The Oulipo, short for the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for potential literature), was founded in Paris in 1960 by two polymaths: Raymond Queneau, a former surrealist known for writing Zazie in the Metro, and François Le Lionnais, a mathematician and engineer. Interdisciplinary in nature, the Oulipo came to embrace a rigorous formalism, insisting that literary freedom could be unleashed not through the energies of chance, the unconscious, or automatic writing (à la surrealism) but, paradoxically, through rule-bound procedures, severe formal restrictions, and mathematical constraints. Oulipians follow the cunning design of Daedalus rather than the irrational urges of the Minotaur; as Queneau famously said, they are “rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”
To many, the Oulipo and its most well known writers represent a certain moment of postwar experimentalism or neo-avant-gardism that witnessed such inventive works as Exercises in Style and One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems by Queneau, A Void and Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, and Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. These works, playfully animated by combinatorial, metafictional, and procedural impulses, highlight a systematized process of composition and emphasize the active role of the reader in creating meaning. A Void, for example, is a lipogrammatic novel that doesn’t contain the letter “e” while One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems is a series of ten sonnets, which — because all of the lines (composed with identical rhyme and meter) are supposed to be cut into discrete strips — can be shuffled and recombined to create one hundred trillion potential poems. In its mischievous understanding of intertextuality (and here we can think of Harry Mathews’ “35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare”: To be or not to be: that’s the problem, Nothing and something: this was an answer, Choosing between life and death confuses me…), the Oulipo sought to reveal the potentiality of tradition open for re-elaboration by a collective talent. But now that the early masterpieces of the Oulipo have, in turn, been canonized within the Western literary tradition, both supporters and detractors alike think of the Oulipo in the past tense. “Those dudes were the bomb,” say the editors of Anomalous in their 2015 special issue on constraint. For Kenneth Goldsmith, the Oulipo is “dated” and “washed in nostalgia.”
Nevertheless, in the last few years the workshop has been making significant efforts not only to consolidate and disseminate its legacy but to move forward into the 21st century. A year before it celebrated its 50th anniversary, the Oulipo released the Anthologie de l’OuLiPo in 2009 and elected (or “co-opted,” to use their humorous terminology) two new members, the writer and mathematician Michèle Audin, and the young American editor Daniel Levin Becker, who has since done much to circulate the Oulipo’s work among an Anglophone audience. Levin Becker’s translation of Perec’s dream journal La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams was published in 2013 and in that same year he edited and translated a special folio on the Oulipo for Words Without Borders. This is to say that the Oulipo, far from being a relic of literary history, remains active as a collective; and even if one thinks, as many do, that its golden age has passed, the Oulipo has been very much active as a discourse and a bone of contention within current conversations about literature.
There have been, for example, a variety of notable conferences about the Oulipo in the US: in 2011, “Oulipolooza” at U Penn and “Oulipo@50 – L’Oulipo à 50 ans” at SUNY Buffalo; in 2010, the “Conference on Constrained Poetry” at UNC Asheville; in 2009, “Oulipo in New York: A Workshop of Experimental Literature,” and two conferences in 2005, “Oulipofest” at Princeton and “noulipo” at Cal Arts. The latter included various talks and presentations, later published in The noulipian Analects, which notoriously criticized the Oulipo for being backward looking, androcentric, and apolitical. Christian Bök argued that the “Oulipo has so far left inexplicit, if not unexplored, the political potential of…innovative literature” and that “the poetic tastes of the group can often seem quite banal, insofar as its members seem to enjoy dickering with the gearboxes of obsolete, literary genres (like the sestina or the rondeau), revivifying these antiquary styles, yet entrenching their canonical repute.” And in a provocative performance piece called “‘& and’ and foulipo,” Julianna Spahr and Stephanie Young meditated on a so-called “schism” between the male-dominated Oulipo and the feminist performance and body art of the 1970s and called attention to the fact that young practitioners of the former could claim a certain “radical” appeal while those influenced by the latter have been dismissed as “derivative.”
