Professor David James
Colleges, School and Institutes
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 recent book, Discrepant Solace, a study of the politics and poetics of consolation that synchronises critical formalism, the history of emotions, affect studies, and twenty-first-century literary history.
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 realism, the development of metamodernism, adaptations of the lyric in modern fiction, the politics of Englishness, and the reinvention of sentimentalism in contemporary life-writing.
I’m currently working on a sequence of books revolving around the politics and poetics of affective forms in contemporary world Anglophone writing. Each will reflect my longstanding commitment to addressing literary style not simply as technique or aesthetic finesse, but as a mode of thought and provocation in its own right. The latest in this series, Sentimental Activism (under contract with Columbia University Press), brings together refugee writing, the health humanities, medical memoir, poverty fiction, and environmental campaigners to reveal an expanding archive of genres that repurpose sentimentalism’s political potential. The book will encompass pathographies and works of care advocacy and disability justice by Anne Boyer, Rachel Clarke, Nicci Gerrard, Rebecca Loncraine, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, along with such novelists as Mohsin Hamid, Valeria Luiselli, Lila Savage, and Zadie Smith. While showing how the syntax and affective solicitations of sentimental narrative kindle reflection on the mode’s efficacy and contentiousness, I also reflect on the ‘sentiments’ of contemporary criticism itself as it curates its own longing for real-world traction. Research for Sentimental Activism will be funded in 2020/21 by the Leverhulme Trust.
In part, Sentimental Activism shares the impetus of Discrepant Solace (Oxford University Press, 2019) to offer a critical amnesty to constellations of affective representation and response that have sometimes been disparaged. In Discrepant Solace I argue that while consolation has often been associated with political quietude and – in the context of reading – with the seductions of escape or dubious distraction, writers from recent decades in fact tell a different story about the complexities of solace in both lived experience and in literary expression. 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 tussles with its own capacity to compensate traumatic events yet without pretending to remedy the very crises or damage it evokes. Throughout the book I also suggest that contemporary literature’s most animating consolations can derive from unlikely idioms and genres, as narratives driven by the pathos of bereavement, chronic deprivation, and familial 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, 2020). This new book builds on my longstanding interests in the methodological 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 continues to expand in unprecedented directions.
Willingness to take PhD students
I would welcome for supervision projects on all aspects of contemporary fiction, postcolonial writing, modernist literary culture, creative nonfiction, affect studies, literary geographies, and the critical health humanities.
Over the past couple of decades, 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, trauma fiction, the afterlives of modernism, and contemporary nature writing.