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An Embarrassment of Lateness

Fig. 1. Herbert E. Crowley, Here they are again! (possibly a “Wiggle Much” design), ca. 1910. Watercolor, pen and ink, 3.25 x 4.9 in. Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In a 2015 discussion on the state of Ireland’s literature, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, Anne Enright, observed that “since the crash a lot has been disrupted. There’s a resurgent modernism in writers like Eimear McBride and Sarah-Louise Bennett.”[1] In attempting to answer the first question we should always ask of contemporary writing—why does this author write the way she does?—Enright connected the economic restructuring imposed upon Ireland by the EU in 2010 to a widely noticed shift in the texture of Irish fiction. The transformations of the relationships between capital, state, and citizen that resulted from the quaintly termed “Economic Adjustment Programme for Ireland”—what gets rather too loosely described as neoliberalism—are hardly unique to Ireland, and few would disagree they are one of the distinguishing experiences of our time. However, in seeking to describe what is new about Irish writing since the crash, Enright compares it to something old: modernism. While McBride has accepted her “continuity” with a “European” tradition of “diaspora” modernist writing, Bennett has rejected Enright’s description of her work as a kind of modernism, preferring instead to characterize it as writing which tries to avoid “falling into a shape that already exists”: “The term ‘new modernism’ is meaningless, but we are always looking for parity it seems, rather than being alert to what is distinct and fertile.”[2] Bennett shows a prickly and refreshing frustration with critics who assimilate unexpected appearances of what has never existed before to the comforting familiarity of the modernism that has, and she pinpoints how the “new” acts as a homogenizing force when applied to the evaluation of culture. This, of course, was Baudelaire’s point at modernism’s primal scene in 1860s Paris, and it was intended as a damning one.

Contemporary Modernisms, Contemporary Embarrassments

Enright’s use of modernism to praise formal innovation and McBride’s sense of continuity with modernism as a transnational and ongoing project are instances of a pervasive tendency in the criticism of contemporary literature. A far from comprehensive list of writers claimed to be indebted to modernism’s legacies or continuing its projects (often by the writers themselves) would include Zadie Smith, Jorie Graham, Toni Morrison, Lynn Hejinian, Kamau Brathwaite, Tom McCarthy, J. H. Prynne, J. M. Coetzee, Susan Howe, Don DeLillo, and Kazuo Ishiguro. An equally incomplete list of aspects of contemporary life that critics have claimed should be understood in relation to modernism includes globalization, diaspora, financialization, quality television, and Twitter. These claims have been underwritten by different methodologies and commitments, yet they all share a principle David James has observed in the concurrent recuperation of mid-century writers as hitherto neglected modernists, a principle which “assumes that conferring the value-adding epithet modernist is inevitably positive for the reinstated writer’s perceived reputation and pedagogical popularity.”[3] Michael Darcy and Matthew Nilges have also suggested that for critics rather than authors, the salient point of comparison is less early-century rupture than mid-century consolidation: “this contemporary return to modernism as a canon of aesthetic autonomy, a formal tradition to be renewed, continued, or inherited, marks a continuation of the late modernist or postwar institutionalization of modernism.”[4] That we might be reliving a resurgent institutionalization rather than a resurgent modernism might be one explanation for the increasing attention to the institutions of twentieth-century literature: the writing program, the literary archive, the theory journal, and so on. Seen from this light, for all that separates Cyril Connolly from the Modernist Studies Association, the moment of postmodernism appears as a fast receding blip within a longer process of modernism’s canonization, institutionalization, and pedagogic diffusion.

If this contemporary return to modernism involves a continuation of one of the mid-century’s critical projects, it also involves a less apparent reemergence of one its latent critical affects—embarrassment. More specifically, this is an embarrassment on behalf the literature conceptualized as being “late” in relation to a modernism that sets the criteria for evaluation. In Britain, this needs to be distinguished from the postwar “reaction against experiment”; Philip Larkin and C. P. Snow felt pride, not embarrassment, in coming after Pound and Woolf because they simply didn’t think they were any good.[5] In contrast, John Wain’s 1962 praise of Ulysses as the final “masterpiece” makes him think that subsequently “there has been very little experimental novel-writing that strikes one as serious, or motivated by anything other than faddishness or the irritable search for new gimmicks.”[6] A similar cringe on behalf of the state of mid-century poetry is shown by Stephen Spender at the conclusion of  his glorification of The Struggle of the Modern (1963): “Perhaps a deliberate, conscious, limited poetry of experiences, carefully chosen and rationally explored, is inevitable today. But the works of the modern movement stand behind us not only by reason of their being so much more ambitious but because they wrestle with the universal predicament that is still our world.”[7]At mid-century, to be behind in time was to be behind in quality.