Three recent books — Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard UP, 2012), Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement (Zero Books, 2013), and Louis Bury’s Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint (Dalkey Archive, 2014) — have responded in various ways to the contested question about the future of the Oulipo and take up some of the crucial concerns about gender and politics raised at the 2005 noulipo conference. Together, they show how the Oulipo continues to be the subject of heated debate and can be of inspiring interest to writers, critics, and even a general audience.
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Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels is precisely oriented at a popular readership. Through accessible and often entertaining prose Levin Becker spreads the good word of the Oulipo, often relying on a conversational second-person address: “An important part of my argument…is that it can make you a better reader [as well as a better writer], that you can benefit from potential literature whether or not you even consider yourself literarily inclined.” One important aim of the book is to provide a clear survey of the Oulipo (Levin Becker calls it “a sort of literary supper club.”) Accordingly, there is a serviceable and well-researched history of the collective: Levin Becker explains its genesis and relation to two important precursors, the Collège de ’Pataphysique and the Bourbaki collective; details its growth and losses during the ’70s and ’80s (the inclusion of Marcel Bénabou, Calvino, Paul Fournel, Mathews, Jacques Roubaud, among others and the deaths of Queneau, Perec, Le Lionnais, and Calvino); and explains how it spawned OuPeinPo (for painting), OuBaPo (for comics), OuMuPo (for music), along with various other Ou-X-Pos. Even for a reader reasonably versed in the Oulipo’s history and practice, one is bound to learn something new from Many Subtle Channels, from a lesser-known technique (Michelle Grangaud’s “avion—airplane, but also an abbreviation of abbreviation—based on condensing words along non-phonetic lines”) to an interesting connection that could inspire a seminar paper (“compar[ing] the gender ambiguity in [Anne] Garréta’s Sphinx with the gender ambiguity of Mathews’s Tlooth”) to speculation why Julio Cortázar declined the workshop’s invitations to join in the 1970s (“he wasn’t into collaborative work; he was too engaged in the South American political affairs of the moment; he was a closet romantic and found the Oulipo’s systematic approach to literature dehumanizing.”)
There is a strong personal element to Levin Becker’s book — at times it has the feel of a Bildungsroman — as he tells us how he went from being a 16-year old who, for no apparent reason, made a mix tape of songs whose titles and artists’ names didn’t contain the letter “e” to a recent college graduate on a Fulbright in Paris with “a lot of ill-defined questions about the Oulipo” to the Oulipo’s unofficial archivist at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal to an official member in 2009. The book is both memoiristic and journalistic as Levin Becker vividly conjures his perspective on various scenes that are strung together episodically: we begin at François Caradec’s 2008 funeral in Montparnasse and move along to other group events: a 2007 reading in Bobigny, a 2007 summer workshop in Bourges, a 2006 reception at the Arsenal Library.
One of the great values of Levin Becker’s book is that, writing from his position of intimate proximity, he gives us a rich and embodied sense of the Oulipo’s current members, something that will not necessarily come through in two texts which have been crucial for Oulipo studies in the US: Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie’s Oulipo Compendium and Warren Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. Levin Becker tells us, for example, that Jacques Jouet “sits up straight and often stands or walks with his hands clasped behind his back, looking more trial lawyer than contemplative poet” and that Grangaud, “slim and wasplike,” “is mild in person…but in performance exudes a tremendous nervous intensity.” Such is one of the advantages of Levin Becker’s journalistic approach — his eye for the charming detail, the amusing anecdote. At its best Many Subtle Channels reveals what Perec might have called the “infra-ordinary” aspects of Oulipian life. Levin Becker writes of finding in the archives “a sheet of pangrams fresh from Perec’s typewriter, complete with handwritten addendum apologizing for a few holes where his cat attacked the page,” of being initially scandalized “to see only a handful of books in [Hervé] Le Tellier’s living room…at his apartment down the street from Sacré-Coeur” only to find “the rest in a different room on a subsequent visit.”
