October 16, 2009 | Feature
Hysterical realism, Morning Mail
Stuff Brown Students Like
article by allison zimmer
Hysterical Realism: Brown students like to show off how much they know. Hence, the popularity of trivia nights, Janus forum lectures, and double and triple concentrations—you read that article in the BDH, right? So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that some of our favorite novelists—Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Thomas Pynchon—fall under a style of literary fiction known as “hysterical realism,” a term coined by James Wood in a July 24, 2000 issue of The New Republic. According to Wood, whose notorious dislike of Smith’s work spurred his attack on her and other writers whose novels reflect a similar style, the long and ambitious novel that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being” is the benchmark of hysterical realism.
Case in point: Smith’s first and arguably best novel White Teeth. If you are a Brown student, there’s a good chance you could be attracted to buy this book by the cover alone. Minimalist and stark with bold uppercase lettering, Smith’s paperback is available in four different color options: autumn leaves red, baby blue, olive green, and tangerine! Have you ever heard of anything cuter? (Miranda July’s debut short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You makes use of similar a cover design, but July’s subjects are not multicultural, and her prose is decidedly more contained than Smith’s). Which leads us to our second point: an overflowing heterogeneity that bursts through the pages and waxes poetic on such mismatched and eccentric topics as Jehovah’s Witnesses, interracial marriage, twins, genetic engineering and South Asian immigration. Those who admire Mrs. Smith (who happens to be breathtakingly beautiful and married to an equally attractive Irish writer) might question Wood’s assertion that her characters are thin and unbelievable. Wood is probably just jealous of young success, extraordinarily high book advances, and beauty—similar criticisms have been lodged against Jonathan Safran Foer and his wife Nicole Kraus.
Though the forms it takes on may entertain you, the controversy itself—the frenzy of criticism and the precipitating written responses to Wood’s article—is what makes hysterical realism most beloved by Brown students. Public intellectual debates, especially of the literary kind, greatly excite us. You may have heard the word “hysterical realism” thrown around on the Main Green, or pompously referenced in literary arts workshops. You may have followed the term’s trajectory, and read Zadie Smith’s spunky rebuttal to Wood’s article in The Guardian. But what you may not have noticed, or at least failed to admit to yourself, is how much the term explains some of your own very private fears. Sure, you’ve spent a lot of time learning about protozoa and Foucalt (another Brown favorite), but do you know enough about your fellow human beings? Do you consider Mesopotamian archaeological history suitable cocktail conversation?
So maybe you do. Maybe you are a little hysterical. But as Smith says, “Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” Plus, no term can adequately encapsulate all of contemporary postmodern literature, or all of Brown’s students. Smith writes, “Any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna”—proving that she is not only well-versed in literary terminology, but also in contemporary fisherman politics. Oh, the beauty of knowledge.
Morning Mail: Oh Morning Mail. You give us exhaustively long lists of “announcements and events” (what is the difference, really?) that I rarely read and probably never will attend. Your ability to encapsulate so many things that Brown students like—intending to go to lectures, listservs, a capella, improv—makes you the epitome of Brown culture.
Really though, you help to remind me that I am part of a community—and isn’t that at the heart of the things most Brown students like, or at least at the heart of the entire project of compiling the traits that make us archetypical? And though sometimes I wish that you actually arrived in the morning—not at the halfway hour of 1:16 AM, when I am sadly still awake and disruptively reminded that the paper I am working on is due TODAY, not TOMORROW—you legitimate my college experience. Did I momentarily forget where I am? You quickly put me back in my place. Plus, it’s really fun seeing your name—middle name included—appear in a list with all the other extra-curricularly involved students on campus. Morning Mail reminds us that we’ve made it, and it feels really good.