Quantcast

The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com

You Say

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

Why Exhaustion? — Expanding on The End of Oulipo?

Levi Asher has a nice review up on his blog of The End of Oulipo? where he poses a question about why exhaustion is an interesting goal for a literary author. I’d like to discuss that a little here. First, Levi’s remarks:

The End of Oulipo? mostly consists of two essays. First, Scott Esposito presents “Eight Glances Past Georges Perec”. He considers Oulipo as an overlooked remedy to the kind of exhaustion with postmodern literature recently described by David Shields, and then tries to explain how the use of constraints in creative writing creates an opportunity to explore the potentielle (for Oulipans, apparently, it is just as important to ponder the possibilities of potential literature as it is to create actual literature).

Esposito also describes Georges Perec’s apparent obsession with the idea of “exhausting” a literary approach, or perhaps exhausting literature itself (I’m not sure I understand why this would be a good thing, but Perec seemed to take the mission very seriously). After reading this piece, I began reading Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, even though Scott Esposito personally warned me that I should start with a different Georges Perec. He says I won’t like Life, and he’s probably right.

(Incidentally, I don’t think I ever told Levi he wouldn’t like Life A User’s Manual, only that I’ve heard a number of readers express frustration with the book, even those who are generally receptive to challenging literature and Perec’s other work. It might not be the best place to start with Perec.)

I can think of at least two reasons why exhaustion is an interesting (and Oulipian) literary thing. (I get into both of these in varying extents in The End of Oulipo?, but I’d like to talk about them here a little more explicitly.) The first one would be that for many of the Oulipo authors, there was nothing new about a lot of what they were doing—rather, what was new was the exhaustion of it. Perec, for instance, was well aware that the lipogram (writing a text without a certain letter) was used in ancient times. More generally, the group recognized that a lot of the constraints they were using were in fact borrowed from prior writers and artists. That of course didn’t matter a whit to them, because they were interested in taking those constraints to places they had never been before. Hence, exhaustion is a very Oulipian (and creative) thing in the sense that it inspires you to make established texts and ideas your own.

You can see this today in a story of Perec’s that I discuss in The End of Oulipo? called “The Winter Voyage.” (You can read a translation here but should also read David John Sturrock’s translation, collected in Species of Spaces.) It’s a very Borgesian story that plays on the idea of creative plagiarism, and it is an extremely open-ended story (as many Borgesian texts are). So, Perec’s Oulipian brethren did what one might have expected them to do: many of them have written their own versions of “The Winter Voyage,” adapting it to their own literary tendencies. (You can read more about that in Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, and I have been told that an English-language volume of the collected versions of this story will be available one day.) There you see the Oulipo plagiarizing a text that one of its own creating, in effect trying to exhaust itself.

So, there you have the idea of exhaustion as a way of reinvigorating older ideas/texts and inspiring a writer to make them his or her own—essentially a spur to creation and innovation.

The second way I can think of exhaustion being useful is in the idea of defamiliarizing yourself from your world in order to find new ways of looking at things. It’s in this sense that I connect Perec to Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (even though McCarthy isn’t an Oulipo author per se). Perec famously would create schemes for exhausting the potential of certain geographical places, or certain memories he had, or even certain literary ideas. Part of this was as a way of getting past the trite, everyday insights one might have and instead getting into particularly interesting ways of viewing the world. Thus, for example, if you spend a few minutes describing your favorite cafe, you might yield an interesting observation or two, but more than likely you won’t say anything that original. But if you spend hours interrogating every inch of that place, you might eventually discover something in there that no one else has ever seen before.

I think this connects to McCarthy’s Remainder in interesting ways, since that is largely a book about treating memory like a feedback loop, where certain memories are obsessively recapitulated until they effectively break down, yielding strange and potentially new experiences. (This is a very general statement on things that I discuss in a lot more detail in The End of Oulipo?)

Anyway, the point is that there’s a lot to be said for exhaustion as a way of inspiring new creative energies, especially when you’re thinking in terms of creatively plagiarizing old works and when you’re concerned with discovering methods that you can apply to the creation of literature.

And, as a sort of teaser to further thought, I think it’s very interesting that the Oulipo group reinvigorated the idea of exhaustion right in the middle of the enormous growth of capitalism in the middle of the 20th century—capitalism is, if anything, a sort of exhaustion of the potential of society for the production of various things.

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Oulipo Periodic Table From a conversation between Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker and Chris Clarke, whose translations f new exercises appear in New Directions’ 65th anniversary edition of Raymond...
  2. Because I’ve Been Thinking a Lot About Oulipo Lately Some Oulipo links. Bookforum’s Oulipo syllabus. Writings for the Oulipo by Ian Monk In this concise but rich collection, Ian Monk ingeniously introduces and analyzes...
  3. On Joining Oulipo by Accident From Harry Mathews’ excellent, engaging Paris Review interview. Is that when you found out about the Oulipo? MATHEWS I had first heard about the Oulipo...
  4. Happy Birthday Oulipo November 24: The French experimental writing group "Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle" was founded on this day in 1960. The name translates as "Workshop of Potential...
  5. Oulipo Panel There’s a full video on YouTube of the panel I did on the Oulipo with Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker, poet Matthew Zapruder, author Robin Sloan,...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

8 comments to Why Exhaustion? — Expanding on The End of Oulipo?

  • Patrick

    Where would you recommend starting with Perec?

  • I have been told that an English-language volume of the collected versions of this story will be available one day.

    Winter Journeys has already been published in English by Atlas Press in 2001, and includes Perec’s original and versions by Bens, Caradec, Mathews, Roubaud, and several others, 10 in all. Sturrock translated Perec, Mathews translated his own, and Ian Monk translated the rest.

  • Rachel Owlglass

    Do you know if Barth coined the term “Exhaustion” in the way you are using it? How does his work LETTERS relate to Oulipo?

  • Richard

    Atlas Press in the U.K. has published the book with variations on Perec’s Winter Journey.It’s called “Winter Journeys”, and includes stories by Roubaud, Jouet,Matthews etc. Translated by Ian Monk, Harry Matthews,John Sturock.

    http://www.atlaspress.co.uk/index.cgi?action=view_anti_classic&number=11

  • admin

    This is always tough to answer, if only because all of the books are so different from one another that there’s no “representative” work. That said, Things is very readable yet gives you a sense of Perec’s experimentalism. Ditto A Man Asleep. W, Or the Memory of Childhood is beautifully wrought and probably the quickest of the ones I’ve read.

    I would hold off on A Void or Life A User’s Manual until you’ve had a chance to experience some of the other books. There are also lots of other miscellaneous works, but I would try one of the above first. Species of Spaces collects some incredible essays.

  • admin

    Thank you Richard and Rachel. I think there’s a new edition planned, as that one is out of print.

  • I don’t think Winter Journeys is officially out of print. I ordered a copy from Atlas less than six months ago without difficulty.

  • Patrick

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll seek out Things/A Man Asleep as a starting point.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>