But there are also risks to utilizing such a casual tone. It is hard to fault Levin Becker for his generousness of spirit and his populist vision of the Oulipo’s core ideas and legacy but his book sometimes assumes the facile hortatory tone of a self-help manual; though perhaps offered in an earnest avant-garde spirit that wishes to redefine the boundaries between art and life, Levin Becker relies on an overly comforting notion of the autonomous liberal subject: “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 the security that come from knowing you hold the tools to give it shape and meaning.” And sometimes his breezy informality comes off as feigned middlebrow ignorance: “[Susan] Sontag called the [Oulipo] Compendium ‘a seedbed, a grimace, a carnival,’ and I have no idea what that means.”
While it is admirable that Levin Becker is taking on the task of being a public face of the Oulipo for a general American audience and he takes pains to emphasize the Oulipo’s aesthetic diversity (his version of the Oulipo is downright Whitmanian: it “contradicts itself…is large [and] contains multitudes”), he gives the beautifully esoteric work of the Oulipo short shrift. He says, “potential literature should be simple and accessible and first-degree.” But Many Subtle Channels is largely silent when it comes to difficult Oulipian poetry, writing that some might find complex, even inaccessible. For example, Levin Becker takes the time to quote Roubaud’s jokey verse — “It took me / much longer / to compose / my poems // than you will spend / reading them // do you find / that / fair?” — but, while mentioning it, he doesn’t analyze or quote from, say, Roubaud’s sublime first book ∈ or even the acclaimed Some Thing Black. In other words, the aspect of literature signaled in the book’s subtitle “in praise of potential literature” falls away by the end of the book; indeed, Levin Becker “want[s] [the Oulipo] to be of as great a value, if not a greater and more genuinely generous one, to people who are not in it for the sake of literature.”
In cultivating a certain constituency, and thereby eschewing any sustained literary criticism or theorization, Levin Becker necessarily risks alienating an important readership: one that is professionally invested in literature and literary discourse. We can see this in his easy side-stepping of the complicated issues concerning gender, prestige, and politics Christian Bök, Julianna Spahr, Stephanie Young, and others brought up during the noulipo conference in 2005. While Levin Becker maintains that the Oulipo is anti-prescriptive and non-doctrinal and hence politically “disengaged” at a collective level, he does, via Paul Fournel, point out that “this doesn’t preclude individual engagement or individual realization of Bök’s ‘social potential’…it just avoids the pitfalls of the party line.” This is a reasonable response to Bök’s critique, but the line “we don’t have an explicit political agenda” can, in turn, rigidify into a party line of its own, ignoring the fact that Oulipian aesthetics and production have, indeed, a politics even if they are not expressly political.
Moreover, Levin Becker seems to trivialize what is at stake in the Oulipo’s mixed North American reception when he notes that the noulipo participants are:
writers, creative or academic, and consequently obligated to care enough, maybe to care too much, about how the Oulipo affects their work…when you’re dwelling in the shadow of this group…its methodologies and inclinations…are bound to seem like received wisdom, an ideology to be picked at or railed against. The question nobody asked is: why dwell in the shadow of this group?
It is true that American poets and critics tend to reify the Oulipo: in a tendentious caricaturization, Spahr has described the group as being “not only mainly French but also mainly male. I believe they admitted a woman once. She seems to have quit at some point.”
But the deeper problem at the heart of Levin Becker’s question is the problem of canonicity, what Bök calls the entrenchment of the Oulipo’s “canonical repute” and the complex issue of multiple, sometimes competing, interpretive paradigms that determine critical readings. What Levin Becker fails to account for in his flippant remark that writers perhaps “care too much” about the Oulipo’s influence is the fact that North American writing is so synthetic and syncretic, so dependent on multiple influences that cut across many cultures (it contains “multitudes” in ways that far outstrip the Oulipo’s heterogeneity) as well as the fact that the Oulipo has cast a long discursive shadow on dominant ways of reading, framing, and analyzing non-normative and procedural literature. For example, Joseph Conte uses the phrase “American Oulipo” to discuss John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino alongside Harry Mathews. In the context of poetry, Hélène Aji’s essay “Poems that Count: Procedural Poetry” asks the question “Oulipo or Not Oulipo?” and in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century Marjorie Perloff asks a similar question of Charles Bernstein’s 2005 libretto Shadowtime: “How Oulipo Is It?” The “shadow” of Oulipo is thus a fundamental critical issue especially since North American works of constraint and procedure, which include writing by midcentury pioneers John Cage and Jackson Mac Low; language poets Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian; Canadians Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, Susan Holbrook, and M. NourbeSe Philip; and other Americans such as Laynie Browne, Mónica de la Torre, Doug Nufer, Tom La Farge, Travis Macdonald, K. Silem Mohammed, Nick Montfort, Harryette Mullen, Joan Retallack, Jerome Rothenberg, and Wendy Walker, among many others, can’t (and shouldn’t) be adequately accounted for by an analogous unified paradigm.
