Oulipo in the Twenty-First Century
I just published a review-essay in Hyperallergic Weekend that covers three recent (and very different) books about or inspired by the Oulipo, Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard University Press, 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).
Here’s a brief excerpt from a later section of my piece:
“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.
Also of interest is a new special issue on constraint by Anomalous Press.