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James Woods, Zadie Smith, and “Hysterical Realism”

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James Woods, a esteemed literary critic, made headlines in 2004 by denouncing Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer as a form of “hysterical realism:”

Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page. There is a pursuit of vitality at all costs. Recent novels by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and others have featured a great rock musician who played air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck and a giant octagonal cheese (Pynchon); a nun obsessed with germs who may be a reincarnation of J Edgar Hoover (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec who move around in wheelchairs (Foster Wallace); and a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with the silly acronym Kevin (Smith).

While I personally loathe Jonathan Safran Foer’s work, I am a bit uneasy about the idea that the novel can’t be messy, expansive, and above all have a postmodern sensibility. Thoughts?

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Written by Adam Elkus

October 21, 2008 at 7:23 am

3 Responses

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  1. From what I know, Woods’ problem with “hysterical realism” is not so much with messiness or expansiveness as a stylistic/structural means, but with the fact that said messiness and expansiveness oftentimes comes at the expense of basic pathos and pure storytelling. He writes in his TNR essay that the typical maximalist novel “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being.” In other words, the work of Pynchon and DeLillo may be formally adventurous and comically discursive, but offers little insight on the human condition–a traditional element of the American novel.

    After Foster Wallace died I re-read an interview he gave to Salon a few years ago, in which he says:

    ‘If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid … [there’s] the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read.

    [There] is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.’

    In his roundabout, excessive way (a distinctive feature of hysterical realism, I suppose) DFW proves in the above paragraphs that, while he was on this Earth, he at least tried hard to inject some necessary pathos into the cerebral mess of literary postmodernism.

    Daniel Arkin

    October 21, 2008 at 8:01 am

  2. Daniel,

    Agree with this very much. And you would do good to look at this for a follow-up post.

    Adam Elkus

    October 22, 2008 at 5:34 am

  3. Yes, too bad Wallace could only express those concerns and ideas as abstraction in an interview or essay. People then credit what he said as proof he actually achieved this in his fiction. What he did in his fiction, pretty much right up to the end, was to maintain that basic ironic distance from his subjects. More importantly, even though he tried, he did not understand, (and is among that generation of writers who cannot) enter into the organic process of writing fiction (especially the novel). It requires giving up artistic control to invented people. It requires trust and belief in the novel and the creative process itself to reveal and discover. Wallace and his ilk can’t even have faith in the art they’ve chosen, so the chief characteristic of what he did in Infinite Jest was a product of the intellect–ideas, style, situations and structure imposed on his work at the outset. As a novelist myself, I’ve been through the process and know that when you go with this, and write without knowing you actually make discoveries about people and things you didn’t know. When you know everything from the outset and set out to show people how much you know, you cut off a whole avenue of knowing that is a product of a very personal and absorbing process–it is the mystery of art. This is another way to look at what Wood is saying. Wallace’s approach to the novel means that his intellectual concerns and structual intent trump what happens to his characters and blunts the sense that he’s writing about authentic people. They’re trained freaks, oddities doing tricks that serve his purposes. Language theory meant more to Wallace than his people. Being hip and writing to academics meant more than the people he wrote about. He couldn’t leave his intellect behind to speak in the voices, and see things through the eyes of the street people, addicts and teenagers he wrote about in IJ. At best we get the swings from high to low tone, a parody of people. To make his point and unleash his intellectual torrents he has to speak over his characters in ways they never would.

    More than this, what is really missing from Wallace’s novel is the moment of choice that makes us human–there is no tree of knowledge of good and evil in Wallace’s garden. Don Gately is forceably shot up with drugs and left on a the beach. Hal ingests something that makes him incoherent during his interview. Not only don’t we know what is happening to Hal and have to speculate–the entire sequence in Hal’s life leading up to this is missing. What happened to Hal, what does it really mean humanly, and why do we care? It’s a human muddle sacrificed from the beginning to an intellectual premise. It’s a grand manipulation that shows us nothing about human beings–as if Hal the teenage tennis prodigy whose dual obsessions are tennis and getting high was a protagonist capable of imparting wisdom in the first place.

    John Caruso

    December 27, 2008 at 8:57 pm


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