If we were to examine, say, John Yau’s permutational poems, from the early “Ten Songs” to the more recent “830 Fireplace Road,” or NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! or Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary another relevant critical question would be: How important is it to ask “How Oulipo is it?” In other words, when investigating procedural or constraint-based writing in the Anglophone world, an interpretive framework solely determined by the Oulipo’s legacy could be overshadowing — to extend Leven Becker’s figure — other, no less important traditions. Dorothy Wang observes, “the poetry of Harryette Mullen is as indebted to Gertrude Stein as to Bessie Smith and as influenced by the overlooked African American writer Fran Ross as by Oulipo.” (Mullen, herself, talks about the defamiliarizing effect of linguistic slippage through a variety of traditions besides the famous Oulipian algorithm N+7: “This idea comes from several sources — not only Oulipo but also Kamau Brathwaite, NourbeSe Philip, and even Freud’s analysis of the verbal error”; she, in fact, playfully self-identifies, after jazz virtuoso Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as an “Eulipion.”) Likewise, Kate Eichorn says, “it may be tempting to locate Philip’s Zong! as a form of ‘postcolonial Oulipo’…but to read Zong! simply along such lines is to ignore the conditions under which the work took shape”; heeding such conditions necessitates exploring Caribbean contexts and cultural practices. And, in the case of Yau, who has a diverse oeuvre and who comes from an eclectic variety of traditions from both literature and the visual arts, one would have to account for the influence of American painting as well as the Oulipo in a poem like “830 Fireplace Road.”
Levin Becker, interestingly, has nothing to say in terms of the Oulipo’s perceived homosociality and masculinism even though he cites the Village Voice’s labeling of the workshop’s meetings as “largely male gatherings” and mentions Spahr and Young’s observation of the “masculinist tendencies of much constraint-based writing.” His non-commentary is striking since issues of gender bubble up in Many Subtle Channels in odd ways: in recounting the 2006 reception at the Arsenal Library, Levin Becker jokingly tells us, “I have already refrained more than once from introducing myself to [Michelle] Grangaud because I can’t remember whether she is Valérie Beaudouin or Michèle Métail.” He also informs us of in-group gossip about how “most of Jouet’s readership…are adoring middle-aged women with varying degrees of poetical affliction.” In an interview with Barbara Henning, Levin Becker’s fellow American Harry Mathews is at least candid about the Oulipo’s misogynist roots: “There were no women and that may have been due to a somewhat misogynistic streak in Queneau.” And Mathews recognizes how much more work it will take to rectify such imbalance: “Of the 12 most active members…four women are always present and always contributing, which is not enough but it’s already a step in the right direction.”
Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Levin Becker for failing to thoroughly treat topics that are the domain of the literary critic; Many Subtle Channels, after all, was not intended to be a work of literary criticism. But since Levin Becker is often billed as the youngest and only second American member of the Oulipo, one would have expected him to more eloquently respond to current qualms that Americans have about what he calls “a hard-to-articulate global phenomenon.”
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Elkin and Esposito’s The End of Oulipo? is a reprise and, indeed, an intensification of the noulipians’ discontent with the Oulipo’s ideologies and practices. The End of Oulipo? is a slim book comprised of a coauthored preface followed by an essay by Esposito, “Eight Glances Past Georges Perec,” and an essay by Elkin, “Oulipo Lite.” What the volume lacks in bulk it certainly makes up for in polemic. While acknowledging the Oulipo’s past and present importance in both France and the United States, Elkin and Esposito say in their preface, “today, as the group enters its sixth decade of existence, its relevance and its future are in question.” They question whether the workshop’s current writing, which is “strikingly derivative of prior Oulipian works,” can rival “the best work published…through the 1960s and 1970s.” They also argue that “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.”
