SAMLA 2023: Bad Art
Scholarship on the politics of literature has, in recent decades, increasingly come to focus on
whether texts from the past conform to the values of the present. Some texts are praised for
modeling, even anticipating, our own progressive values, while others are subject to critique for
the way they ignore, license, or justify forms of inequity, injustice, and subordination. This
disciplinary impulse has come to seem not only justified, but natural. Yet it has also resulted in a
growing corpus of books being dismissed or maligned within the academy, books that are
crucially still being read and revered outside the academy. We call this “bad art” because we
recognize it to be, among other things, extremist, hateful, prejudiced, ignorant, monstrous,
distasteful, uncomfortable, or iffy. It is an archive that stretches from Ayn Rand’s best-selling
and self-serious libertarian epics to H.P. Lovecraft’s hysterically xenophobic weird fiction, to the
now-controversial work of embattled canonical stalwarts like Joseph Conrad.
With this panel, we want scholarship to return to such “bad art,” not to chastise these books for
failing to meet our own left standards, and certainly not to praise them, but rather to understand
them, to unpack their rhetorical appeal and historical significance, and to think about their
potential utility for the present. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said explained
“that Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so to speak,
imperialist”—that it captures the horrors of colonialism from the inside. We take this notion—a
politics of literature that seeks not to praise or condemn, but to understand bad art and its bad
politics—as our guiding principle.
To this end, we encourage submissions that explore 1) the sociological or historical import of
“bad” texts (i.e. Rand’s lasting role on “libertarian” thinking) 2) whatever else might emerge
from the study of “bad” texts (i.e. what Lovecraft might reveal about fragile white masculinity).
Please send an abstract (200-400 words) and a cv to firstname.lastname@example.org and