Revisiting James Wood’s review of White Teeth
To begin with, the term or terms: Hysterical realism. Hysterical. Realism.
Realism, of course, we all recognize as a set of techniques or conventions of (fictional) prose writing, perhaps even a genre, in which a kind of social and psychological description is used to foreground particular dramatic conflicts—most especially intimate or familial social conflicts and personal ethical dilemmas—with an appeal to its significance and “truthfulness” based on claims of mimetic representation. “Realism” claims to be “real.”
Hysterical is an adjective meaning affected by hysteria or convulsive emotion such as weeping or laughing fits. Hysteria, from the OED, is “a functional disturbance of the nervous system, characterized by such disorders as anæsthesia, hyperæsthesia, convulsions, etc., and usually attended with emotional disturbances and enfeeblement or perversion of the moral and intellectual faculties.” Historically associated with women, not least because of the etymology of hysteric (Greek, “of the womb”), it was a conventional way to describe upset women in the nineteenth century—and was a technical psychological term, as above, until psychoanalysis managed to reconceive it as neurosis. Hysterical is still used, as here, as a pejorative term of feminization and dismissal.
Hysterical Realism, James Wood argues, is a genre of contemporary literature descended from the great nineteenth-century forefather Dickens and characterized by multiple digressive plots, fantastic descriptions and events, punning, caricature, a concern with sociology and “information,” optimism, a “lively serenity of spirit,” and deeply engaged with the question of the linguistic or literary representation of “character.”
This genre, which Wood sees exemplified in such disparate novels as White Teeth, Infinite Jest, Underworld, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and Mason & Dixon, is according to him utterly reprehensible. “Appropriately…,” he writes, “objections are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality — the usual charge against botched realism — but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.”
He is alleging here that the moral fault of these novelists is in betraying “realism,” which is a strange claim to make, because it implies that “realism”—which is just a set of writing and reading conventions, after all—is somehow of inherent moral worth. “Realism” is sacrosanct, James implies, and as we unpack his other charges against the “hysterical realists” we can begin to see why.
He asserts that “hysterical realism” is inhuman, incompatible with tragedy or anguish, unpersuasive, unconvincing, shallow, a mimetic failure, deceitful, and indelicate, and implies it’s boring to boot: “It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.” (Plus ça change. If only James Wood had been around to attack writers in the 18th century, we might not have to read novels today at all…)
The failure of hysterical realism is a moral failure. That moral failure is in how “it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself.” That is, its moral failure is that it uses the techniques of “realism” in such a way as to assert that these techniques don’t really represent reality—that they are mere conventions. As dastardly as is this deed prima facie, dear reader it gets worse. For, as Wood has it, “realism” is the only morally acceptable set of conventions to write with, because “realism” is the only human way to write.
Wood’s basic view of fiction is the mimetic one going back to Plato: effective (and affective) writing convinces us that it represents reality. Wood, turning Plato on his head, argues that this convincing deception of mimetic representation is inherently moral because—when it’s done well—it’s true. The moral failure of hysterical realism, for Wood, is not that it’s false, but that it doesn’t claim to be true—that it dares to wear its untruth on its sleeve.
Wood’s view of fiction as a matter of taste is one thing. One might prefer realist social novels to romances, satires, westerns, surrealist epics, epistolary novels, comic novels, science fiction, long prose poems, allegories, fables, fairy tales, mock-epics, romans a clef, philosophical novels, puzzle novels, gothics, collages, monologue novels, and however you’d characterize the sui generis works of such singular minds as Beckett, Stein, Nabokov, Kafka, Sterne, Lautreamont, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, and Twain, and while such a preference might mean a vitiated, narrow, provincial, and sickly conception of human existence and the power of literature, being a mere matter of taste it harms no one. De gustibus non est disputandem.
But for Wood to turn his personal preference into a moral position—without any consideration of the deep philosophical and literary questions such a position raises—and use it to write nasty reviews of books he dislikes isn’t just priggish, provincial, pompous, and niggardly, but stupid in a basic sense and fundamentally contrary to the social value of literature which, if it’s anything, is in its ability to open up more of the world, to bring out more of the world, to engage with and embrace the complexity of a world of many voices, many languages, many perspectives, and many “realities”— even many “realisms.”
It’s a shame that this is exactly what James Wood hates, and a pity that his erudition and wit, so loftily and scornfully sounding from the New Yorker’s heights, should be put to the service of bigoted, puritanical abuse.
There are a great many other problems with this review, his other reviews, and his view generally. Specifically, I find it hard to recognize Infinite Jest and Underworld as the books he seems to be describing. As flawed as they may be, perhaps even fatally so, neither of them shares a “bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit.” Infinite Jest is so hard to get through, it seems to be, in part because it all but oozes despair, and Underworld is a complicated polyphonic orchestration that I would characterize as, if anything, elegiac. “Hysterical” might apply to Pynchon and Rushdie’s work, if you insist on using such a word, but “realism” is certainly off the mark. Pynchon works in a satiric register closer to Nathanael West or Swift, and to read his work as in any way “realistic” is a blunt misapprehension. And to refer to Zadie Smith’s work as “hysterical” is simply patronizing, because of the misogynist connotations of the word. Even if White Teeth might be excessively exuberant in one way or another, someone as ostensibly keen on language as Wood should know better than to obscure his argument with unnecessarily sexist language.
Finally, the insistence on Dickens as the progenitor of all these novels, and as the font of postwar fiction in general, is a sly idiocy that’s not only descriptively, historically, and genealogically wrong—simply wrong—but a rhetorical move in profound bad faith. With this claim, he at once dismisses hysterical realism as derivative, unrealistic, and old-fashioned, while subsuming it into his own Anglo-centered vision of the novel’s history. He casts these contemporary writers under the feet of his canonical giants, and heaps scorn on them for daring to presume beyond their place.
That’s a fine, if small-minded, opinion, but it’s bad reading, and worthless as criticism.