The Formal Imagination of Oulipo

Founded in 1960 by a collective of French mathematicians and writers, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), or Oulipo, was established to identify new forms of writing using numerical and alphabetical constraints. Early member Georges Perec, for example, structured his novel Life A User’s Manuel according to the Knight’s Tour algorithm, in which the knight visits every square of a chess board exactly once. Similarly, Mike Keith used the first 3,835 digits of pi (3.14…) to determine the length of each word in his short story “Cadaeic Cadenza” (the first word being composed of three letters, the next of a single letter, and so forth).

At first glance, Oulipian works such as these seemingly contradict those old saws of storytelling: we do not know where ideas come from, and there is no formula for writing them. For me, this prompted early distrust toward Oulipo: that trendy name, the suggestion of ease—it all seemed too convenient and marketable, a quick-fix formula for improving the creative life. I imagined stiff, impractical prose held aloft as the source of something irreducible. I cringed at the idea of constraints allowed near the expansiveness of art. I will admit to this: originally, I viewed the members of Oulipo more as evil scientists than authors.
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