Gaming the System: On the Oulipo

By Brian Kim StefansAugust 10, 2012

    Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature by Daniel Levin Becker. Harvard University Press. 352 pages.

    “OF COURSE, HE'S NOT a composer,” Arnold Schoenberg once said of John Cage, “but he's an inventor — of genius!” Likewise, the Oulipo — whose name derives from the French phrase “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” (commonly translated as “Workshop for a Potential Literature”) — is a Parisian literary cadre, initially composed equally of writers and mathematicians, that see themselves as much as inventors of elaborate literary challenges as composers of the works themselves. Where Cage advocated surrendering to chance, the Oulipo wanted to run it out of town — along with such tired concepts as inspiration, self-expression, and the unconscious. The Oulipians were “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape,” in the famous formulation of co-founder Raymond Queneau, and they wrote more in the spirit of the crossword puzzle than, say, Rousseau’s Confessions. The Oulipians strove for diamantine wonders, not psychological enigmas, and sought to tighten the bolts on “creativity,” if only to find a new, fresher freedom at the other end.

    Some of the works from the Oulipo have come to be recognized as literary masterpieces. The best known might be Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a detective novel written without the use of the letter “e,” masterfully translated into English using the same constraint by Gilbert Adair as A Void. (In fact the Oulipo didn’t invent this particular form: writing a text without the use of a particular letter is called a lipogram, and it’s been in use since the time of the ancient Greeks.) Another highlight of the Oulipo oeuvre, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller…, requires an elaborate chart to plot all of the intersections of story, character, and incident, one which he doesn’t supply. (Again, this is not as novel as it might seem: Dante didn’t provide a guide to his Hell, either.) Queneau’s sonnet sequence One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems is actually ten sonnets published with the request that you cut the pages horizontally along each line of each poem, such that you can make up your own sonnet by folding back individual lines and leaving others exposed, like in a children’s book. Calling it a sequence rather than a random poetry generator emphasizes the speculative, “potential” aspect of the Oulipo project: it would require you 200,000,000 years reading 24 hours a day to experience Queneau’s work in full. 

    Despite their solid grounding in literary history, the Oulipo have lately been given credit for any number of unprecedented discoveries, from anticipating the role of the computer in everyday life to crafting the perfect literary form for the age of recombinant DNA. Though their impact was not nearly as immediate as earlier French avant-garde literary movements like Surrealism or the nouveau roman, their influence has steadily grown, and, some fifty years after their founding, it’s safe to say that the Oulipo have had a substantial influence on North American letters. Mark Z. Danielewski followed his sprawling, multi-genre cult hit House of Leaves with the maddeningly self-reflexive Only Revolutions, a 360-page novel with exactly 180 words on each page, 90 facing one way telling the story from the hero’s perspective, the other 90 upside down running in the other direction telling it from the heroine’s. Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, a book of short lyric poems each of which possess their own constraint, won the National Book Critics Award in 2006 and is a regular course staple, while Canadian poet Christian Bök’s Eunoia — a five part lipogramic suite which only allows the use of a single vowel per chapter (banana, Havana, data, etc. in the “a” chapter) — was a bestseller on the Toronto Globe & Mail’s list for 15 weeks and won the prestigious Griffin Prize. 

    Even vegetarians are getting in on the game: Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel Tree of Codes, described by its publisher as a “sculptural object,” is Foer’s favorite book, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, with most of the words cut out, leaving only empty blanks. The Oulipians don’t seem to have hit on one of the more trendy of avant-garde practices today, outright plagiarism, as advocated by leading Conceptual Writers such as Kenneth Goldsmith, who typed one day’s issue of the New York Times — ads, stocks numbers and all — and published it as an 800 page tome called Day, or Simon Morris, whose Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head is simply On the Road retyped on a blog, then published in blog (that is, reverse) order as a book. But the cult of the “unboring boring,” Goldsmith’s coy mini-festo of his aesthetic project, certainly can find its origins in the labyrinths of these jesters of the infinite.

    Another line of influence can be traced through Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s, which has published as their 22nd issue State of Constraint, featuring, for the first time ever, contributions of poetry (written, duh, according to a constraint), along with a dossier of recent writing by the Oulipo. The McSweeney’s website has fostered for years a growing archive of the one type of poem the editors seem to like, the sestina, a Provençal form whose intricacies resemble those of the Oulipo. (I think I know why: bad sestinas are often not nearly as alienating as a lot of “good” poetry — it’s nearly impossible to be pretentious in a sestina.) Daniel Levin Becker, the reviews editor for McSweeney’s house organ The Believer, was actually elected to the Oulipo in 2009, just three years after graduating from Yale. He is only the second American to be a member of the group, after the novelist Harry Mathews was inducted in 1973. 

