Professor David James

Professor David James

Department of English Literature
Professorial Research Fellow

Contact details

Address
University of Birmingham
Edgbaston
Birmingham
B15 2TT
UK

My research and teaching areas span modernist literature and contemporary writing, with a particular focus on the history and theory of the novel. Recently I’ve been working on the political, ethical, and affective work of form in postmillennial fiction and life-writing. I also have ongoing interests in the development of reading methods and in the social efficacy of criticism. 

Qualifications

  • BA English & Drama (Birmingham, 2002)
  • MSt Women’s Studies (Oxford, 2003)
  • DPhil English Literature (Sussex, 2006)

Biography

Before joining Birmingham in 2017, I was Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. Prior to my appointment at QM, I held a lectureship in modern literature for a number of years at the University of Nottingham. For my BA I undertook a joint honours English and Drama programme at Birmingham, moving then to Oxford for a Masters in gender studies and twentieth-century women’s writing, after which I pursued a DPhil on the contemporary novel at Sussex.

In 2013, I was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize which facilitated work on my next major book, a project that synchronizes narrative theory, affect studies, and twenty-first-century literary history to consider how the emotional force of contemporary writing relates to its social and ethical consequentiality.

I have given numerous keynotes in the US and in Europe on a variety of research questions in literary and cultural studies, including the condition of contemporary realism, adaptations of the lyric in modern fiction, the politics of Englishness, institutions of metamodernism, and localism in world literature. 

Teaching

Both at undergraduate and graduate levels, I have taught widely across late-nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century literature and culture. In the 2017/18 year, I will be contributing to the final-year option on Modernism and Ethics.

Postgraduate supervision

I have supervised PhD students working on a range of topics, including multilingualism and the twentieth-century novel, realism and the politics of innovation in postwar American fiction, the ethics and poetics of autobiography, narrative theory, and contemporary nature writing. I would welcome for supervision projects on all aspects of modernist literary culture, affect studies, literary geographies, and contemporary Anglophone fiction.

Research

My latest research has been concerned with how the affective dynamics of fiction and life-writing illuminate the social and ethical possibilities of narrative form. The book arising from this, Discrepant Solace: Contemporary Writing and the Work of Consolation (forthcoming with Oxford University Press), draws together the poetics of emotion and the politics of style to examine a somewhat neglected and often-disparaged constellation of affects. When we think about what consolation means for literary experience we often do so via the rewards of reading: vicariously entering fictional realms of distress from which we’re relieved in reality to be spared; finding respite in imagined lives thanks to the compelling distractions their depiction may afford. Writers from recent decades, I argue, tell a different story about solace, an affective phenomenon that can appear both desirable and duplicitous. By engaging with figures as diverse as Julian Barnes, Joan Didion, Sonali Deraniyagala, David Grossman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing, Helen Macdonald, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Denise Riley, W. G. Sebald, and Colm Tóibín, among others, I set out to show how style both registers and reflects on its own ability to compensate plot yet without pretending to remedy the very crises or damage it evokes. Throughout the book I suggest that contemporary literature’s most animating consolations derive from unlikely idioms and genres, as narratives driven by the pathos of bereavement, deprivation, and personal or environmental catastrophe also produce their own dynamic if seemingly discrepant modes of mitigation and redress – proving how agilely fiction and memoir today both intensify and scrutinize form’s propensity to be an antagonist of loss. 

For some years now, my activities in scholarly editing as well as my own criticism have moved comparatively across modernist studies and world Anglophone literature, generating opportunities for these fields to have useful conversations with each other. A product of such conversations, Modernist Futures (Cambridge University Press, 2012) charted the reanimation of modernist aesthetics in contemporary American, British, and world Anglophone fiction. In this book I argue that we can discern the political consequences of such reactivations without diluting the historical specificity of modernism’s global movements and moments. To realize this hypothesis, I mobilize critical vocabularies that not only do justice to the formal particularity of writers such as J. M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, and Michael Ondaatje, but also recognize how they build into their work a contemplation of the very condition and mission of literary innovation as such. Modernist Futures highlights the implications of pursuing comparative approaches to modernism’s critical presence in contemporary writing, arguing that we can pay closer attention to aspects of technique without detracting from fiction’s social engagements. The book thus invites us to rethink the assumptions behind the way we both conceptualize and historicize those modernist impulses that contemporary novelists alternately adopt, refuse, and reform – methodological questions about the very periodization of modernism which I subsequently addressed in an essay co-written with Urmila Seshagiri for PMLA on ‘Metamodernism’ (January 2014).