In the United States, the embarrassment of lateness is strikingly evident in no less an essay than that which instituted the myth of 1922 as modernism’s annus mirabilis, Harry Levin’s “What Was Modernism” (1960). Reflecting on American literature since 1945, Levin cautions that “nostalgia for the vigorous youth of our century is a weakness in which we need not indulge ourselves; nor would it serve any purpose to draw invidious comparisons between our immediate contemporaries and our elders.”[8] Nonetheless, this is precisely what he does when discussing the literature of his time: “[l]acking the courage of their convictions, much in our arts and letters simply exploits and diffuses, on a large scale and at a popular level, the results of their experimentalism” (Levin, “What Was Modernism?,” 613). Modernism, Levin observes, was also characterized by a “feeling of belatedness,” but this was one which involved “feeling belated and up-to-date simultaneously” (622). The feeling of belatedness that affects the critic who looks at the literature of his present with modernism established as a criterion of value in the past is different; it lacks the dialectical relationship between feeling late and feeling up-to-date with an approaching future. Although Levin evinces rather than names the affect accompanying modernism’s institutionalization, he suggests one intriguing reason why it has to be different from the lateness felt by the modernist: “Insofar as they were ahead of their time, we can even claim to be nearer to them” (618). The anticipation for the future produced by modernist writers out of their belated feeling required an object, and that object, Levin realizes to some disappointment, is him. Modernism’s own affective dynamics condemn its successors to lateness.

“Lateness” might initially seem to be a noun naming a number of related but distinct temporal conditions: coming after a moment in time, being at the end of a particular period of time, being at the most recent stage of a period of time. But all these meanings imply an anticipated moment of time, whether missed, approaching, or receding; that is to say, they imply an affective relationship to time. Attention to the temporalities of feelings has been a feature of much work in the revival of affect theory, although as Philip Fisher points out, for thinkers from Aristotle to Burke it has always been the case that passions like “[w]onder, anger, grief, and fear reveal the different ways that time is rushed, dilated, ordered and used up,” and that “[w]orks of art modeled on those states follow distinct recipes for the use of time.”[9] So if affects have a temporality, might not temporalities have their affects? 

Lateness as Affect and Temporality

Levin is not the only critic to conceptualize lateness not so much as a temporality as a feeling. For Harold Bloom, “belatedness” was a form of anxiety; for Frederic Jameson the lateness of late capitalism was manifested in “a strange, compensatory, decorative exhilaration,” “a peculiar kind of euphoria.”[10] In an illuminating survey of lateness in European culture, Ben Hutchinson turns to Paul Valéry to argue that lateness might be understood as embarrassment: to be modern is to be “‘embarrassed’ by the perspective of lateness imposed on us by our cultural inheritance, an inheritance that inhibits our ability to understand the present as anything other than a mere continuation, or indeed diminution, of the past.”[11] What Valéry’s conceptualization of lateness as embarrassment captures so well is the effect this affect has on one’s attitude towards the present: embarrassed by our hermeneutic lateness, “‘we moderns’ are defined by our repeated attempts to contest our belated status . . . it is the embarrassment of lateness that drives its search for legitimacy” (Hutchinson, Lateness, 17). Accepting or ascribing lateness involves a relationship of embarrassment precisely because embarrassment seeks rather than spurns legitimacy in relation to its cause. I’m embarrassed if I make a mistake in class because I care what the teacher thinks of me; I’m embarrassed for you when you wear jeans to a formal reception because you have deviated from a standard of taste you think you understand. Unlike what Sianne Ngai calls the “potentially ennobling or morally beatific” states of shame or melancholia, which seek to transform the negativity of lateness into a source of redemption from or resistance to the past, the embarrassment of lateness seeks a parity with the past that can never be completely achieved.[12] Lateness, embarrassment, and the need for legitimation are deeply intertwined. How do critics deal with the embarrassment prompted by the need to legitimate the lateness of their literary objects?

Once again, we can take our lead for detecting the affects that accompany extensions of modernism’s temporal reach into the contemporary from studies which claim to be studying modernism’s “late” phase around the mid-century. Tyrus Miller offered the first sustained claim for the existence of a distinct “late modernism”, and this was an explicitly “evaluative” and “strategic” move, a conscious “labor of critical advocacy, of ‘making the case’ for a body of works” by claiming them as modernist.[13] Yet in order to escape from the bind wherein the standard of evaluation can never be achieved as a consequence of lateness, Miller argues that “[l]ate modernist writing thus coheres as a distinctive literary ‘type’ within the historical development of modern literature,” revealing “a growing skepticism about modernist sensibility and craft” already latent in modernism itself (Late Modernism, 21, 20). C. D. Blanton similarly justifies the importance of failed epics like H.D.’s Trilogy by arguing that their “apparent slow surrender of modernism’s grander aesthetic projects” reveals late modernism not as a period term but a “dialectical logic inscribed already within the aesthetic construction of modernism as such.”[14] Matthew Hart’s response to the fact that as an evaluative category applied to the poetry of Basil Bunting or Harryette Mullen, “late modernism” will always be damnation by faint praise, is also to argue that “late modernist texts are characterized by a . . . negativity” always already present in modernism itself, “in which synthetic formal practices strain the representation norms of vernacular language to the breaking point.”[15] One response to the embarrassment threatened as soon as texts are labeled “late” is to turn it back onto the modernist standard of value itself, yet the distinction between the different evaluative vectors of late (negative) and modernist (positive) nevertheless remains intact.

