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The Future of OuLiPo

February 19, 2013 | By Rachael Small

OuLiPo, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentiel or Workshop of Potential Literature, has long held a grip on the American literary imagination as its members have sought to stretch the boundaries of literature and liberate creative energy through the use of formal constraints.  2013 has begun quite auspiciously for English readers of OuLiPo, a group that is now in its sixth decade of existence, with the publication of two exciting translated books, a spotlight on the comic book offshoot OuBaPo, and the release of a new critical work on the group.

New Directions has recently released a new 65th anniversary edition of the Queneau classic Exercises in Style, containing the author’s as yet unpublished exercises (translated by Chris Clarke) as well as new exercises written by authors such as Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten, Jonathan Lethem, and Enrique Vila-Matas.  Alongside this classic rereleased and reenvisioned, Georges Perec’s La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams  was released this month by Melville House.  This translation by Daniel Levin Becker, only the second Anglophone writer admitted among the ranks of the OuLiPo, transports Perec’s prosaic and image-laden dream journals into English for the first time ever. 

For fans of the comic book and graphic novel, OuBaPo, a “sanctioned offshoot” of OuLiPo, takes oulipian constraints and places them on comic book production.  Examples of this, as well as an explanatory essay by this group’s only Anglophone member Matt Madden, can be seen in this month’s issue of Words Without Borders.

In light of all this oulipian translation, certain fans and scholars of the movement are starting to speculate about its future.  In their new book, The End of OuLiPo?, Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito explore the group’s evolution and question whether the movement itself has reached a point of exhaustion.  Can a group conceived as avant-garde continue to produce innovative work once it reaches a certain age, once its writers have been canonized?  One thing is sure, American audiences have yet to exhaust their desire for and interest in oulipian works.

Some events taking place around the country this year:

February 19, San Francisco:  Scott Esposito and Daniel Levin Becker in Conversation

February 21, New York:  Perec! Queneau! OuLiPo!

May 11-12, Ohio State University : Matt Madden’s OuLiPo Talk & Workshop


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