Failures in print and audiovisual culture
This international conference will be held in Cannes, France, on June 6 and 7, 2024.
Organisation : Karine Hildenbrand (MCF, Université Côte d’Azur), Nicolas Labarre (PU, Université Bordeaux Montaigne) et Isabelle Licari-Guillaume (MCF, Université Côte d’Azur).
It is not uncommon to see failure romanticized as a low point that reveals one’s true self—confer J. K. Rowling (“Rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” she said in a 2008 speech at Harvard). In such cases, failure plays a role in the construction of the author’s posture (Meizoz)—it is a narrative conceit, the Campbellian ordeal before the final triumph that is the book itself. Yet what of the real failures? Those come in various forms, from the doomed projects that never find their audience to the supremely boring trash, amounting to nothing but “a total waste of paper” (Rokk), footage or pixels. We are interested in those books, comics, magazines, videogames, films or series that form the uncanonical, illegitimate refuse of modern culture.
Failure, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and in some cases failure is made spectacular by the intensity of the hype surrounding the works. In 1963 Cleopatra’s shooting made headlines for all the wrong reasons: from the scandalous love affair between Taylor and Burton to a change in directors and cast members, the movie turned out to be the most expensive production at the time and nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Not only were viewers’ expectations misled and reviews mixed, but it resulted in studios shying away from high-budget epics for a very long time. Twenty years after creating The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most canonical superhero narratives (Beaty and Woo, 57) Frank Miller returned to the character to write All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (2005–2008), along with star artist Jim Lee. That endeavor proved disastrous on virtually all fronts (barring perhaps Lee’s art), with one reviewer noting that the series “just spirals deeper and deeper into the abyss of unreadable”, and the story was left unfinished. That high-profile failure nevertheless generated an infamous work, memorable and to some readers pleasurable, precisely because of its inability to conform to expectations. In videogames, likewise, memorable failures abound, framed as redemption stories (No Man’s Sky, Hello Games, 2016) or as cautionary tales (Anthem, Bioware, 2019).
In a culture where ratings are everywhere, there is something touching about outstanding failures; when a book, magazine or comic leaves the tepid realm of the mediocre in order to enter the select circle of absolute trash. In cinema, such works have come to form a subcultural canon of their own, from Z-movies to films so-bad-they’re-good and are celebrated, among others, by the Razzie Awards. Similar trends exist in print culture, one prime example being the Bad Sex Awards, which celebrates resounding failures of good taste in erotic scenes.
Some commercial failures have to do not with the contents of the work itself, but with the context within which it was published. In 2007, DC comics launched Minx, an imprint aimed at teenage girls that sought to provide them with an alternative to manga. At its helm were Karen Berger and Shelly Bond, two successful editors with impeccable credentials. Yet the Minx books were a resounding failure. The postmortem revealed that they had been shelved under “comics” rather than “young adult” and thus failed to reach their readers. This goes to show that distribution, promotion, and marketing models play a vital role in the success or failure of books and magazines. Moreover, Howard Becker’s work has shown how the various people involved in making a film can have diverse and even contradictory goals, which explains why “movies are so much worse than they need be for strictly commercial reasons.” (89)
Yet commercial failure does not necessarily prevent works from becoming critically successful in the long run. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) attracted very small audiences and prompted bad reviews before becoming a cult performance and the longest-running release in film history. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) went relatively unnoticed before being labeled the “worst film ever made” by Harry and Michael Medved and being acclaimed as best worst movie. Tim Burton’s tribute to its director, Ed Wood (1994) contributed to the movie’s fame.
We invite contributions exploring the role of failure in anglophone print and audiovisual culture, including comics, children’s books, magazines, novels, videogames, films and series. In particular, we would like to explore the many ways in which failure and canonicity are not mutually exclusive, if only because failure, no less than the canon, is a discursive and highly contingent notion. We also welcome submissions discussing such failures from a transnational perspective.
Suggested topics of inquiry include:
- Trying hard to fail: What distinguishes mere mediocrities from utter failures? What thresholds does a work need to cross to be identified as the latter, and how are these thresholds discursively created and maintained?
- Learning from failure: how do publishers’ or producers’ narratives account for failures, and how do these failures affect later decisions? Is this learning process similar to the ones undergone by the creators themselves? Do readers and viewers themselves learn from failures?
- The pleasure of failure: why is it that we enjoy reading or viewing failed narratives? Does failure have value for creators? To what extent can we regard “cult” works as failures?
- Failure and trash: while the two notions harbour similarities, not all trashy works are failures on their own terms or for their intended audience. Even disreputable and “trashy” genres, such as horror or pornography, have their successes and failures.
- In the wrong place at the wrong time: can bad commercial strategies undermine the success of good works? In what cases does commercial failure become a badge of honour, and what are the mechanisms enabling the dissociation of aesthetic success and commercial failure?
- Doomed to failure: are some characters, genres, themes and audiences more likely to fail than others? How can we explain the existence of the aforementioned Bad Sex award in literature, while no such prize exists for Bad Driving Scene or even Bad Scientific Explanation, for instance? Can invariants be identified in the Razzie Awards for worst picture?
Please submit a 250-350 word proposal, along with a 100 word bio, to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org et nicolas.labarre@u-bordeaux-montaigne by Nov. 6th 2023.