Daniel Levin Becker, San Francisco resident and Believer magazine reviews editor, is the author of a recently published study of the Oulipo, Many Subtle Channels. For those unfamiliar, the Oulipo--an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates into something like the "Workshop for Potential Literature"--is a predominantly French group whose members explore and expand the possibilities of literature by employing various formal constraints. These constraints range from the simple (for example, the procedure n+7 involves replacing every noun in a text with the 7th following it in the dictionary, a process that often yields inspired results) to the elaborate (see this list of some of the rules followed in the composition of the uber-Oulipian Life A User's Manual). All constraints serve to extend the boundaries of literature and bypass the old Romantic saw of "writer's block."
It's likely that you've read work by a member of the Oulipo, perhaps without being aware of it. Italo Calvino is a member (once a member, always a member), as are Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, and Raymond Queneau--one of the group's co-founders, in fact, as well as author GAB favorite, the irrepressible Zazie in the Metro.
Daniel, who was inducted into the Oulipo in 2009, kindly agreed to answer a handful of questions about his book, the history of the Oulipo, what the group can do for you, and some of the books that have had a lasting impact on him.
Green Apple Books: Throughout the book, you offer several definitions of the Oulipo. Are any of these definitions more apt than others? Have you formulated your own response to the (this) inevitable question of "What is the Oulipo"?
Daniel Levin Becker: I usually go with some variation of "a research group of writers and scientists whose collective subject of inquiry is the literary potential of mathematical structures." Sometimes--okay, often--I replace "research group of writers and scientists" with "bunch of nerds."
GAB: Can you tell us a little about how the Oulipo is constituted? How does one become a member of the group? How does one avoid becoming a member (or remaining a member after one is inducted)?
DLB: One becomes a member first by attending one of the Oulipo's monthly meetings as a guest of honor and presenting whatever it is of one's work that dovetails with oulipian interests, then by being unanimously elected by the group. One can avoid becoming a member very easily: by asking to be a member and thereby becoming permanently ineligible for membership. After one is inducted one cannot quit or be kicked out; the only official way to leave the group is to commit suicide for no purpose other than to leave the group, and to do so in the presence of a notary. A few people have distanced themselves from the group's activities by just sort of ceasing to participate, but they're still officially considered members, just inactive ones. This includes dead members.
GAB: You make a pretty sustained case in the book as to how and why an admittedly obscure French literary group has relevance to more than a coterie of like-minded enthusiasts. Can you briefly sum up this argument and tell us what an awareness or appreciation of oulipian methods can offer the "average reader"?
DLB: It's not mine to make, but I buy pretty wholeheartedly into the argument that creativity thrives on rules and constraints, and that there are rules and constraints in virtually everything we do--so there's potential for organized play, i.e. games, all around us. For me the games usually have to do with language, and are usually pretty momentary--but what's cool about this line of thinking is that (a) it can be anything with rules and (b) it doesn't have to be momentary, that you could use those rules to build something much bigger if you were so inclined. Consider La Disparition [Georges Perec's e-less novel, translated as A Void].
Irredeemably nerdy example of how this plays out: I passed someone on the street the other day wearing a muscle T-shirt that said "FUCK SLEEVES" and immediately (well, after thinking "that is awesome") thought of the band Fuck Buttons. And I got a few moments of joy from the contrast of those two structurally identical but culturally different phrases: why is it that on a T-shirt "fuck" reads as a verb and in a band name it seems like a functional attribute (i.e., "just press the fuck button")? What if you switched those roles and made "fuck buttons" a chant among rioting zipper industry workers, and "fuck sleeves" a really crude name for fishnet stockings? You could go pretty far with that little game (although I think it's probably pretty obvious why I let it remain momentary in this case). That's the "potential" part.
Anyway, I think the idea of potential is mostly just that structures are there for you to play with in whatever way makes you happy and creatively productive. It's not just about creativity, though, for me and for most of the people in the book: to some degree we like games because there are rules and we're not faced with the complete uncertainty of the real entropic world, and by the same token there's something existentially reassuring about the idea that there are solutions to be found, the way there are solutions to math problems, even (or maybe especially) if you're only solving problems you set for yourself.
I promise this is all explained more eloquently in the book.
GAB: What's your favorite book by an Oulipian?
DLB: In an effort to be unpredictable, I'm going to say Calvino's t-zero. It's not actually very oulipian, just nerdy and brilliant. Ask me tomorrow, of course, and I'll probably have a different answer.
GAB: What are you reading now?
DLB: I'm a ridiculously sidetrackable reader these days, but I just read Gianni Rodari's Lamberto Lamberto Lamberto (tr. Antony Shugaar) and I have open and active dossiers on Jennifer Dubois's A Partial History of Lost Causes and Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity.
GAB: And, if the answer is different from the above, which oulipian book has had the biggest effect on you?
DLB: If you'll permit me the mischievous technicality of interpreting "oulipian book" as "book in the oulipian mode" rather than "book by a member of the Oulipo," I'll go with Nabokov's Pale Fire, thanks to which I discovered that the structures surrounding the apparent story--the paratexts, as I would later learn to call them thanks to the extraordinarily dense book by that name by Gérard Genette--could be just as interesting and dramatic, if not more so.
GAB: Finally, if you could have a Staff Favorite at the store, what would you pick?
DLB: Is it too late for [John D'Agata's] The Lifespan of a Fact? I geeked out on that book hard.
GAB: It's not too late. We geeked out on that pretty hard too.
N.B. -- An extended interview will soon be available on Writers No One Reads.