Lateness in modernist studies seems inescapably associated with lessness (to borrow a coinage from Beckett). Therefore, critics who claim as modernist writing ever more distant in time from the early twentieth century cannot avoid feeling embarrassed for the authors condemned to lateness as the price paid for sharing modernism’s value. For Mark McGurl, the US creative writing program teaches a “late modernist” aesthetic, and in order to counter the belief that there is something “‘embarrassingly’ programmatic” about products of the program, or that institutions themselves are somehow “embarrassing,” he states that program fiction in fact offers an “embarrassment of riches.”[16] Either way, the standard of modernism makes postwar fiction somehow a little embarrassing. The transnational expansions of modernist studies have been accompanied by an almost phobic disavowal of the “belatedness” of the expanded field of literatures under consideration: it is a project of “belatedness reconsidered,” according to Laura Doyle.[17] Yet “belated” doesn’t have to mean worse if what you are coming after isn’t unquestionably better. As Michaela Bronstein points out, for Ngũgĩ wa’ Thiongo “[t]o be later is an advantage.”[18] For Ngũgĩ, “Modernism . . .  is merely one more element on a colonial school curriculum that could be made useful,” and its usefulness stems not from any value it has from being the cultural response to modernity, but from the use a writer can make of its forms in later political contexts (Bronstein, “Ngũgĩ’s Use of Conrad,” 415). One way of out the embarrassment of lateness for critics, this implies, is that we need not less but more attention to the historical moments of modernist writing’s reception, the kind that shows how little Britain in 1910 has in common with Kenya in 1967 (not to mention with Ireland in 2015), so that this reception can be understood and valued on its own terms. Curiously, it has been critics rather than authors like Ngũgĩ who have internalized lateness as only negative. Susan Stanford Friedman’s critique of any periodized concept of modernity stems from her belief that by taking Europe “as the benchmark for modernity, this approach finds other arguably modern phenomena elsewhere to be peripheral, derivate, belated, or imitative.”[19] To avoid this embarrassing situation—which is doubly embarrassing for raising the specter of evaluation—is to retain one benchmark but to apply it to all cultures across time.[20] Off again with Baudelaire: Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau! The planetary turn has questioned many assumptions underlying the study of literature on a global scale; the value of modernism has not been one of them.

Modernist Legacies and Contemporary Values

One of the most revealing engagements with the problems raised by describing contemporary writing as a kind of “modernism”—revealing because it confronts head-on the embarrassing issues of legitimacy and value that other critics avoid—takes place in Derek Attridge’s reflections on J. M. Coetzee. Attempting to get to grips with the form of Coetzee’s writing, “its use of nonrealist devices, its allusiveness, and its metafictional qualities,” Attridge initially characterizes it as “an instance of ‘late modernism’ or perhaps ‘neomodernism.’” [21] But “these labels do not in themselves get us very far in dealing with the relation between form and politics in his writing, given the wide disagreements about their scope and significance” (Attridge, J. M. Coetzee, 3). Attridge’s definition of modernism lies in his argument that “the self-reflexiveness of modernist writing . . . is, in its effects if not always its intentions, allied to a new apprehension of otherness” (4). What modernism actually names here is a particular value attached to literature in relation to a theory of ethics, one developed by Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, and as his qualification about effects versus intentions suggests, it is one you would be hard pressed to find in the self-understanding of most modernist writers. But then—why should you? A statement like the following dilutes modernism as a historical category to the point of uselessness: “This modernism after modernism necessarily involves a reworking of modernism’s methods, since nothing could be less modernist than a repetition of previous modes, however disruptive they were in their time” (5). Yet it makes perfect sense when we recognize it is standing in as a claim for literary value, a claim about why we should value Coetzee’s writing above others. Thus you can almost feel the relief when Attridge admits that “[w]hether we call this modernism or postmodernism is, finally, inconsequential; what is important is the registering of the event of meaning that constitutes the work of literature—the event that used to be called ‘form,’ and that was given a new potential by modernist writers” (31). Now, this is not to say that locating contemporary literature’s value in its registering of alterity is without its problems—as Terry Eagleton observes, taking the demand to be open to the other as a form of ethics is “as portentously hollow as the Kantian categorical imperative.”[22] But by refusing to historicize Coetzee’s writing in relation to a modernism to which it always will be late, and by meticulously tracing the effects of literary form in relation to Coetzee’s own historical moments, Attridge’s approach enables us to have critical conversations about ethics, politics, and religion—conversations about value—that remain open to one of literature’s own most important values: its ability to manifest the unexpected.