Esposito’s “Eight Glances Past Georges Perec” vigorously takes up this latter point. The essay is an impassioned, and, at times, confusing document: it is at once a paean to Georges Perec, an extended argument with David Shields’ Reality Hunger, and a somewhat incongruous championing of Tom McCarthy, Edouard Levé, and Christian Bök, “three writers working in the shadow of both Perec and Oulipo,” at the expense of Jacques Jouet and Hervé Le Tellier, current Oulipians, whom Esposito calls “salable quantities that play in the sandbox made by Perec, Queneau and Calvino.” Esposito also compares Jouet unfavorably to the prolific Argentine César Aira.
Esposito’s representative writers of importance, while interesting on individual levels, form a motley pantheon since he tends to connect them through abstract concepts such as “exhaustion” or “the void” rather than through specific forms or compositional techniques. In this sense, his discussion of Tom McCarthy is the strangest as he gives us no indication of how McCarthy’s methods resemble Oulipian ones. In contrast, including Bök is his most sensible move since Bök’s books Crystallography, based on the properties of crystals, and Eunoia, a series of univocalisms, have clearly sprung from rigorous constraints and an attempt to creatively bridge scientific and literary discourses. Levé’s post-Perecian conceptualism strongly resonates with the Oulipo’s spirit, from the potentiality of his Oeuvres, which “describes works conceived of but not realized by its author,” to the homonymic play of Amérique, a series of photographs of American towns which share the same name as world cities, to Autoportrait, which, according to Wayne Koestenbaum, “functions within a soft-core Oulipian economy of procedural moves servicing confessional ends.” But Esposito’s “glance” at Levé deserves a longer, more thorough examination. Likewise, the connection between Aira and the Oulipo is an intriguing one (Aira has claimed “the great [avant-garde] artists of the twentieth century are not those who created works, but those who created procedures through which works could be made alone, or indeed, not made”), but a more developed discussion would have to explore how his ideas of improvisation and la fuga hacia adelante [the flight forward] differ from the Oulipo’s devaluing of chance. Ultimately, the payoff of conceiving the constellation McCarthy-Levé-Bök-Aira solely “in the shadow of…Oulipo” is undercut by a lack of attention to methodologies and philosophies of constraint.
And even if we agree with Esposito’s assessment of Jouet and Le Tellier and his use of them as convenient stand-ins for contemporary Oulipian practice, we will still have to account for the success of the Oulipo as a discursivity, for the fact that so many writers on both sides of the Atlantic have extended and transformed its techniques in divergent ways. So when Esposito says “the fact that he [Bök] had not yet been co-opted [by the Oulipo] is perhaps evidence of the movement’s increasing irrelevance” one can just as well counter with the argument that Bök’s extreme experiments (or Levé’s and Aira’s focus on unconventional procedures) attest to the Oulipo’s continued relevance.
Elkin’s essay “Oulipo Lite,” which constitutes the second half of the book, is a scathing diatribe against Le Tellier, whom Elkin calls — in a somewhat extended sense — “the group’s most prolific producer of Oulipo light.” For Levin Becker, “Oulipo light” is indicative of productions, such as the interactive game éthique simpliste and the performative baobab, that are “meant to delight a crowd” and extend the workshop’s appeal and popularity. Elkin considers Le Tellier’s work “light” or “lite” in the sense that it is “diverting,” “philosophically unserious,” and “juvenile.” Worse yet, she considers his four books published in English in 2011 to be “steaming piles of sexism and masculine privilege.” There are flashes of cleverness in Elkin’s piece; she says, for example, that masculinism is a “constraint which the Oulipo should give up.” Though one wishes she had spent more time discussing the Oulipo’s “marginalized female sector” rather than fixating on the “skeevy” Le Tellier. Only at the end of her essay do we get her call for the Oulipo “to promote members like Anne Garréta, who in her novel Sphinx (1986) eliminates all references to her two main characters’ genders.”
