Thursday, 24 September 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 2)

In 1960, François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau formed – when it was still possible to do such things – the most radical and inventive literary movement of the last half-century: the OuLiPo (or Oulipo).

The movement is still going strong today, and involves (mainly French) boffins – mathematicians, dextrous wordsmiths and poets – composing constraint-based fiction. That is, fiction with one crippling or impossible constraint, such as
Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic epic A Void: the only novel ever to be published without a single letter E.

The idea of the movement is to smash through one’s existing perceptions of the limitations of writing and to attempt something utterly different. To test one’s idea of what can and cannot be done. In this respect, the Oulipo philosophy is accessible to all writers.

To the outsider (or reader), the Oulipo movement might be perceived as a convoluted headache: a bunch of intellectual behemoths waggling their enormous brains before the reader, flaunting their cleverness in unreadable and confounding texts. Yes. This is an issue.

However, for all their (often sublime and hilarious) indulgence, erudition and staggering technical genius, there is a simple underlying truth in their outlook. The writer entrenched in their own style will inevitably become predictable and banal. Imposing a constraint upon one’s writing – whether it’s beginning every chapter with ‘b’ or writing an entire palindromic novel – forces the writer to confront originality, to be daring and fresh by challenging their own limitations. Which is hardly a crime now, is it?

My favourite Oulipian writer is Queneau (pictured above), whose landmark text
Exercises in Style should be made compulsory reading for every emerging writer. In this book, he rewrites the same mundane story – boarding the ‘S’ bus and getting his toe stepped on – in 99 different styles, demonstrating the vast creative scope available to a writer who adopts a constraint.

Some doubters dismiss these constraints as gimmicks. Those doubters should be shot. Or, at least, ought to loosen up and experiment with adapting their own style into these constraints. More to come on this theme.


  1. Informative, you! Thanks for this. I like it. Keep it coming.

  2. You would love Queneau, Chris. Or maybe you do already. You'd certainly adore "Exercises in Style." It's hahahahahahaahaha-tastic.