The Hysterical Realism Reading List


First Wave:

Vladimir Nabokov—Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), Speak, Memory (1936-66), Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)

Thomas Pynchon—V. (1963) , Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Mason & Dixon (1997), Against The Day (2006)

William Gaddis—The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), a Frolic of His Own (1994)

John Barth—Fiction: the Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Lost in the Funhouse (1968), LETTERS (1979); Non-fiction: the Friday Book (1984), Further Fridays (1995), Final Fridays (2012)

William Gass—Fiction: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1968), the Tunnel (1995); Non-fiction: Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), the World Within the Word (1978), Finding a Form: Essays (1997), Test of Time  (2002), a Temple of Texts (2006), Life Sentences (2012)


Second Wave:

Don DeLillo—White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Underworld (1997)

Salman Rushdie—Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), the Satanic Verses (1988)

David Foster Wallace—Fiction: Girl with Curious Hair (1989), Infinite Jest (1996), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999); Non-fiction: a Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Consider the Lobster (2005)

William T. Vollmann—Fiction: the Rainbow Stories (1989), 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs (1991), Europe Central (2005), Fathers and Crows (1992), the Royal Family (2000); Non-fiction: Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), Poor People (2007), Imperial (2009)

Richard Powers—Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988), the Gold Bug Variations (1991), Galatea 2.2 (1995), Plowing the Dark (2000), the Echo Maker (2006)

Zadie Smith—White Teeth (2000), On Beauty (2005)

Roberto Bolaño—the Savage Detectives (1998), 2666 (2004)

George Saunders—Pastoralia (2000), the Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005), In Persuasion Nation (2006)

Junot Diaz—Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)


Classic Baggy Monsters/ Encyclopedic Narratives:

Homer—the Odyssey (8th BCE)

Francois Rabelais—the Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel (1532-1564)

Miguel Cervantes—Don Quixote (1605 & 1615)

Marquis de Sade—Justine, of the Misfortune of Virtue (1791), Juliette (1797)

Laurence Stern—the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67)

William Makepeace Thackeray—Vanity Fair: a Novel without a Hero (1848)

Herman Melville—Moby-Dick; or, the Whale  (1851)

Leo Tolstoy—War and Peace (1869)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky—Crime and Punishment (1866), the Brothers Karamazov (1880)



Ludwig Wittgenstein—Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Philosophical Investigations (1953)

Jacques Derrida—Of Grammatology (1967)

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari—Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), a Thousand Plateaus (1980)

Jean Baudrillard—Simulacra and Simulation (1981)

Jeremy Campbell—Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life (1982)

Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett—the Mind’s I:Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981)

fun house mirror

Writing and Literary Aesthetics:

Viktor Shklovsky—Theory of Prose (1925),  Energy of Delusion: a Book of Plot (1981)

M.H. Abrams—the Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953)

Erich Auerbach—Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953)

Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg—the Nature of Narrative (1966)

Francis Christensen—a New Rhetoric (1967)

Mikhail Bakhtin—Rabelais and His World: Carnival and Grotesque (1965), the Dialogic Imagination: Chronotope, Heteroglossia (1975), Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics: Polyphony and Unfinalizability (1984)

Richard A. Lanham—Style: an Anti-Textbook (1974), Analyzing Prose (1983)

Tzvetan Todorov—the Poetics of Prose (1977)

Wayne C. Booth—the Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), the Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction (1988)


Influential Voices:

Jorge Borges (Complete Works)

Mikhail Bulgakov—the Master or the Margarita (published in 1966)

John Dos Passos—the 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), the Big Money (1936)

Milan Kundera—the Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), the Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), the Art of the Novel (1986)

Haruki Murakami—the Elephant Vanishes (1993), the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995), Kafka on the Shore (2002), 1Q84 (2011)

Toni Morrison—the Bluest Eyes (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987)

Alice Munro—Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), the Moons of Jupiter (1982), the Progress of Love (1986), the Love of a Good Woman (1998), Runaway (2004)

Jean Toomer—Cane (1923)

Matthew Lewis—the Monk (1796)

Leslie Marmon Silko—Almanac of the Dead (1991)

Thomas King—Green Grass, Running Water (1993)

Joseph McElroy—Night Soul and Other Stories (2011)

Flann O’Brien—At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

David Markson—Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988)


Franz Kafka (Complete Works)

Virginia Woolf (Complete Works)

