The End of Oulipo? – Lauren Elkin & Scott Esposito

Jan 9th, 2013 | By | Category: Articles

oulipoIn November 1960 in Paris, a group of writers came together to pledge fealty to a new kind of literature. Calling themselves the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle potentielle (or Workshop of Potential Literature), the Oulipo would seek out, as co-founder Raymond Queneau put it, “new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” This aim is serviceably vague, allowing for a wide range of understandings as to what, exactly, the Oulipo is and does. No surprise, given the diversity of founding Oulipians: Raymond Queneau (best- known at the time as the author of Zazie in the Metro ), the chemical engineer and mathematician François Le Lionnais, the ’Pataphysicist Jacques Bens and Marcel Duchamp.

The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer ’s creative energy is liberated. The work which results may be “complete” in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint. As Queneau put it so elegantly, “the classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” In this way, Oulipian literature performs a balancing act between produced and potential work, between what appears on the page and what is suggested beyond it.

The best example of this is Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems . It is comprised of only ten sonnets, but these ten sonnets are printed on perforated paper so that each line of each sonnet can be “liberated” from its original poem and substituted in its corresponding line in one of the other 9 poems. There are therefore 10 2 (100) possible combinations of just the first two lines of the 10 sonnets. This foundational work perfectly captures the Oulipo’s aspirations: a great Oulipian work is both a statement of what it knows and a gesture toward something infinitely larger than itself.


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 scien- tifically” 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.) Here, for example, are Tristan Tzara’s instructions in 1920 for how to make a Dada poem:

Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors.

Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.dada

Shake it gently.

Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.

Copy conscientiously.

The poem will be like you.

And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

And here are the Oulipo’s directions for how to make a metro poem:

A metro poem has as many verses as your trip has stations, minus one.

The first verse is composed in your head between the two first stations of your trip (counting the station from which you departed).

It is transcribed onto paper when the train stops at the second station.

The second verse is composed in your head between the second and third stations of your trip.

It is transcribed onto paper when the train stops at the third station. And so forth.

One must not transcribe when the train is in motion. One must not compose when the train is stopped.

The last verse of the poem is transcribed on the platform of your last station.

If your trip involves one or more changes of subway lines, the poem will have two or more stanzas.

Play can be an immensely creative experience; for Nietzsche it was synonymous with creation itself. But it’s important to emphasize that for the Oulipo play has to be capable of, as Mathews says, “producing valid literary results.” Whereas for Dadaists and Surrealists chance was the creative force, for an Oulipian the constraint is not an arbitrary choice but a technique adopted to thoroughly explore—to the point of exhaustion—a subject within its given parameters.

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.

georgperecThe Oulipians didn’t always invent their constraints—Perec claims to have found evidence of the lipogram (in which a work is created which systematically omits a certain letter) as early as the sixth century. And some Oulipian texts are composed without constraints. But each one is potentially constrained in some way. Perec at times had a fraught relationship to constraints, saying that “the system of constraints—and this is important—must be destroyed.... According to Klee, ‘genius is the error in the system.’” (Fans of the Oulipo have been trying for decades to figure out if there is an e dropped somewhere into A Void , either by mistake or left there on purpose.) Perec’s sense of battling against self-imposed constraints is important, for it seems to run counter to the general playfulness that is an important part of the Oulipian spirit. It is true that Perec’s books are frequently melancholy and full of existential angst, and he often set himself a daunting gauntlet of constraints to navigate, but nevertheless, Perec was ultimately playing against his own constraints. Perec’s games took his ingenuity outside the realm of pure writing and into the realm of play. For Perec, the great challenge was to find the virtue in the constraint.

Early on the Oulipo organized the new forms they might discover into two broad groups: anoulipo and synthoulipo. The goal of anoulipo was, as Le Lionnais put it, “to find possibilities that often exceed those their authors had anticipated,” which consisted of research into the literature of the past to find the constraints governing them. On the other hand, through synthoulipo Oulipians invented or discovered new potential texts inside of their constraints. In this way, the Oulipo’s ethic was an “open source” one, with the aim of adding continually to the body of knowledge of potential literature. This extended into the group mentality of inclusion rather than exclusion: Queneau was deeply bothered by the Surrealists’ careful policing of its own ranks, and he wanted none of that for his new movement. Accordingly, the Oulipo did not prescribe behavior to its members or seek to wall itself off from the rest of literary culture—to the contrary, the group encouraged its members to spread its ideas far and wide and began co-opting authors it admired. Once you were inducted (or co-opted, in Oulipian terms) into the Oulipo, you were a member forever: for your lifetime and beyond.

The Oulipo’s ideas sound familiar now, but they were extremely unorthodox when the group was first formed. Begun in great queneauoulipoobscurity, its esoteric approach to writing almost guaranteed that it would remain on the margins of literature. Yet, over the years, the strength of the work produced by its members moved the group inexorably into the literary canon. The Oulipo’s methods of constraint are now commonly taught in writing programs. Perec and Italo Calvino are virtually deified in their native countries of France and Italy. Queneau, though not as widely known as some of Oulipo’s members, is hailed by many as one of the 20th century’s great authors and innovators. The Oulipo’s books are in print in English by the scores. The group remains a celebrated part of French culture, with regular events and workshops. Two of the Oulipo’s titles even appeared in Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century, a poll of both critics and the French population at large.

The Oulipo has left its mark on art and literature to a degree that only the most successful movements achieve, and it is still going. Since 2010 no less than ten books have been published in English by Oulipians. (Many more have been published in French, the language in which most of Oulipo’s members write.) In recent years, a number of popular journals and magazines, both American and French, have dedicated issues to the group and key members, and scholarly studies have proliferated. In addition to the Oulipo’s frequent readings in Paris, its members are read in French newspapers and heard on French radio.

roubaudThere 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 uncon- sciously 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 co- opted 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?



The End of Oulip? - An attempt to exhaust a movement, Published by Zero Book January 2013cover

ISBN: 978-1-78099-655-4, $14.95 / £9.99, paperback, 118pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-656-1, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

The Oulipo 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.

Scott Esposito's criticism has appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The National, The Point, Tin House, The Paris Review Daily, and numerous others. He is the editor in chief for The Quarterly Conversation, an online periodical of book reviews and essays.

Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based critic and novelist; her essays on books and culture have appeared in many publications, including The Guardian, Bookforum, Five Dials, The White Review, and The Daily Beast. Her novel Une Année à Venise was published in spring 2012.

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