One of the books that I’m most looking forward to reading this year is Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin’s The End of the Oulipo?, which just came out this week. As a huge fan of the Oulipo—and a huge fan of Scott and Lauren—this has the potential to be really interesting.
The jacket copy isn’t that spectacular or illuminating, but for those who are interested, here it is:
The Oulipo, founded in 1960s, is a group of writers and mathematicians which seeks to create literature using constrained experimental writing techniques such as palindromes, lipograms and snowballs. A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. A snowball is a poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.
The Oulipo group celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 2010, and as it enters its sixth decade, its members, fans and critics are all wondering: where can it go from here? In two long essays Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin consider Oulipo’s strengths, weaknesses, and impact on today’s experimental literature.
To give you a slightly more appealing entryway to the book (which you should definitely buy, here’s a bit from the introduction:
In the movement’s first “manifesto” co-founder François Le Lionnais implies that it isn’t possible to pin down a definition of the Oulipo: there is an “annoying lacuna,” he says, in the dictionary under the term “potential literature.” Whatever the Oulipo is, and the Oulipo has the potential (of course) to be many things, it will always endeavor “systematically and scientifically” to find new forms for literature. Some Oulipians will make their constraints explicit (Georges Perec and Italo Calvino believed this was crucial), while others will leave them implicit, leaving readers, as Harry Mathews put it, “straining to find out” what constraints are at play (if any). Mathews himself has said
that he only occasionally produces Oulipian literature, while, according to Hervé Le Tellier, any work created by a member of the group is Oulipian to some extent.
The skeptical reader would be forgiven for wondering whether such games aren’t, after all, a little juvenile. Why write a novel, as Georges Perec did, without the letter e? But the Oulipo’s game-playing fits into a long French tradition: the avant-garde just loves a game, with its rules of engagement and its unknown outcome. It was only a matter of time before a group made games its entire raison d’être. (The Oulipo weren’t the first to do so, joining the Situationists and the Lettrists and the ’Pataphysicists in the game mentality of the postwar period.) [. . .]
Exhaustion is the necessary corollary to the Oulipian concept of potential. The constraint acts as a rubber band, expanding around the contours of the work as it pursues exhaustion, stretching to its limits; then it’s snapped, and the work’s potential sails out into the world. The constraint creates an environment in which creation can be helped along. Rather than facing down the blank page, the Oulipian writer can begin with a project.
There is no doubt that the Oulipo remains a productive and much-admired literary force on both sides of the Atlantic, but today, as the group enters its sixth decade of existence, its relevance and its future are in question. None of the Oulipian works that have made their way into English in the past decade (with the possible exception of Jacques Roubaud’s “great fire of London” project) can rival the best work published during the group’s staggeringly successful run through the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, in many instances the writing produced now is strikingly derivative of prior Oulipian works. Increasingly, the strongest work in the Oulipian spirit is occurring outside of the group, being done by authors working both consciously and unconsciously within its shadow. Perhaps this was inevitable: embedded in the Oulipo’s “open source” ethos is the idea of discovering forms and methods that anyone can use, regardless of membership in the group (though they can always be coopted sooner or later). It is possible that the group has become too inbred: it is now as concerned with archiving its history, carrying on its traditions, as it is in making new literature. Perhaps it is now the case that writers who wish to make their mark by following the creative spirit of the legendary cadres of Oulipians must do so beyond the group’s margins. These questions cut to the core of artistic movements in general, commenting profoundly on where true experimentalism comes from and how it is sustained. Can potential literature outlive its potential? Is the inevitable progression of an avant-garde group from fringe to mainstream? Which aspects of Oulipo have thrived, and which have become co-opted and defused? Where
is the Oulipo vulnerable to caricature?
It’s great to see this resurgence (at least among the younger American literati) of interest in the Oulipo. In fact, this seems like a really nice complement to Daniel Levin Becker’s book, Many Subtle Channels, which you should also read.
Anyway, I’ll write a more descriptive piece after I’ve had a chance to read this, but for now, I just wanted to share my excitement about this . . .
Just received this e-mail about the new issue of Five Dials:
The latest edition of Five Dials — number 8b — is now available. As you will notice, it is an addendum, but a far better addendum than, say, the one you find at the back of your Self Assessment Tax Return. Your free copy is available here.
You’ll also notice our latest issue is all about Paris — again. For those subscribers who loathe every mention of Paris, either because they were pickpocketed on the Rue Le Verrier or they’re struggling with the final chapter of a biography of Napoleon — we are sorry. For all the others subscribers, please enjoy a little more from the City of Light, as well as our favourite Maupassant short story. We’re always trying to offer a helping hand to young writers. Please enjoy.