William Faulkner (Complete Works)

Gertrude Stein (Complete Works)

James Joyce—Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922)

Marcel Proust—In Search of Lost Time (1913-27)

Beat Generation and Friends:

Jack Kerouac—On The Road (1957), Visions of Cody (1960), Doctor Sax (1959)

William Burroughs—Naked Lunch (1959), the Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964)

Allen Ginsberg—Howl (1956)

Ken Kesey—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)


OULIPO (Workshop of Potential Literature):

George Perec—W or The Memory of Childhood (1975), Life: a User’s Manual  (1978)

Italo Calvino—Cosmicomics (1965), Invisible Cities (1972), If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979)

Raymond Queneau—Exercise of Style (1947)


David Lynch—Films: Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1992), Inland Empire (2006)

Zak Smith—Paintings: “Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow


My motivation for creating this list is to frame a literary movement based around a certain aesthetic. On a pragmatic level this should help people find other books to read. For instance, if you like Infinite Jest, you might want to read Gaddis and Barth. After all, reading isn’t an insulated experience, and books typically don’t exist in a vacuum.

Writers are readers. Good writers are influenced; great writers steal. From where? From whom? I wanted to know. In 2006 I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and when I finished it I had to have more—not only Wallace’s writing but those who influenced him as a writer. I wanted to figure how he developed his style, and therefore I became interested in Barth, Gaddis, and Gass. Over the past seven years I collected as many of these texts as possible, yet I’m nowhere close to having read all of them. So I acknowledge the incompleteness and imperfection of this list.

College classes doesn’t spend too much time talking about style in prose, maybe if your instructor is a writer, but often it’s about the big idea. “Infinite Jest is an example of rhizomatic plot structure, moving a disjointed text forward through subterranean themes that resurface time and time again creating meaning,” said Professor Waahooza to his class. Prof. W is correct and I find what he is saying interesting, but so little time is spend talking about how Wallace’s language actually works, how he builds stories, how his non-fiction and fiction are related/different. For me this list has helped me to establish parameters on a specific genre that is 1) maximalistic, 2) avant-garde, and both 3) modern and 4) post-modern. Again I don’t claim this to be a complete ‘canon’ but simply a way of beginning to talk about Bloom’s anxiety of influence within a certain literary aesthetic that has been coined Hysterical Realism.

I read DFW on my free time while I was a graduate student in creative writing. We rarely covered any of these writers and barely talked about style outside of psychological realism, which is when you use language to reflect to world as it is. Except realism is just a literary convention, but it’s supposed to be the important one, the Great One. At one point I asked my teacher why we don’t spend more time talking about grammar, because I was interested in how Wallace and Pynchon told their stories. The teacher looked at me with slight disdain and said that I should already know grammar at this stage in my career. A rush of blood filled my head making me feel like an idiot. I wasn’t asking for a simple lesson on active or passive verbs. I wanted to know how to use language in a different way, which to me meant understanding how to use grammar and sentences in a way that wasn’t realism.

The problem was that I asked the wrong question. I should’ve asked about building sentences. How can I build sentences like David Foster Wallace, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and Thomas Pynchon? Keep in mind that I was in graduate school for writing and that I was trying to learn from the best—for me those writers’ sentences are the most original, unique, special, exciting, and unforgettable examples of language I had ever read. I wanted—no, I had to mimic them. How could I steal a bit of their magic for myself? I didn’t feel that my teachers were teaching me the fine art of theft, so I began to look elsewhere.

I went to the University of San Francisco and my local bookstore happened to be Green Apple Books. While everyone in America thinks of City Lights, most people in SF (especially all of us who lived west of Divisadero) spend their book money at Green Apple. And whenever I had money burning a hole in my pocket I’d go there to load up on anything I thought looked interesting. For a while Green Apple even had an auxiliary shop where they’d sell books for a buck a piece. I’d bike over with twenty dollars and haul home forty pounds of books on my back (Joseph Williams’ Style, Lanham’s Syle: an Anti-Textbook, Fodor & Katz’s The Structure of Language, Matthews’ Syntax, Babb’s Essays in Stylistic Analysis…). The more I read from these texts the better I began to understand writing on the level of the sentence. That’s where there was magic happening. There are all sorts of units in big stories, but as a student of fiction I was obsessed with mastering the sentence.

