by Ryan Ruby
Taking its cue from French politics, French experimental writing has always been a clubby affair. Unlike in Britain or America, where economic and political liberalism have encouraged writers to view themselves as individual talents engaged in private agons with tradition, in France, with a few notable exceptions, avant-garde writers have presented themselves as members of an organization, complete with founding documents, by-laws, regular meetings, and a leadership structure, in short, as citoyens of a mini-republic.
Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature, known by its acronym, Oulipo, is the longest-lasting experimental writing group in history. Oulipians marry two strange bedfellows, literature and mathematics, adopting and inventing rigorous formal constraints—most famously, the lipogram, in which the use of a certain letter is proscribed, and the n+7 rule, in which every noun is replaced by the noun that follows it seven entries later in a dictionary—to generate poems, novels, essays, memoirs and “texts that defy all classification.” From its ten original members, all but one of whom are now dead, the group has nearly tripled in size, “co-opting” (to use the group's official term) writers from Italy, Germany, the UK, and America. Although it has by no means achieved anything close to gender parity, five of its new co-optees have been women.
The Oulipo owes its longevity, in part, to its refusal as a collective to entertain any kind of political line, despite the avowed leftism of many of its members. In so doing, it managed to avoid the power struggles, excommunications, and splintering characteristic of the avant-garde movements that were fatally drawn into the orbit of French Marxism and Maoism. But its survival can also be attributed to the fruitfulness of constrained writing itself. The widespread availability of constrained writing techniques has enabled Oulipians to identify those who are working along parallel lines and co-opt them.