I’m a big fan of Five Dials, and feel a special connection to these two recent issues, especially the first, which came out right before I went to Paris for the first time ever and including a great article by Lauren Elkin on Parisian bookstores and the quirks of French bookselling. What’s cool about this addendum, is that, if you look closely enough at the lower right corner of the first pic from the Five Dials launch party, you’ll see Emma Archer and Todd Zuniga—both of whom were on the same Parisian trip . . .
Published by Hamish Hamilton in pdf format and distributed free of charge through their website, Five Dials is a pretty amazing publication that doesn’t seem to get nearly as much attention as it deserves. I mean, in just this 45-page issue there are pieces by Ali Smith, Geoff Dyer, Susan Sontag (on Camus), John Updike, Lauren Elkin, and Steve Toltz. And issue 5 (31 pages) has pieces by W.G. Sebald, Stephen Dunn, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Paul Wilson, and Alain de Botton. This is substantial.
(Case in point re: the lack of widespread attention: the Five Dials Facebook Page has a total of 59 (now 60) fans. This seems impossibly small for a Facebook page that’s been operating since May.)
Anyway, the article that really caught my eye in this latest issue is Lauren Elkin’s look at why there are 792 bookshops in Paris. Actually, this is more about the Parisian literary scene and how government regulations, fantastic sounding events, and a general attitude about books (le livre n’est pas un produit comme des autres or “a book is not a commodity like any other”) “keeps it literary” at a time when one out of every four French people claim to have not read a book in the last year.
If only 75% of Americans read a book last year . . . There’s an interesting statistic that Lauren pulls out: France spends 1.5% of its gross interior product on cultural activities, whereas in the U.S. that figure is 0.3%.
And in terms of that vast number of bookstores thing—here’s a bit of perspective:
A search in the Paris yellow pages for “bookstores” yielded 792 results: 101 in the 6th, 100 in the 5th—although these are the traditionally literary neighbourhoods; still there are 63 in the 11th, 28 in the 19th, 36 in the 16th. When you consider that there are only 10 independent bookstores in all of New York city, these figures are astounding.
There are over 3,000 independent bookstores in France, employing approximately 13,000 people. The largest French retailer of books—the Fnac—was founded by communists.
Nevertheless, French indie bookstores face a lot of common challenges—“high rents, low return on investment, high social fees to be paid for their employees”—all of which led to some
seriously un-American innovative government interventions:
The Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel, introduced a “plan livre“—book plan—at the end of 2007 which aims to help out independent bookstores who fit a certain profile. The label “LIR”—librairie independente de reference—was launched in 2008. In order to qualify, there are a list of requirements, notably: the bookstore must not have access to a centralized warehouse from which their stock is replenished, the stock must contain a majority of books in print for more than one year, and the bookstore’s owner must have total autonomy over the bookstore’s holdings. Once the label has been bestowed, the bookstore becomes eligible for a variety of subsidies from the Centre National du Livre (CNL)—interest-free loans for development projects, funds with which to acquire stock (up to 500,000 euros per year of the CNL’s budget have been earmarked for this purpose), reductions on social fees for employees, tax relief, and funding to sponsor readings, festivals, and other activities. (The funding of the CNL increased in 2008 from 1.3 to 2.5 million euros.)
And this is all in addition to the “fixed book price” policy:
A book is not a product like any other, the French government affirmed when they adopted the Loi Lang, regarding the fixed price of books, in 1981. The law stipulates that the publisher has to print the price of the book on the back cover, and retailers are not allowed to offer more than a 5% discount on that price. It is the reason behind the quality of books published and the abundance of independent bookstores in France; it prevents large retailers like the Fnac or Amazon from putting small bookstores out of business; in theory it is also meant to prevent consumers from going to small bookstores to check out a book and then buying it in discount stores or, now, online.
There’s a lot more to her article than this “business of bookstores” stuff (which, yes, is my hobby horse, I admit), including a cool bit about the various book events in Paris, like Jacques Jouet’s “Attempt to tire out an author,” for which he spent four days writing a novel in the Place Stalingrad, or the Exercises de Style bus, “on which actors read from Queneau’s famous collection of ninety-nine versions of the same story: man gets on a bus.”
As someone who will be going to Paris for the first time later this month (actually as part of a study group to look at the future of publishing in France and America, so, um, that bookstore business obsession is pretty fitting), this issue of Five Dials has me all giddy. Definitely worth checking out . . . and becoming a fan of on Facebook.
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