18 January 13 | Chad W. Post

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 . . .

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