To do this, Attridge has written elsewhere, we might need to become different kinds of critics. “Some kinds of literary study,” he argues, “are more valuable than others . . . because they respond more fully to the value—or at least the potential value—of an engagement with literature.”[23] This is criticism which fosters a deeper understanding of “literary experience”: an act-event wherein form causes the reader’s “own familiar universe [of experience] . . . to accommodate something previously imagined or unfelt” (Attridge, “Literary Experience,” 253). And for Attridge, this criticism is “inescapably evaluative, whether overtly or by implication” (261). This is not criticism reduced to offering nods at achievement or greatness. Rather, this is criticism that uses a response to the effects of literary form as the basis of an ongoing reflection about value. This is the kind of criticism that fails to take place when contemporary writing is described as “late” in relation to modernism, the embarrassment of lateness part of a deeper embarrassment about evaluation. Indeed, shifting the grounds of methodological reflection to critical affects opens up questions of value that can rarely be explicitly articulated when modernism’s relationship to the contemporary is considered a question of form, period, or genre. Questions of literary value are different from questions about modernism’s historical legacy, and it is revealing that this difference had been elided. For authors as well as critics, it has been easier to cling to the value of the modernism they think they know, rather than respond to the strangeness of writing they don’t. Might the embarrassment caused by modernism finally come to an end when we cease to be embarrassed about value?


[1] Anne Enright, Interview with Vincent Woods, Longford Public Library Arts Council, Longford, Ireland, January 2015.

[2] Eimear McBride, “Interview with Eimear McBride,” The White Review, May 2014; Claire-Louise Bennett, “Claire-Louise Bennett on Debut Collection, Pond,” The Skinny, November 20, 2015.

[3] David James, “Afterword,” in The Contemporaneity of Modernism: Literature, Media, Culture, ed. Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges (New York: Routledge, 2016), 216–24, 222. Emphasis in original.

[4] Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges, “Introduction: The Contemporaneity of Modernism,” in The Contemporaneity of Modernism, 1–16, 4.

[5] Rubin Rabinovitz, The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950–1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967).

[6] John Wain, Essays on Literature and Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1966), 50.

[7] Stephen Spender, The Struggle of the Modern (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963), 266.

[8] Harry Levin, “What Was Modernism?,” Massachusetts Review 1, no. 4 (1960): 609–30, 617–18.

[9] Philip Fisher, The Vehement Passions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 9.

[10] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), xxv; Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), 10, 16.

[11] Ben Hutchinson, Lateness and Modern European Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1.

[12] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 6.

[13] Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 21.

[14] C. D. Blanton, Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 10, 19.

[15] Matthew Hart, Nations of Nothing But Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 16.

[16] Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 102, 320, xii, 410.

[17] Laura Doyle, “Afterword: Modernist Studies and Inter-Imperiality in the Longue Durée,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 669–96, 675.

[18] Michaela Bronstein, “Ngũgĩ’s Use of Conrad: A Case for Literary Transhistory,” Modern Language Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2014): 411–37, 413.

[19] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 92.

[20] Indeed, as the scope of modernist studies has also expanded vertically down into the objects of mass culture, the question of value itself has come to be seen as embarrassing. Paul Saint-Amour has perceptively noted that the contemporary field of “modernist studies” has expanded temporally, geographically, and vertically because “its key term has stopped playing bouncer and started playing host.” But if “[m]odernist studies has become a strong field . . .  in proportion as its immanent theory of modernism has weakened,” it has become a club with a entry policy as strong in its own way as the theory of modernism it is now disavows. Modernism names not so much a body of works displaying “an anticontemporary or counterconventional temper,” but an object in which to invest the anticontemporary or counterconventional tempers of critics (Paul K. Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015], 41, 38). As Saint-Amour makes clear, the strong field of modernist studies enabled by a weak theory of modernism is a club defined by an implicit valuing of anti-normativity; but why anti-normativity is so such a self-evident value, and why literature should be a source for our values, are questions seemingly embarrassing to modernist critics themselves (Paul Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25 no. 3, [2018]: 436-59).

[21] Derek Attridge, J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 2.

[22] Terry Eagleton, Trouble With Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 237.

[23] Derek Attridge, “Literary Experience and the Value of Criticism,” in The Values of Literary Studies: Critical Institutions, Scholarly Agendas, ed. Rónán McDonald (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 249–62, 250–51.