The Oulipo” by Stefanie Sobelle, Bookforum (2 Oct. 2009).

I am not aiming to acquire . . . a certitude about the truth of what I state as true in memory. All I need to do is remember at the moment when, remembering, I wrote what I remember. (Jacques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London)

Cover of "Life: A User's Manual"

Sobelle introduces her Oulipo reading list:

Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, both writers and math enthusiasts, began collaborating in Paris in 1960. The duo quickly attracted a following, which became the Workshop of Potential Literature (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or OuLiPo). Inspired by their love for mathematics, the group devised rigid constraints for literary production, including such puzzles as bilingual palindromes, isopangrams (twenty-six-letter-long statements containing all the letters of the alphabet), and N+7 (replacing every noun in a text with the seventh noun down in a dictionary).

The aim of Oulipo, as Queneau suggests in his 1963 essay “Potential Literature,” was

To propose new “structures” to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity.

Theirs, then, was a performative and heuristic model of writing; according to Mónica de la Torre in “Into the Maze: OULIPO” (Poetry.org), they wanted

  1. “to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making” and
  2. “to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities.”

Queneau split from the Surrealists because he considered much of their experimentation without literary merit, mere “eructative” (“shriek”) writing and without scientific rigour, hence the motto he and Lionnais devised: “the only literature is voluntary writing.” Oulipo is procedural, constrained in advance, rather than apophenic (“patternicity”: looking for patterns in random material) or aleatoric (automatism: randomising).

Some of the numerical, alphabetical, graphic and prosodic possibilities of constrained writing that Oulipo explored include

  1. the Knight’s Tour
  2. lipograms, used in Perec’s A Void
  3. the N+7 machine
  4. palindromes
  5. Perec’s “story-making machine,” used in Life: A User’s Manual

A reading list (available partly or wholly online  ✓):

  1. Oulipo Compendium, ed. Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (Atlas, 1998) ✓
  2. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, ed. and trans. Warren Motte (Dalkey, 2008)
  3. Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau, trans. Barbara Wright (J. Calder, 1981) [see Wikipedia] ✓
  4. Writings for the Oulipo, Ian Monk (Make Now P, 2005)
  5. Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec, trans. David Bellos (orig. 1978; Collins Harvill, 1987) [see Wikipedia and Paul Auster’s NY Times review] ✓
  6. The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations (trans. Dominic di Bernadi; orig. 1989; Dalkey Archive P, 1991) [excerpt] and The Loop (trans. Jeff Fort; orig. 1993; Dalkey Archive P, 2009), Jacques Roubaud [see Wikipedia] ✓
  7. The Conversions, Harry Mathews (orig. 1962; Dalkey Archive P, 1997) [see the Paris Review interview with Mathews] ✓
  8. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981) [see Wikipedia and David Mitchell’s Guardian retrospective] ✓
  9. Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, Marcel Bénabou, trans. David Kornacker (orig. 1986; U Nebraska P, 1996) ✓
  10. “The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo,” McSweeney’s 22: Three Books Held Within By Magnets, 2006.

I would add one more essential text: Raymond Queneau’s Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70, trans. and intro. Jordan Stump (U Illinois P, 2003).

See also

  1. Six Selections by the Oulipo,” The New Media Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (MIT P, 2003) 147-89
  2. Foulipo,” Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, talk for CalArts Noulipo Conference (Fall 2005): a call for a “feminist oulipo”
  3. Oulipo Ends Where the Work Begins: A Weekend in Four Constraints,” Christopher R. Beha (Sep. 2006)
  4. Drunken Boat 8: Oulipo special issue (2006)
  5. “The Oulipans & the Situationists,” David Vichnar, Vitalpoetics: A Journal of Critical Literary Theory (2008), online at David-Baptiste Chirot, 4 Dec. 2009 [you’ll have to “find” this entry, as the blog is continuous (aargh!)]
  6. Constrain Me, Baby,” Lily Hoang, HTMLGiant, 21 June 2010
  7. Remix and Potential Criticism,” Richard Edwards, Remixing the Humanities, 25 Mar. 2011

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