Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature

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Overview

What sort of society could bind together Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Queneau—and Daniel Levin Becker, a young American obsessed with language play? Only the Oulipo, the Paris-based experimental collective founded in 1960 and fated to become one of literature’s quirkiest movements.

An international organization of writers, artists, and scientists who embrace formal and procedural constraints to achieve literature’s possibilities, the Oulipo (the French acronym stands for “workshop for potential literature”) is perhaps best known as the cradle of Georges Perec’s novel A Void, which does not contain the letter e. Drawn to the Oulipo’s mystique, Levin Becker secured a Fulbright grant to study the organization and traveled to Paris. He was eventually offered membership, becoming only the second American to be admitted to the group. From the perspective of a young initiate, the Oulipians and their projects are at once bizarre and utterly compelling. Levin Becker’s love for games, puzzles, and language play is infectious, calling to mind Elif Batuman’s delight in Russian literature in The Possessed.

In recent years, the Oulipo has inspired the creation of numerous other collectives: the OuMuPo (a collective of DJs), the OuMaPo (marionette players), the OuBaPo (comic strip artists), the OuFlarfPo (poets who generate poetry with the aid of search engines), and a menagerie of other Ou-X-Pos (workshops for potential something). Levin Becker discusses these and other intriguing developments in this history and personal appreciation of an iconic—and iconoclastic—group.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this intimate and informative book, Levin Becker explores the history of Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature), easily one of the most bizarre and charming literary movements of the 20th century. Claiming Italo Calvino, George Perec, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Queneau among its members, Oulipo is best known for its exploration of new and seemingly impossible literary forms, such as Perec's A Void, an entire novel written (originally in French) without the letter "e," and a book of poems that would theoretically take a reader 190,258,751 years to complete. Originally tasked with organizing Oulipo's extensive archives, Levin Becker finds himself gradually inducted into the inner workings of the group before eventually being offered membership into the prestigious collective. From this unique position, Levin Becker excavates the movement's history from its creation in 1960 by an assemblage of French writers, mathematicians and eccentrics, to its present-day iteration. Levin Becker even offers insight into what the future of Oulipo may hold, noting the proliferation of "Ou-X-Po," likeminded collectives that seek to discover new potential forms for other disciplines, such as music, cartooning, and even marionettes. As he delves further into the past and methodology of Oulipo, Levin Becker's palpable enthusiasm for potential literature becomes infectious. One finishes this book not only with an appreciation for Levin Becker's prose and Oulipian literature, but also with an urge to attempt it. (Apr.)
Booklist

A remarkable and accessible first book. [Levin Becker's] worthy subject is OuLiPo (Ouvrioir de Littérature Potentielle), which translates as Workshop for Potential Literature. Founded in 1960, OuLiPo counts among its past members such luminaries as Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Other writers, though famous in Europe, are unknown here, but Levin Becker's account may change that. Serious about their fun, Oulipians do not take themselves too seriously; Levin Becker, only the second American member, doesn't either. In this rare alloy of autobiography, biography, history, humor, meditation, ode, shaggy-dog story, and treatise, readers will discover a book that arouses an appetite for a type of knowledge one didn't know one needed. The definition of "potential literature": "It's what you get when you go looking in language for meanings that aren't there, and find them anyway." As Levin Becker exemplifies, to delight and instruct is a purpose not limited to literature; it seems to be a way to live.
— Michael Autrey

Bookforum

Many Subtle Channels is Levin Becker's personal history of this literature and his tribute to the people who helped create it, including [Georges] Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Duchamp...Levin Becker gets Oulipian obsessiveness on a gut level, and his delight in palindromes and lipograms (texts that, like the Perec novel [La Disparition], are entirely devoid of a particular letter) vividly comes to life in his writing. But the book's most revelatory moments come when Levin Becker suggests that this obsessiveness comes hand in hand with a deep need for guidance. Perec once said that "the intense difficulty posed by this sort of production.....palls in comparison to the terror I would feel in writing 'poetry' freely." The constraints the Oulipians place on themselves and on each other are by nature arbitrary. Sometimes, the texts end up tricking unwitting reviewers—one unsuspecting critic missed the conceit of La Disparition completely and panned the novel for being "stilted"—but mischief, writes Levin Becker, isn't really the point. Oulipian texts existed for decades before the collective was formed and will likely continue even if the collective disbands. Random as Oulipian practices may seem, they actually embody one of the most fundamental challenges that all writers face—to test and push the boundaries of language.
— Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

Literary Review

Essentially an account of the life and times of the Oulipo group, a Paris-based coalition of writers, mathematicians and artists that was set up in 1960 with the express intention of making life difficult for its members and readers. The clue to the real nature of the group is in "Oulipo"—which, when unpacked, stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature. This is meant to describe the practice of Oulipo members, who deliberately set themselves constraints on their writing. These can include palindromes, lipograms (excluding one or more letters), the snowball (a poem in which the first line is a single word, the second two words, and so on) and other myriad forms of self-imposed difficulty. The big idea is that if you set off to write, let's say, a short story by deliberately forcing yourself to replace every seventh noun in the text with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary then you are bound to end up somewhere unexpected. Hence the term "potential literature." From this point of view, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is no more than a particularly mirthless form of linguistic trickiness for its own sake; a kind of highbrow Gallic version of Scrabble or indeed the quiz show Countdown. This book admirably demonstrates that this is not the case...The book is a sheer delight. Levin Becker warns us that Oulipo is not for everybody, and he makes it clear that his book will be a largely uncritical and unashamed homage to the group. He admires them so much he ends up joining them (becoming only the second American member). But most importantly he is a sharp-witted guide to the most obscure details of Oulipo activity. Above all, he emphasizes that this is not merely an eccentric offshoot of Surrealism. Rather, he describes the Oulipians as scientists in a laboratory—they experiment endlessly, preferring no conclusion to false certainty, especially the false certainties of literature in a didactic or imperative mood. As Levin Becker puts it, this is the science of literature in a conditional mood...The activities of the Oulipo group, as Levin Becker emphasizes, are all about practice and opposed to theory... What all these Oulipians have in common is the notion that play is a serious business...Indeed, as the twenty-first century grows darker by the day, it may be that we will need the effortlessly ludic lucidity of Oulipo as an antidote more than ever.
— Andrew Hussey

