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Dr David James, BA (Birmingham) MSt. (Oxford) DPhil (Sussex)

Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature



David James

My research and teaching span twentieth- and twenty-first-century writing, with a particular focus on modernist literary culture and contemporary world Anglophone fiction. I undertook a joint honours English and Drama programme at Birmingham, moving then to Oxford for a Masters in gender studies and interwar women’s writing, after which I pursued a DPhil on the contemporary novel at Sussex. For a number of years I worked at the University of Nottingham as Lecturer, then Associate Professor, in modern English literature, before joining Queen Mary in 2012. My activities in scholarly editing as well as my own criticism have moved comparatively across modernist studies and contemporary literature, generating opportunities for these fields to have useful conversations with each other.


Undergraduate teaching:

In the 2015-16 academic year, I am on Leverhulme-funded research leave working on a book about the ethics and poetics of consolation in contemporary narrative.


Research interests:

  • Contemporary fiction and life-writing
  • Modernist narrative
  • Affect theory and the poetics of emotion
  • Literary geographies
  • Questions of form and histories of reading

Recent and On-Going Research

My research cuts across twentieth- and twenty-first-century writing, focusing especially on developments in the novel as a form. My first book, Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space (Continuum, 2008), forged dialogues between narrative theory and cultural geography, an approach I have since advanced in a number of articles on regional and transnational modernisms. My second monograph, Modernist Futures (Cambridge University Press, 2012), considered the implications of the reanimation of modernist aesthetics in contemporary American, British and world Anglophone fiction. The book proposes that we can discern the political consequences of such reactivations without diluting the historical specificity of modernism’s global movements and moments. It thus offers a vocabulary for doing justice to the particularity and inventiveness of writers such as J. M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, and Michael Ondaatje, while also enabling us to rethink the assumptions behind the way we conceptualize and periodize those modernist impulses with which contemporary novelists remain in dialogue.

I continue to write widely on the generic and cultural diversity of postmodern writing, and in recent essays I’ve demonstrated how alternative paradigms offered by world literature and transnationalism help us to reconsider the complex progression and multiple locations of postmodernism in more historically nuanced terms. Key examples of my work in this area appear in The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature, ed. Yogita Goyal (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and in Postmodern/Postwar–and After, ed. Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden (University of Iowa 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 include two journal special issues: the first, with Andrzej Gasiorek (Birmingham), for Contemporary Literature (53.4) on ‘Fiction since 2000: Post-Millennial Commitments’ (2012); and the second, with Nathan Waddell (Nottingham), for Modernist Cultures (8.1) on ‘Musicality and Modernist Form’ (2013). My work as an editor continues on a number of fronts, as I recently completed The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), which I hope will provide a genuinely useful resource for students and teachers alike; and I’m currently editing Modernism and Close Reading (Oxford University Press, 2017). This new volume builds on my longstanding interests in theories of reading and the genealogies of formalism. 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.

I have also been actively facilitating other scholars’ contributions to the flourishing field of the contemporary. In 2011 I established with Matthew Hart (Columbia) and Rebecca Walkowitz (Rutgers) Literature Now, a book series we co-edit for Columbia University Press. The series is the first of its kind to welcome projects that are comparative and transnational in scope, as well as those focused on national and regional literatures.

My next monograph, Discrepant Solace: Contemporary Writing and the Work of Consolation, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. The book argues that while we tend to think of literary solace in terms of the edifying or even therapeutic aspects of reading, consolation makes more unusual, improbable and often paradoxical appearances in the writing process itself, when form becomes the engine of redress. Considering memoir as well as fiction, I engage with the work of Julian Barnes, John Burnside, J. M. Coetzee, Joan Didion, David Grossman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing, Helen Macdonald, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, and Colm Tóibín, among others, revealing how style compensates for plot without altogether remedying the very crises or distresses it evokes. Throughout I try to show how contemporary literature’s most animating consolations derive from the most unlikely idioms and genres, as narratives associated with the pathos of bereavement, deprivation, and personal or environmental catastrophe also produce their own dynamic if seemingly discrepant modes of mitigation and resistance. By bringing into conversation a variety of innovative and profound narratives from recent years, the book tracks how agilely fiction and life-writing can at once intensify and scrutinize form’s propensity to be an antagonist of loss.  

Discrepant Solace intervenes in a broader set of on-going debates about what critical practice itself might mean and become once we step beyond the parameters of critique. In so doing, the book reflects an evolving strand in my research concerned with relations between literary value and the poetics of emotion, exploring alternative ways of responding to styles of affect that enable capacious and unpredictable conceptions of how literature performs cultural work.



Discrepant Solace: Contemporary Writing and the Work of Consolation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

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 Books

Modernism and Close Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

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 Articles and Chapters

‘Modernism and the Urban Imaginary: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Cosmopolitanism’, in The Cambridge History of Modernism, ed. Vincent Sherry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

‘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)

‘Experimentalism: Self-Reflexive and Postmodern Stories’, in The Cambridge History of the English Short Story, ed. Dominic Head (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

‘Modern/Altermodern’, in Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, ed. Amy J. Elias and Joel Burges (New York: New York University Press, 2016)

‘Worlded Localisms: Cosmopolitics Writ Small’, in Postmodern Literature and Race, ed. Len Platt and Sara Upstone (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 

‘Metamodernism: Narratives of Revolution and Continuity’, co-authored with Urmila Seshagiri, PMLA, 129:1 (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)

‘A Renaissance for the Crystalline Novel?’ Contemporary Literature, 53:4 (Winter 2012): 845–874

‘John Burnside’s Ecologies of Solace:  Regional Environmentalism and the Consolations of Description’. Modern Fiction Studies, 58:3 (Fall 2012): 600–615

‘“Style is Morality”? Aesthetics and Politics in the Amis Era’. Textual Practice, 26:1 (February 2012): 11–25

‘Integrity after Metafiction’. Twentieth-Century Literature, 57:3 (Fall 2011): 492–515

‘Modernist Narratives: Revisions and Re-readings’, in The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms, ed. Peter Brooker, Andrzej Gasiorek, Deborah Longworth, and Andrew Thacker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

See also my Queen Mary Research Publication profile


PhD Supervision

I have supervised a range of doctorates to completion, including theses on contemporary nature writing, on ethical issues in cosmopolitan fiction, and on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to Aestheticism. I would welcome for supervision projects on modernist literary culture, narrative theory, and contemporary American, British, Irish and world Anglophone fiction.

Public engagement

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