I graduated in the fall of 2008 and moved to Chicago. Weeks after that move I got a text message from a classmate that said, “Sorry to hear about DFW.” I turned on my computer to discover his death. Many of my classmates will probably always remember me as being that kid obsessed about Wallace. When I was learning the most about reading like a writer, Wallace was the high-water mark that I aspired towards. Finishing school, moving to Chicago, and his death marked the end of some phase in my life. From that point forward I started to read these other people. For many, Wallace (perhaps Pynchon) is a gravitational center to this form of postmodern maximialism. Along the way these writers have taught me a great deal about storytelling and language.

Everyone talks about Wallace’s genius, so much so that it has become trendy. Why have so few people read Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, or Alice Munro? Why don’t those writers possess the same public status as Wallace or Pynchon? Or do people simply read Wallace because he’s trendy?

Again, why did I create this list? It’s for everyone who has read one of these writers and wants to find something similar, yet new. I can’t guarantee that you will like everything, but that’s life as a reader. Also, I created this for discussion. Because when James Wood pejoratively uttered the term Hysterical Realism, he started a discussion about aesthetics that needs to take place. Where does purple prose become, as Barth stated, Literature of Exhaustion? Why do you love/hate this style? There are many more important questions to ask, and few of them are being addressed in writing programs. So maybe this list is for all the writers searching for ways to write the story that’s floating around their head. If this list helps anyone to better realize how they can manifest a story through language, then this list has served its purpose.

Finally, as mainstream publishing continues to look at books as units whose sole merit is based on financial value, instead of literary value, readers need to work together to celebrate awesome books. Because there are so few people who really enjoy reading. Lists help readers find something that they might be interested in, something new and exciting. That’s why I’ve created this list. I hope it’s useful and I look forward to hearing about how I dropped the ball by not including [TITLE] by (author)_______. Write to me. Let’s make this list more complete.

(more can be found at Hysterical Realism)

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2 Comments on “The Hysterical Realism Reading List”

  1. driftlessareareview
    January 25 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    I would add:

    [An Adultery], [Darconville’s Cat], and [Laura Warholic] by (Alexander Theroux)

    [A Clockwork Orange], [The Wanting Seed], [The Enderby Novels] and [Earthly Powers] by (Anthony Burgess)

    [Our Lady of the Flowers], [The Balcony], [The Maids], and [Funeral Rites] by (Jean Genet)

    [Against Nature] and [Down There] by (Joris-Karl Huysmans)

    [The Atrocity Exhibition] and [Crash] by (JG Ballard)

  2. ericblix
    January 26 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    It seems to me that the great aesthetic divide that exists in contemporary fiction is primarily cultural. Lyric realism is the genteel literature, and thus possesses the aesthetic authority of global capitalism, and by extension ideological whiteness. As you rightly state, publishers do not spread art; they produce units. I should mention, too, though without wasting space, that publishers are also implicitly or explicitly political, and have a great influence over which information is consumed by the public, as well as how this information is perceived by its consumers (e.g. the way a book or its author is marketed). One would expect, then, that the writers who reject such a style would be mostly non-white people and women. Yet most of the writers on this list are white males, and many are (or were) not from the United States. Here is where the cultural aesthetic intersects with the various demographics of the global population and the politics that influence them. “Hysterical Realism,” I think, is the necessary aesthetic of a legion of writers who in some way see themselves as writing in the “dust bin of history,” as Baudrillard puts it—their sentences and narratives sprawl and fragment, some tectonically and some in shards, because culture and history move this way. It is a literature of change and digression, not progress, which is a crucial distinction. Many of these works are in some way systematic. This has also been called post-humanism. Simply put, I am an advocate of this aesthetic. Though I don’t think it will change the world in any material way (I don’t think literature has any redemptive value beyond individual pleasure), it will continue to change the way we read and write. And this isn’t even getting into the role of the internet and breakdowns in genre.

    As for the grave omissions:

    [The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge] (Jean-François Lyotard)
    [Neuromancer] (William Gibson)
    [Dhalgren] (Samuel R. Delaney)
    [Chronic City] (Jonathan Lethem)
    [Sixty Stories] (Donald Barthleme)
    [Edisto] [Typical] (Padgett Powell)
    [The Age of Wire and String] (Ben Marcus)
    [Treasure Island!!!] (Sarah Levine)

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