Garréta’s Sphinx, which was translated by Emma Ramadan and published in English by Deep Vellum Press last month, is a fascinating meditation on love, death, desire, and fictionality and will become an important touchstone in any future conversation about constraint and gender in North America; we should welcome more of such translations. Besides Sphinx, there is another text available in English that advances a gendered critique, “Oulipian Moment for the End of Times,” a parodic intervention Garréta performed for one of the Oulipo’s monthly readings in 2006, which only included the Oulipo’s female members:
…You are all alone with us: Valérie Beaudoin, Michelle Grangaud and myself.
The wings are empty; the dressing-rooms deserted; there will be no ex-machina male Oulipian tonight to resolve and save the ending of this considerable tragedy in the realm of French (and possibly world) culture:
An Oulipo solely represented by women.
This is unheard of. Unsymbolizable. Could it be one of the forewarning signs of the end of times? The apocalyptic moment of culture?
To return to Elkin’s point, Garréta is, indeed, promoted by other members of the Oulipo but in qualified ways. In his introduction to the English version of Sphinx, Levin Becker calls her “arguably the most deliberately radical thinker [the Oulipo] has ever counted among its ranks.” But in Many Subtle Channels he calls her interests “perpendicular to the workshop’s standard values” and describes Sphinx as “motivated by the desire to say something political about gender, not something grammatical” (he further notes that Garréta’s intelligence, which is “not without dogma,” “can jar at times with the otherwise unacademic tenor of oulipian proceedings.” Similarly, Mathews calls her a “brilliant woman” and “an admirably provocative member” but adds that “she is somewhat too respectful of academia.” These American Oulipians appear to suggest that the critical investigation of gender is merely an “academic” pursuit (in contrast to more writerly concerns); in other words, the Oulipo’s perceived masculinism may be linked to its anti- or un-academic aspects. One also wonders whether a strict “grammatical” focus is obscuring another kind of “dogma” and if the way gender operates according to the morphosyntax of French can be cleanly separated from the political. Garréta has stated that “to be Oulipian is to be queer and being queer participates in the potential” [etre oulipien, c’est être queer, et être queer, c’est participer de la potentialité]. Such an understanding considers what Levin Becker terms “perpendicularities” as part of literature’s potential and potentiality itself as a force that can re-imagine “standard values.”
As a whole The End of Oulipo? seems rushed; there are rough transitions and undeveloped claims, and the text is marred by a surprising number of copyediting and typographical errors. The book could have also been more unified across the two separate essays. It’s puzzling why Esposito took the time to write about McCarthy (and all male writers) rather than, say, Lynn Crawford, whose Fortification Resort consists of “prose sestinas,” or Christine Brooke-Rose, whose novel Between doesn’t use the verb “to be” and whose Amalgamemnon uses “only non-realizing tenses and moods like the future, the conditional, the imperative.” And one can think of a plethora of Oulipo-inspired poems by American women from hilarious N+7s such as Lee Ann Brown’s “Pledge” or Bernadette Mayer’s “Before Sextet” to mesmerizing sequences such as Mary Margaret Sloan’s “On Method” or Marjorie Welish’s “The Black Poems.” Recognition of such work could have bolstered Elkins’ point that “[t]here is nothing inherently sexist or macho” in Oulipo-style investigations of language.
Both authors make sweeping generalizations in the preface as they cite “the decaying landscape of American literature” and argue that “US writers are failing to provide” “legitimately new and interesting” literature. But what about the strong and undeniable presence of procedural and constraint-based work in the US? What about new directions in digital literature? For example, Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland’s “Sea and Spar Between” is a text generator that, in mashing up the vocabulary of Melville and Dickinson, creates “a number of stanzas comparable to the number of fish in the sea, around 225 trillion”; accounting for this kind of new and interesting work could have connected to Esposito’s interest in exhaustion or to the ALAMO (Atelier de literature assistée par la mathématique et les ordinateurs or Workshop for Literature Assisted by Mathematics and Computers) and its development of, for example, rimbaudelaires, a form which inserts words from Baudelaire’s lexicon into Rimbaud’s syntax. But The End of Oulipo? is instructive in that it starkly represents the various generalizations Anglophone audiences have about the workshop and the North American resistances to its influence. Elkin quotes one of her writer friends “in an anti-Oulipo mood”: “Lots of men sitting around doing crosswords.”
