Dr Hywel Dix was invited to give the keynote address to a conference held by the Société d’Etudes Anglaises Contemporaines, Paris Diderot University in February. The conference was about British literature and culture of the last four years and Dix was selected as the keynote speaker following the successful critical reception of his recent monographs After Raymond Williams: Cultural Materialism and the Break-Up of Britain and Postmodern Fiction and the Break-Up of Britain.
His keynote paper was entitled ‘The Retrospective Stage: late career fiction and autobiography.’ In it, he opened up the concept of ‘contemporaneity’ in literary and cultural studies to critical interrogation, arguing that many of the most canonical figures in contemporary cultural production are chiefly associated with work produced years, or even decades, earlier. The effect of this is a recurring pattern whereby cultural figures often receive less critical acclaim for work produced late in their career than earlier on. Perhaps this is by definition true: we are prone to think of contemporary culture as something current rather than something coming to an end.
Using the examples of A.S. Byatt’s Children’s Book and Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here Dix used the keynote to argue that a number of prominent contemporary British writers have reached a kind of retrospective stage in their careers, symbolically returning to the styles, themes, and techniques of their earlier work. He further argued that the process of having earlier become identified with particular characteristics gives rise to a conflict between originality and habit beyond which the individual writer or cultural producer cannot travel. As a result of this conflict, the kind of fiction produced at the late career stage becomes profoundly meta-fictive and self-referential so that in effect throughout this stage the writers are always returning to and remaking the same work for which they had become celebrated at the earlier stages as if for the first time.
It is anticipated that this paper will be the start of a broader project on the idea of lateness, the belated and contemporaneity in contemporary cultural studies.