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Thoughts on Hysterical Realism

I read for the first time James Wood’s essay on hysterical realism in his book of criticism, The Irresponsible Self. I had heard the term frequently for a few years now–and had a reasonable sense of what it meant, and that Wood had coined the term as a response to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth–but I had never gotten around to reading the essay itself. I read it last night in concert with a number of essays in his previous volume, The Broken Estate, and I’ve decided that the term is probably going to have to factor in to at least one of my dissertation chapters–specifically the chapter on competing concepts of belief in relation to fiction: that is, my chapter on Dave Eggers and the coterie or set of writers who publish in The Believer and McSweeney’s.

To summarize his position: Wood seems to feel that fiction constitutes an invitation to belief, or rather–in our secular age–an invitation to behave “as if” we believed in fiction, and that the failure of “hysterical realism” is that it fails either, through its myriad implausibly-elaborated scenarios, to successfully invite our belief, or, against that project, even to work at the level of allegory. Allegories at least point toward some other layer or level of meaning. Reading them is about moving from the layer of narrative action to the layer of meaning. Writers like Pynchon and Smith construct the apparatus of allegory but fail to provide us with meaning. They unfold a succession of spectacular set-pieces and jokes in place of developing characters that elicit belief and who we can satisfyingly treat “as if” they were human beings. They present social theories and forms of theoretical didacticism in lieu of human beings. This is a kind of quick and mangled version of Wood’s argument.

While I would agree that there is a novelistic tradition that fits his description, I think his arguments have some holes that need filling:

(i) I like hysterical realism. In the course of my life, I’ve read plenty of novels with realistic characters and situations. But. I like silly jokes, virtuoso set-pieces, groan-worthy puns, and mind-bending pastiches of literary style. What’s wrong with that? Wood never quite explains what’s wrong with liking this sort of writing except to say that it doesn’t fit with his particular idea of what good, or morally serious, novels ought to do. Given Wood’s apparent aversion to political fiction, I can’t imagine what moral seriousness might mean to him—or, for that matter, what’s so moral about other forms of realism.

(ii) What evidence can Wood offer for his claim that novels do not elicit genuine (i.e., ontological) belief, as religions demand, but rather can merely “invite” or “request” that readers believe in them. In other words, Wood wants to claim that belief in novels is not belief at all but rather a kind of choice to pretend as if one did believe. The problem with this seems obvious, and perhaps has already been pointed out: belief is not a choice. One cannot choose to believe or disbelieve in something, including the plausibility of a fictional world, anymore than I can choose to disbelieve in the laptop on which I am writing this text. Wood might refute my claim by suggesting that we use a synonym for belief or simply another word for what he’s getting at. The problem with such a counterargument is that, as a reader of science fiction, I think that Wood is actually right but shies away from the implications of his argument. We do judge novels on the basis of what they can make us believe. The problem is that we’re not really in control over what we can and cannot believe. I would argue that we either believe or disbelieve in fiction based on cognitive aesthetic criteria. This is why some science fiction can be described as “plausible” or “implausible”–because in its mode of world-building it can touch some part of us that makes such judgments. That is why some people simply cannot read fantasy and science fiction: they cognitively can’t get “into” it.

(iii) How would a writer like Eggers fit into Wood’s scheme? Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fits many of the criteria that Wood uses to negatively judge hysterical realism, but it is basically a memoir. Does the form of the memoir–and its putatively non-fictional status–counteract the formal traits of hysterical realism that Wood identifies? What, if anything, is a memoir able to persuade us to choose to believe that a fictional novel can’t?

These are my initial responses and questions to Wood’s writing. They will all, in time, migrate their way into Chapter 4 of my dissertation, which for now is slated to discuss Eggers’ writing in the context of the “war against snark” that The Believer–starting with Heidi Julavits’ famous essay–is said to have initiated. But I won’t get to writing that until early next year, if I stay on my projected schedule. Back to The Savage Girl now.