Failure in/and American Literature
American Literature Association, 2023 Conference, May 25-28, Boston
Jasleen Singh (University of Toronto) and Ross Bullen (OCAD University)
19 September 2022
In “The American Style of Failure,” Denis Donoghue asks: “Do we not feel that American literature thrives upon conditions of failure and that it would lose its character, if not its soul, were it given the conditions of success?” Failure, in other words, serves as more than a mere recurring theme in the American literary canon—it is a literary identity that is both feared and embraced. As an inescapable condition of living that also happens to be intrinsic to the process of literary production, failure, disappointment, and under-performance are everywhere to be found in American literature. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015), for instance, was rejected by 18 publishers before becoming the first novel by an American author to win the Booker Prize. Alongside Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and Edgar Allan Poe, texts such as Moby Dick, Pudd’nhead Wilson, and The Sellout, make Melville, Twain, and Beatty some of the most successful theorists of failure emerging from within the American literary tradition. Their “failed” literary texts animate our preoccupation with—and even commemoration of—failure in/and American writing, whether it occurs at the level of literary form, genre, theme, reception, or in the very breaking down and (subversive) re-arranging of language to paradoxically expose the failures of American culture and politics. Why do American writers embrace failure, or fail to conceal it? And what are the aesthetic, political, and historical implications of this relation to failure? As Jack Halberstam notes in The Queer Art of Failure, the perceived absence of success or skillfulness holds the capacity to perform rhetorical, dramatic, as well as pedagogical and social functions simultaneously. Halberstam thus concludes that it is failure that “allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods.”
We seek papers that explore any facet of failure in/and American as well as African American literature and culture. Authors may choose to engage with Donoghue’s and Halberstam’s descriptions of failure, although we welcome all approaches to this topic. Please send proposals to Jasleen Singh (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ross Bullen (email@example.com) by November 30th, 2022.