Oulipo

Tagged: Theme

A term standing for L'Ouvroir de Litterature Potentialle, which might be crudely translated as "workshop of possible fictions". Oulipo is an extremely selfconscious international literary movement founded in 1960 by the French authors Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais (1901-1984). Over the years Oulipo's members and proponents have included many internationally known fabulists and magic realists such as Harry Mathews (1930-    ), Georges Perec (1936-1982) and Italo Calvino.

Oulipo's tenets are radically high-Modernist. Inspired by the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussurre (1857-1913), its members consider "literature" a game of language rather than a means of representing the world, and by the example in particular of Raymond Roussel, a perspective foreign to most but not all sf writers. By designing artificial "constraints" and "structures", Oulipoeans try to make prose-writing difficult in the same way that metrical schemes make sonnets and sestinas difficult. But, in order to manufacture complicated products, it is necessary first to manufacture complicated machines. It is the friction generated by the author's imagination working against such formal constraints, Oulipo contends, that produces great art.

Members of the group have tended to be mathematicians as well as writers. While many of their formal structures are extremely complicated, it is often their simplest formulae that produce the most spectacular results. Perhaps consciously following the example of Ernest Vincent Wright (1872-1939), whose novel Gadsby (1939) has no letter "e", Georges Perec (1936-1982) wrote the novel La Disparition ["The Disappearance"] (1969; trans Gilbert Adair as A Void 1994) without once using that letter. When a work is produced by such avoidance of the use of a letter or set of letters, the resulting narrative is referred to as a "lipogram"; The Wonderful O (1957 chap) by James Thurber is about the creation and downfall of a lipogram Dystopia where O is arbitrarily forbidden, though the text itself is conspicuous for its profusion of Os. Italo Calvino generated the plot for his Il Castello dei Destini incrociati (coll of linked stories 1973; trans as The Castle of Crossed Destinies 1977) by randomly turning over the cards of a Tarot deck. Similar procedures were used by various contributors to Rachel Pollack's Tarot Tales (anth 1989); Philip K Dick used another random system of supposed prophecy, the I Ching, to determine narrative choices in The Man in the High Castle (1962).

Thomas M Disch's novel 334 (fixup 1972) is probably the most successful Oulipo-related experiment in the sf field. The title (which should be pronounced "three three four") does not refer primarily to a place or a time but rather describes the three-dimensional narrative diagram according to which the book is constructed. Disch himself, however, added in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (1998) that: "Since I hadn't then [...] heard of Oulipo, I must insist that this was an inadvertent success and that my intent was almost the opposite" – that is, to write a realistic novel. John T Sladek is another sf author who often built his novels and stories according to arbitrary designs or games: his short "In the Distance" (1968 Concentrate #1) was generated by dice-throwing to fill preset sentence outlines with random selections from preset vocabulary lists, a manual rather than an electronic Wordmill; in his Tik-Tok (1983), more simply, each of the 26 chapters begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. In similar fashion, the three main sections of James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (omni 1982) are respectively governed by a prominently featured Ouija board's alphabet, its numbers 0-9, and its trio of shorthand options "Yes" "&" "No". Other sf or sf-related authors who exhibit a similar "gamesmanship" in their work – whether or not having heard of Oulipo – include Don DeLillo, Vladimir Nabokov, Milorad Pavić, Rudy Rucker and Pamela Zoline. Rhys Hughes is a conscious user of Oulipo constraints in many of his stories. [SB/DRL]

see also: Choose Your Own Adventure; Fabulation; Gamebook; Magic Realism; Postmodernism and SF; Pseudoscience.

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