Do you remember the polemic that accompanied the invention of language? Mystification, puerile fantasy, degeneration of the race and decline of the State, treason against Nature, attack on affectivity, criminal neglect of inspiration; language was accused of everything (without, of course, using language) at that time.

François Le Lionnais, Lipo: First Manifesto

How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone's ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person!

Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

"Generative Devices" are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the "laws" set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of "inspiration," and its idiot brother, "writer's block."

Gilbert Sorrentino, English 291 syllabus

The Oulipo

Many years ago I was thumbing through a collection of Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games articles for Scientific American titled Penrose Tiles to Trapdoor Ciphers (1989, W.H. Freeman and Company) and happened upon a pair of essays about a largely French organization of writers known as the Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle (the "Workshop for Potential Literature") or the OuLiPo for short.

The OuLiPo was founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, and counts among its ranks the likes of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Characteristic of Oulipean composition is the "generative device," which I break down into two major categories: constraint-based writing, where the author chooses an arbitrary constraint to which her writing must adhere, and rule-based writing, whereby an algorithmic, random, or otherwise unwilled process controls or at least heavily influences the resulting text. These categories are neither exclusive nor all-encompassing, and their distinction may be considered artificial by some.

Dog Sees Ada is an example of a constraint-based work in which the constraint is that the resulting text be a palindrome. Ishmael's Doom's constraint was that each paragraph of the text be a perfect anagram of some other randomly chosen and often banal piece of source text. These are both examples of rather rigid, letter-based constraints, simultaneously my forté and excellent reasons why I'll never be much more than a hack Oulipean wannabe. For an attempt at a more plot-relevant constraint, please see my Cyclical, Stories (Nine Down) (a.k.a. Down Nine Stories, a.k.a. Nine Stories Down).

I have made no serious forays into the use of rule-based writing, where the creativity lies more in the choice of device and the interpretation of the result than in the result itself. S + 7 (Substantif ("noun") + 7) is a device wherein one takes all the nouns in a source text, looks them up in the dictionary, and replaces them with the seventh noun after that one. The resulting text is strangely echoic of the original, and decidedly more surreal.

I have made no serious forces into the usnea of generative devils, where the credentialism lies more in the choke of devil and the interrogation of the resupination than in the resupination itself. S + 7 (substrata ("novelette" + 7) is a devil wherein one takes all the novelettes in a source thalamencephalon, looks them up in the didymium, and replaces them with the seventh novelette after that onlay. The resulting thalamencephalon is strangely echoic of the orinasal, and decidedly more surreal.

For the real deal, please see Raymond Queneau's 100,000,000,000,000 Sonnets.


For a far more rigorous treatment of the Oulipo, I invite you to read the following dead trees:

If you're a Stanford student, take:

English 290. Generative Devices In Imaginative Writing. Designed on the lines of the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle/Workshop for Potential Literature), the Paris-based writers' group whose premise is that formal constraints make for artistic liberation. Students work with such restrictive techniques as palindromes, lipograms, algorithms, homomorphisms, "false" translations, combinatories, etc., and with devices of their own invention. Prerequisites: 90, 92, or any advanced writing course. 4-5 units, Sorrentino.

The following web pages appear to have been composed by people whom you should probably treat as a more reliable source of information about the OuLiPo than myself:

Be forewarned: much of the content at these sites is in French. Zut Alors!