesting to note that hysterical realism resembles an older, more established literary tradition: the classic Russian novel. The works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as others, are long epic books about a large ensemble of characters. The prose in these novels is rich and thick, going into extreme detail about all manner of things." --Sholem Stein

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Hysterical realism, also called recherché postmodernism or maximalism, is a literary genre typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization and careful detailed investigations of real specific social phenomena.

The term was coined by the critic James Wood in an essay on Zadie Smith's White Teeth, titled "The Smallness of the 'Big' Novel: Human, All Too Inhuman", which appeared in the July 24, 2000 issue of The New Republic and was later reprinted in Wood's 2004 book, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. 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 survives 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, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, and Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man and Moby-Dick. Even 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.

It is interesting to note, additionally, that hysterical realism resembles an older, more established literary tradition: the classic Russian novel. The works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as others, are long epic books about a large ensemble of characters. The prose in these novels is rich and thick, going into extreme detail about all manner of things.

Authors described as hysterical realists

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hysterical realism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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