White Teeth and Hysterical Realism

June 7, 2006

Wikipedia is probably the greatest invention of the last decade. If anything has the potential to really be the repository of all the world's information, it's wikipedia. That being said, there are some inherent dangers to this site. 

First: What makes a person an acceptable candidate for inclusion on wikipedia? My friend Liati Mayk has a wikipedia page, but Brandy Taylor does not. This is puzzling. 

Wikipedia's ability to define is what really worries me. James Wood once wrote an article classifying White Teeth and several other books as "hysterical realism" because of the way they play with history and facts while still conforming to a realist style (cf. magic realism). Wood's article is good, but by no means has it become canonical. Except in wikipedia. White Teeth and many other authors are suddenly listed as being "hysterical realist" novels or authors. "Hysterical Realism" has gone from one critic's term to the universal default (ok, I exaggerate) in no time flat. Whatever happened to good old fashioned peer review?

I actually think this is a good term, very descriptive of what Smith was self-consciously trying to do with her book, which is Post-Colonial in the sense that it is inspired by PostColonialism, but not as succesful when describing DeLillo or some Pynchon. My bigger worry is that wikipedia will cause a proliferation of meaningless literary categories. My biggest worry is that someone will someday make a list of the top-100 "Hysterical Meta-Subaltern Quasi-Realist Novels" and I'll have to read White Teeth again, which really was just an OK book.

The biggest problem with White Teeth is the promotional picture of Zadie Smith on the back. She looks really hot. No other picture of her matches this level of attractiveness. Another reason not to believe in photography. 

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