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“The underlying belief shared by the Oulipo and the legion of Ou-X-Pos,” says Levin Becker, “is essentially that any enterprise or discipline can be treated…as an experiment we can tweak and tinker with.” Louis Bury’s Exercises in Criticism intervenes within the discipline of literary criticism by adding Oulipian inspired and performative methods to its repertoire; the book is “an exercise in applied poetics, using constraint-based methods in order to write about literary constraint.” So in an array of short chapters Bury, for example, engages with Gilbert Sorrentino’s Gold Fools, a boy’s adventure novel consisting of only interrogative sentences, through an essay built entirely of questions. He analyzes Doug Nufer’s Never Again, a 200-word novel that, to quote Nufer’s book, uses any given word “once…then, best of all, never again” through a critical text that doesn’t repeat any words (and, thus, is compelled to “go anywhere new.”) He responds to the conceptualist gambit that reading conceptual poetry is secondary to appreciating its animating idea by writing about Kenneth Goldsmith without reading him. Such an interpretive approach, which Bury manifests in sharp, clever language, shows the “many subtle channels” between literary scholarship and creative writing. This collection of experiments consistently surprises and delights, never resorting to the mere gimmick, and lends credence to Elkin and Esposito’s point that there is cutting-edge Oulipian work being done outside of the group.
Exercises in Criticism, published just a year after Queneau’s Exercises in Style: 65th Anniversary Edition, is a brilliant immanent critique of constraint-based writing and should be a model text for anyone interested in creative or non-normative criticism. Indeed, it should be considered a foundational text in what we might call American “OuCritPo,” with Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels’ 1999 “Deformance and Interpretation,” an essay which calls for a “concept-based interpretation,” being an important instance of “anticipatory plagiarism” and Shannon Clute and Richard L. Edwards’ The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism being an interesting contemporary work in another discipline. By the end, Exercises in Criticism also becomes an oblique but ultimately moving work of autobiography, a fascinating record of the growth of the critic’s mind. It, thus, should appeal to a diverse audience.
Begun as a dissertation, Exercises in Criticism consistently defamiliarizes its critical maneuvers by baring the device and foregrounding the contexts of its institutional genesis. The book includes a prospectus (presumably the one Bury submitted as a graduate student at CUNY) and a (hilarious) transcript of his defense with Ammiel Alcalay, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Mary Ann Caws. This latter inclusion and other pieces like it productively balance the solitary — some would even say masturbatory — nature of constraint-based writing with a healthy dose of dialogism. Bury also reveals the disciplinary constraints that might limit criticism’s expressive potential; in refusing to “play by [scholarship’s] rules,” Bury shows that “academic work [can be] an indirect means of self-exploration.” In fact, Exercises in Criticism makes the means of self-exploration refreshingly direct; to borrow from Frank O’Hara’s “Personism,” Bury puts the work of criticism “at last between two persons instead of two pages.”
The sense of intimacy in Exercises in Criticism also stems from Bury’s deft and dazzling deployment of a myriad of forms, which gives us different and unexpected facets of him as a critic and person in the world: there is a confessional open letter (to CA Conrad) recounting a somatic exercise, an interview (with Alcalay), a recorded monologue introducing the book (which is interrupted by his wife calling on the phone), a recorded session with his therapist (which deals with, among other things, his part-time professional online poker playing), notebook excerpts (which contain aphoristic gems such as “the use of ‘etc.’ when, in fact, you’ve run out of things to say”), a fascinating questionnaire answered by Bury’s father, a teacher and an electrical engineer originally from Poland. This latter piece marvelously meshes with material that is more directly about literary constraint, demonstrating how this collection of short heterogeneous pieces generates powerful echoes and resonances: Bury’s father conspicuously leaves several of the questions blank — for example, How come you never tried to teach Emily and me Polish? or Discuss a sublime experience you had or Discuss the relationship between masculinity and constraint or What is the nature of our relationship? — which links back to Bury’s reflection on Nufer’s Negativeland: “Absences, at least conspicuous ones, possess a presence—sober, incandescent—all their own.”
