Hello Oulipism

I’m not a fiendishly-addicted word games person (not much of a Scrabble fan, but do like Dictionary and games that involve invention and quite a bit of clever cheating) but I am a person who is very suspicious of the way writers talk about inspiration, their muses and the way their characters take over their writing, so Oulipism — which is brand new to me but maybe not to you — holds quite a bit of interest for me.

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A while ago, on a trawl for books for my book club, I happened to buy Georges Perec’s A Void (an entire novel written without the letter e, first in French and called La Disparition and then translated into English) and found it to be great fun — not a single book clubber agreed and the book remained in the club unread until I retired it. It was, however, a curiosity until I encountered a piece by Paul Grimstad in the London Review of Books (Vol 34 No 23, 6 December 2012) about Oulipism as a writing movement started, of course, in France.

In short Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litterature potentielle, which involved writers and mathematicians; and Grimstad’s description is way more useful and historically comprehensive) was all about a way to write by setting very tight constraints on writing and seeing just how inventive you could be in response. IOW: writing without inspiration! Which really suited Perec (see the LRB’s review of A Void by John Sturrock (Vol 16 No 21, 10 November 1994), who apparently said he had “not one carat of inspiration” and didn’t, says Sturrock, believe such a thing existed.

Some of the Ouliptic tricks are very complicated (writing a novel so that each chapter conforms to the architecture of a block of flats) and some just crazy and fun: replacing every noun in a piece of writing with the seventh word that comes after it in the dictionary.

I can see two good uses (maybe three) for Oulipism:

  1. It’s a versatile idea lending itself to all sorts of daft permutations and would be wonderful for working with students of writing (I’m getting a little tired of the freewriting start to classes).
  2. It’s a great throat-clearing exercise to get writing groups going, and
  3. It kind of knocks the stuffing out of the portentousness that seems to accompany the writing moment.

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