    In keeping with The Believer’s enthusiastic stance, the subtitle of Becker’s book, In Praise of Potential Literature, alerts us that we are in for an extended fan letter. The book contains some history, but not a lot — the authors I’ve mentioned above are covered, but equal space is given to much lesser writers, the ones still alive, who came in their wake; and some literary criticism, but not a lot — there’s little quoting from the small stock of masterpieces that the Oulipo have produced, and though there is much description of many of the forms and exercises the Oulipo practices, there isn’t a great deal of speculation of what this unholy alliance of math and the printed, punning word mean, or engagement with the many major French critics who have ventured an opinion, such as Julia Kristeva or Michel Foucault in his only book of literary criticism, Death and the Labyrinth. What Many Subtle Channels does provide is first-person investigative reporting: something akin to Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief, in which we follow our charismatic if slightly wounded middle-class journalist as he or she slums it with a bunch of harmless eccentrics in a land far, far away (from New York or San Francisco). It is also something of a brochure for the potential of potential literature to bring meaning to your life. “Reading, no matter what you’re reading,” the book’s final paragraph declares,

    presupposes a belief in the potential of the text — to speak to you, enlighten you, stir your imagination or temporarily distract you — just as living, if it is to have any sense, presupposes a belief in the potential of your life. If that sounds corny, remember that the man who first articulated this idea this way [François Le Lionnais, co-founder of the Oulipo] made it through a concentration camp by reconstructing the world’s most marvelous paintings in his mind. To live your life craftily, whether you read it as a labyrinth or a puzzle or simply a long combinatorial succession of evenings and mornings, is to move through it with the purpose and security that come from knowing you hold the tools to give it shape and meaning.

    This feel-good tone is a little surprising considering how esoteric and even — when it comes to that bête noire, chance — mystical the interests of the Oulipo are. Many of the early twentieth-century avant-garde writers who originally inspired the Oulipo’s experiments — Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, and Raymond Roussel in particular — were singular iconoclasts, not quirky humanists. In Becker’s book, the wild speculation that comes out often in encomiums to the French avant-garde by Americans — such as Henry Miller on Arthur Rimbaud in The Time of the Assassins or Susan Sontag on the Marquis de Sade, whose works she called “the Wagnerian music dramas of pornographic literature” — is entirely absent. In its place is something much milder, as if all of these committed derangers of the senses and their living progeny were merely a collection of bizarre but lovable uncles. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — Becker seems intent on making his favorite French avant-garde tradition more popular and accessible, a noble enough aim — but it does seem to neutralize the exciting, life-changing (dare we say, with Andre Breton, “convulsive”?) beauty he wants to claim for the Oulipo’s work.

    The problem might be that the book’s tone is entirely, even extremely, informal — showing none of the beautiful rigor of the work it describes; it’s like a guide to the architecture of Venice written by a diehard burner. Perhaps reflecting the concern inherent in the McSweeney's camp to seem too highbrow or, worse, ironic, Becker is always at pains to make it sound like he is talking to you, that he’s just telling you a story. He writes of first discovering Perec’s A Void, the novel without the letter e: “That is, I thought to myself without hyperbole, one of the five coolest things I have ever heard” — an enthusiastic and honest response, but one which makes a truly singular work of art sound like a recommended link on MetaFilter or BoingBoing. 

    Another problem is chronological: through no fault of his own, Becker has missed the Oulipo’s glory days, when bona fide geniuses like Perec, Calvino, and Queneau were all alive and working. There are a lot of descriptions of the rather dilapidated nature of the present-day group — now “a sort of literary supper club” at which, Becker notes, attendance is a “crapshoot” — and sometimes you become aware of Becker’s own lack of a compass when trying to weigh the value of the warts-and-all present to the immortals of the past. Just a few pages later, he writes of how one writer “didn’t become a member until 1983 — some nineteen years after he was invited to lunch as guest of honor and ten years after Latis [an early member of the group] had croaked.” Croaked? One doesn’t have to have to be a humorless toad to see the irony of this author summarily shoveling one member of the group on to the ash-heap of history while noting that it was the perseverance through the Holocaust of another man, Lionnais, that got the whole game started. That line in particular made me ask whether Becker was reaching for something bigger than he was capable: a tone that is both hip and positive but also, to some degree, European — aware in every nuance that some bad shit has been going down for thousands of years right up to yesterday and that we are stuck with remembering it, as Perec did his parents — one a casualty of the fields, the other the camps, of World War II — in W, or the Memory of Childhood.

    There are many things to recommend this book — it’s well-researched, readable, even beach-worthy if you’re summering on the shores of Amherst halfway through your creative writing MFA. Becker does get in some good digs, such as when he notes in a rather cute footnote: “It may have escaped your attention that the frequently open-shirted French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy courted quite a lot of ridicule in 2010 when he earnestly cited Botul’s writings in an essay on Kant” — Jean-Baptiste Botul being an entirely fictional “Kantian aphorist” created by a group related to the Oulipo, the Collège de 'Pataphysique. Perhaps David Foster Wallace, master of the cute footnote, is to blame for the sprawling, generous, rambling, encompassing, sincere, entertaining, journalistic nature of this book — none of which are qualities that I associate with Oulipian writing at all.

    What I do associate with the Oulipo are other burgeoning writing practices that we all now engage in: the 140-character Twitter update, the recombinant Facebook page, the digital folk-art of extreme YouTube videos. (Photographing yourself every hour used to be the province of Performance Art masochists like Sam Tsieh, not bored teenagers trying to survive high school, and Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album — a virtuoso mash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album — is probably the most salient example of a constrained work, founded on a simple pun, exploding into a pop-cultural phenomenon.) Perhaps we are all Oulipians now; after all, what does the smart phone, with its maps, apps, swipes, and taps, do but annihilate chance? Many Subtle Channels will certainly give you your fix if you want a brief flirtation with one of the twentieth century’s oddest, most unlikely group of mavericks. But it might leave you asking “What’s the point?” if you are seeking for the elusive Euclidian geometry behind great literature. 


    LARB Contributor

    Brian Kim Stefans is a poet and professor of English (contemporary poetry and new media) at UCLA. His most recent book of poems is Viva Miscegenation (MakeNow Press, 2013). Prior books include What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (Factory School, 2006) and Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (Atelos, 2003). His website, which houses his many works of digital text art, is


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