Absence takes on another personal register in the next section, the book’s antepenultimate one: in a striking long poem called “To the fact, to the point, to the bottom line,” Bury arranges a range of found texts written by his grandmother, from excerpts of her notebooks to a letter in which she describes her experience in a Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw during World War II. There is ample white space throughout the piece indicating charged and sober absences, the fact that “all [was] suddenly destroyed without a trace / nothing left, even a single grave to turn to.” This harrowing material reminds us of the historical context of the Oulipo’s early phase — that Le Lionnais was a concentration camp survivor, that Perec’s mother disappeared after Auschwitz — and can perhaps be put into productive conversation with recent Holocaust poetry from Anna Rabinowitz’s constraint-based Darkling, a book-length acrostic, to Robert Fitterman’s conceptual Holocaust Museum. “To the fact, to the point, to the bottom line” also demonstrates Bury’s creative chops and his impressive facility across many genres.
Exercises in Criticism focuses on “Post-Oulipo,” with only three chapters engaged with actual Oulipians (Queneau, Mathews, and Jean Lescure). In Bury’s analysis of Anglophone practices of constraint, he says, “instead of viewing constraint as a playful literary laboratory experiment devoid of political ramifications, as Oulipians tend to do, contemporary English-language writers often view the practice as a form of cultural critique.” This is an important corrective to the widespread view that — to quote Calvin Bedient’s “Against Conceptualism” — Oulipian-style constraint is “an easy way out” as it is interested in “play, not change.”
Bury discusses how North Americans such as Mullen, Bök, and Nufer confront “prevailing anxieties about freedom and choice”; he argues that they critique our current moment of cultural excess by enacting it and challenge “the notion that complete freedom of choice is an unqualified good.” Bury’s point is an excellent one and deserves to be teased out more comprehensively with a wider corpus. For example, NourbeSe Philip’s formidable long poem Zong! lashes out against the violent and horrific restrictions of transatlantic slavery by restricting the lexicon of her nearly 200-page poem to letters found in the 500-word legal decision, Gregson v. Gilbert; she says, “I would lock myself in this text in the same way men, women, and children were locked in the holds of the slave ship Zong.” Philip’s poetics of constraint also greatly supports Bury’s claim that “the decision to write using constraints must…be seen as an implicit interrogation of the very concept of freedom.” She says,
One of our founding cultural myths in the West is that of freedom—we can do or say anything (within certain constraints, of course); we are free to go out and find our constraints, poach on other cultures and so on. What I began to understand is that even when we think we are freest, if we lift—I want to say that veil of freedom—underneath will be found many unspoken constraints.
Here, one can see that despite the pithiness and elegance of Bury’s minimalist criticism, there is still a place for the long argument and the traditional monograph. Bury, well aware of the limitations of his project, admits in his dissertation defense that he “never really follow[s] up” on the claim that “the politics of constraint…changes as the context changes.” But, by the end of the book, this becomes negligible as Exercises in Criticism masterfully fulfills its stated goal: “to supplant extended argumentation with a brief argumentative conceit or gesture, to say, in a few pages, what others say in a book, what others don’t say in a book.” Indeed, this is alternative criticism at its best.
In his “Notebook Excerpts,” Bury records the following entry: “make Ex in Crit my one main book that I keep expanding and revising, like Leaves of Grass and other 19 C. works of accretion (Douglass’ autobio), like Maximus & that line of lifelong poems.” One hopes this will be the case. Exercises in Criticism marks, as Emerson said to Whitman, “the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.” We should wait in eager anticipation to see what else Bury has up his sleeve.
Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature is published by Harvard University Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement is published by Zero Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Louis Bury’s Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint is published by Dalkey Archive Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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