Should all “potential” literature become “realized”?
Well, no. And that’s one of the subtler explorations such a group as the 1960-founded Oulipo spends time considering.
Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature is Daniel Levin Becker’s personal history of this literature and his tribute to the people who helped create it, including Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Duchamp. His own trajectory makes him well suited to write this book. For starters, he’s the youngest-ever member of the Oulipo, and only the second American ever to be elected into the group (the first was Harry Mathews).
The name is “an acronym for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature,” the society is “a sort of literary supper club” whose public performances can be “joyous occasions of sublimely mischievous wit.” The Oulipo was also established humbly enough as an “outlet for restless creative energy” for its members. Public readings didn’t even start for a decade.
Drawn to the group’s mystique, Becker secured a Fulbright to study the organization in Paris. He was eventually offered membership.
It seems too that the potential of the potential is growing in other collectives of artistic and intellectual pursuits. Oulipo has inspired the creation of: the OuMuPo (a collective of DJs), the OuMaPo (marionette players), the OuBaPo (comic strip artists), the OuFlarfPo (poets who generate poetry with the aid of search engines), and a menagerie of other Ou-X-Pos (workshops for potential something).
Becker discusses these and other intriguing developments in this history and personal appreciation of an iconic—and iconoclastic—group. No wonder he says that being invited to join the group was “one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Becker, who is currently reviews editor for the Believer, not only presents a general overview of Oulipian writing but also analyzes its evolution and underlying philosophy. He tells us that Oulipian writing can be categorized by the source of the potential component: the content of the finished work or the writing process itself.
Leigh Arbor shares some critiques that are probably shared by many:
At times it might seem that Oulipian writers—Becker included—are missing the point of literature. Some of them have devoted years to projects that seem gimmicky, privileging wordplay at the expense of meaning. One could claim that literature is at its best when it stirs the imagination and facilitates empathy, and this requires the full use of all vowels.”
She also makes a point that “word games are confined by language.”
Although the book is about the “many subtle channels” of potential literature, simply put, the main premises of OuLiPo are: (1) Constraint brings freedom; (2) Constraints are fun.
In turn, the simplest common denominator question becomes: Are the constraints arbitrary? And, perhaps also, Are they really freeing–as Perec always claimed–or in fact confining?
Well, what’s the point of any form? The constraints the Oulipians place on themselves and on each other are by nature arbitrary. The villanelle comes from a 12th century type of French dance, and so do many poetic forms. Why are long forms seemingly so threatening? It may be because the attempts are creations meant to do the very thing we resist: blur categories and automatomic ways of thinking and behaving.
But what many people are really asking is:
Are the rules imposed to make a story better–or as elaborate clever tricks?
It’s a question worth answering because potential literature is the kind we should demand as readers and supply as writers.
It’s an unusual book on a number of levels. First, is that Becker is clearly highly intelligent, but he doesn’t have the need to prove himself that way. In fact, if anything, there’s a constant deprecation, both of his own goals as well as the group’s. It’s also a gateway to all kinds of ideas about, well, the potential of literature, which is a philosophical question every bit as much as a literary one.
While it’s true that the French probably “fetishize structure,” as Becker says in a follow-up interview with the New York Times after the book’s release in 2012, and often indeed the structures and gameplay are ends in and of themselves, I find the potential to be huge.