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Hysterical Realism

Hysterical realism is a genre of fiction, coined by James Wood. It refers to novels that he found to be absurdly elaborate in their use of characters and plots and that delve into real-life experiences.

The term was coined as a pejorative to describe a particular type of contemporary novel that, as Wood put it, turned “fiction into social theory.” Wood cites American authors Don DeLillo, a playwright, short story writer, and novelist who wrote about everything from nuclear war to sports, and Thomas Pynchon, a novelist who wrote about history, mathematics, and more,  as the originators of the genre. Both of these novelists have work that has been noted for its dense and complex prose

Hysterical Realism Definition and Examples

Hysterical Realism Definition

Hysterical realism is a genre of literature that, as James Wood describes, tries to tell readers “how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.”

As noted above, the genre name was coined as a pejorative. It was meant to negatively categorize certain novels for their attempts to speak about life in a totalizing way. Not every reader is going to feel the same way that Wood does about the novels he defined. Below are a few examples of novels that have been cited as hysterical realism.

Examples of Hysterical Realism Literature 

The following novels have been described as hysterical realism, but it is up to readers to decide whether or not they meet the criteria or should be critiqued in this very specific way. 

White Teeth by Zadie Smith 

White Teeth was cited by James Wood in his first essay about hysterical realism. In the essay, he referred to the novel, and others, as “big” and “ambitious” in a way that is detrimental to the overall effect of the book. The novel was published in 2000 and focuses on the lives of Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones. It won everything from the Betty Trask Award to the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Here is a quote from the novel: 

If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.

Zadie Smith wrote in response to James Wood’s critiques of her novel that he was “painfully accurate” in regard to the “sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others[…]” She also spoke about the difficulties of classifying novels within specific, confining genres, adding that the terms are aways “too large a net.” They sometimes land quite well, catching what they are supposed to, but not always. 

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie 

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is another novel that has sometimes been cited as an example of hysterical realism. It was published in 1981 and depicted India on its road to independence from British colonial rule. The novel has also been cited as an example of the magical realism genre. Here is a quote from the novel: 

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.

The book won numerous prizes, including the Booker Prize. It was also noted as one the list of one of the “best-loved” novels in the UK. 

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex is a well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published in 2002. The best-selling book is based on Eugenides’ personal experiences and heritage. It is a coming-of-age story that focuses on an intersex protagonist. Here is a quote:

 I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand different matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair-cut and getting born.


What are the characteristics of hysterical realism

Hysterical realism is a hard genre to define. It is based around James Wood’s perception of the contrast between elaborate prose and descriptions of real-life events. He found used the genre name as a pejorative. 

Is hysterical realism good? 

The genre was coined to critique a group of novels that Wood found to be attempting to turn fiction into social theory. As with all genre names, it is hard to fit books into one category or another, especially when it is so broad. 

Who coined the term hysterical realism?

The genre name hysterical realism was coined by James Wood in 2000 in an essay he wrote about Zadie Smith’s novel, White Teeth. In it, he discussed what makes a novel hysterical realism

What is Zadie Smith’s writing style?

Her writing has been described as witty, thoughtful, engaging, and reflective. She often contends with difficult and complex topics in her novels that affect readers on different levels. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • American Realism: a style of writing, music, and art during the 20th century in the United States, specifically in New York.
  • Dirty Realism: a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.
  • Expressionism: a literary and artistic reaction against realism and naturalism. Writers were interested in emotion and psychology.
  • Magical Realism: a genre of fiction writing that is interested in imbuing the modern realistic world with magical, fantastical elements.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.

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