I continue to write on the cultural and historical multiplicity of postmodernism, and on alternative critical models for reading the contemporary. Key examples of my work in this area have appeared in volumes such as The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature, ed. Yogita Goyal (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Postmodern/Postwar–and After: Rethinking American Literature, ed. Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden (University of Iowa Press, 2016). The Cambridge History of the English Short Story, ed. Dominic Head (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), The Contemporaneity of Modernism, ed. Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges (New York: Routledge, 2015), and Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, ed. Amy J. Elias and Joel Burges (New York: New York University Press, 2016).

Collaborative projects in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature have resulted in a number of edited volumes. Produced concurrently with Modernist Futures, my collection The Legacies of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2012) brought together an international cast of scholars working on British, American, and postcolonial literature to historicize the response of postwar writers to modernism’s stylistic, ideological, and intellectual possibilities and continuities. Other editorial ventures have included two journal special issues: the first, with Andrzej Gasiorek, for Contemporary Literature (53.4) on ‘Fiction since 2000: Post-Millennial Commitments’ (2012); and the second, with Nathan Waddell, for Modernist Cultures (8.1) on ‘Musicality and Modernist Form’ (2013).

My most recent work as an editor includes The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), which will hopefully remain a genuinely useful resource for students and teachers alike, and the scholarly collection Modernism and Close Reading (Oxford University Press, 2018). This new book builds on my longstanding interests in the critical genealogies and theoretical transformations of reading. It hosts a group of world-renowned critics to examine the institutional histories and disciplinary futures of close reading at a time when modernist studies is expanding in unprecedented methodological directions.

Other activities

Beyond my own individual projects, I have been actively facilitating other scholars’ contributions to the flourishing field of contemporary literature studies. I am currently Associate Editor (for British and Anglophone writing) at the journal Contemporary Literature. I also continue to serve as an editorial consultant and affiliate member of the Post45 journal.

In 2011 I founded with Matthew Hart (Columbia) and Rebecca L. Walkowitz  (Rutgers–New Brunswick) the book series Literature Now at Columbia University Press. From its inception, the series has sought to become a leading home for ambitious and dynamic books from established and emerging critics alike. Engaging with all aspects of the field, the series has welcomed projects that are comparative and transnational in method or scope, in addition to those focused on regional contexts and individual writers. Over the years it has hosted prize-winning books that have helped to reshape the theoretical and historical study of contemporary literary cultures. http://cup.columbia.edu/series/literature-now

Publications

Books

  • Discrepant Solace: Contemporary Writing and the Work of Consolation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)
  • Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space: Style, Landscape, Perception (London: Continuum, 2008)

Edited volumes

  • Modernism and Close Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)
  • The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 
  • Andrea Levy: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, co-edited with Jeanette Baxter (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)
  • The Legacies of Modernism: Historicising Postwar and Contemporary Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 

Selected journal articles and chapters

  • ‘Critical Solace’, New Literary History 47, no. 4 (Autumn 2016): 481–504.
  • ‘Decentring Englishness’, in The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume VII: British and Irish Fiction since 1940, ed. Peter Boxall and Bryan Cheyette (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 435–449.
  • ‘Modernism and the Urban Imaginary: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Cosmopolitanism’, in The Cambridge History of Modernism, ed. Vincent Sherry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 235–249.
  • ‘Modern/Altermodern’, in Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, ed. Amy J. Elias and Joel Burges (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 66–81.
  • ‘Worlded Localisms: Cosmopolitics Writ Small’, in Postmodern Literature and Race, ed. Len Platt and Sara Upstone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 47–63. 
  • ‘Metamodernism: Narratives of Revolution and Continuity’, co-authored with Urmila Seshagiri, PMLA 129, no. 1 (January 2014): 87–100.
  • ‘Capturing the Scale of Fiction at Mid-Century’, in Regional Modernisms, ed. Neal Alexander and James Moran (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 104–123.
  • ‘A Renaissance for the Crystalline Novel?’ Contemporary Literature 53, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 845–874.
  • ‘“Style is Morality”? Aesthetics and Politics in the Amis Era’, Textual Practice 26, no. 1 (February 2012): 11–25.
  • ‘Integrity after Metafiction’, Twentieth-Century Literature 57, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 492–515.
  • ‘Localizing Late Modernism: Interwar Regionalism and the Genesis of the “Micro Novel”’, Journal of Modern Literature 32, no. 4 (Summer 2009): 43–64.