Chicago Tribune

[A] glorious book. [Levin Becker's] account of acquainting himself with the men and women who are determined to discover "the potentially surprising ways to behold the literary possibilities of language" is all of that: joyous, sublime, mischievous, surprising and filled with possibility...You will be enchanted by Levin Becker's book.
— Julia Keller

Washington Post

A distinctly intimate and exceptionally entertaining book...If you enjoy crosswords, intricately structured mysteries a la Agatha Christie, puns, hypertext fiction, shaggy dog stories, Bourbaki mathematics, the games of chess and Go, or simply work that boggles the mind, then you really need to discover the OuLiPo...[Levin Becker] makes an ideal guide to the ingeniously madcap wonderland that is potential literature and art.
— Michael Dirda

San Francisco Chronicle

[A] witty, dazzling and at times breathtakingly loony book...Levin Becker paints vivid portraits of a group of literary figures, prominent in the last third of the 20th century, whose personal quirks are at least as fascinating as their verbal feints. At times, this book reads as a love letter to a French avant-garde, sidelined by the recent revival of representational fiction and affective poetry. At times, it reads as a work of literary criticism and theory, arguing for a way of writing that bypasses traditional notions of inspiration and emotional content in favor of formal architecture.
— Seth Lerer

Harry Mathews
Daniel Levin Becker's brilliant and entertaining book about the Oulipo combines meticulously researched history, a complete panoply of thumbnail portraits (he uses both thumbs), shrewd critical appraisal, and - bless him! - autobiography. If Oulipians are 'rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape,' he has explored the subtle channels of the labyrinth and caught all the rats; and he movingly describes why he is happy to have become a rat himself.
Anne Fadiman
Many Subtle Channels is both an account of a glorious chapter in the history of wordplay and an equally glorious example of wordplay at work. Its author is very, very smart, but because he's so witty and so playful, his intelligence feels friendly rather than formidable. Remember the name Daniel Levin Becker: you will be hearing it again.
Booklist - Michael Autrey
A remarkable and accessible first book. [Levin Becker's] worthy subject is OuLiPo (Ouvrioir de Littérature Potentielle), which translates as Workshop for Potential Literature. Founded in 1960, OuLiPo counts among its past members such luminaries as Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Other writers, though famous in Europe, are unknown here, but Levin Becker's account may change that. Serious about their fun, Oulipians do not take themselves too seriously; Levin Becker, only the second American member, doesn't either. In this rare alloy of autobiography, biography, history, humor, meditation, ode, shaggy-dog story, and treatise, readers will discover a book that arouses an appetite for a type of knowledge one didn't know one needed. The definition of "potential literature": "It's what you get when you go looking in language for meanings that aren't there, and find them anyway." As Levin Becker exemplifies, to delight and instruct is a purpose not limited to literature; it seems to be a way to live.
Bookforum - Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
Many Subtle Channels is Levin Becker's personal history of this literature and his tribute to the people who helped create it, including [Georges] Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Duchamp...Levin Becker gets Oulipian obsessiveness on a gut level, and his delight in palindromes and lipograms (texts that, like the Perec novel [La Disparition], are entirely devoid of a particular letter) vividly comes to life in his writing. But the book's most revelatory moments come when Levin Becker suggests that this obsessiveness comes hand in hand with a deep need for guidance. Perec once said that "the intense difficulty posed by this sort of production.....palls in comparison to the terror I would feel in writing 'poetry' freely." The constraints the Oulipians place on themselves and on each other are by nature arbitrary. Sometimes, the texts end up tricking unwitting reviewers--one unsuspecting critic missed the conceit of La Disparition completely and panned the novel for being "stilted"--but mischief, writes Levin Becker, isn't really the point. Oulipian texts existed for decades before the collective was formed and will likely continue even if the collective disbands. Random as Oulipian practices may seem, they actually embody one of the most fundamental challenges that all writers face--to test and push the boundaries of language.
Literary Review - Andrew Hussey
Essentially an account of the life and times of the Oulipo group, a Paris-based coalition of writers, mathematicians and artists that was set up in 1960 with the express intention of making life difficult for its members and readers. The clue to the real nature of the group is in "Oulipo"--which, when unpacked, stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature. This is meant to describe the practice of Oulipo members, who deliberately set themselves constraints on their writing. These can include palindromes, lipograms (excluding one or more letters), the snowball (a poem in which the first line is a single word, the second two words, and so on) and other myriad forms of self-imposed difficulty. The big idea is that if you set off to write, let's say, a short story by deliberately forcing yourself to replace every seventh noun in the text with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary then you are bound to end up somewhere unexpected. Hence the term "potential literature." From this point of view, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is no more than a particularly mirthless form of linguistic trickiness for its own sake; a kind of highbrow Gallic version of Scrabble or indeed the quiz show Countdown. This book admirably demonstrates that this is not the case...The book is a sheer delight. Levin Becker warns us that Oulipo is not for everybody, and he makes it clear that his book will be a largely uncritical and unashamed homage to the group. He admires them so much he ends up joining them (becoming only the second American member). But most importantly he is a sharp-witted guide to the most obscure details of Oulipo activity. Above all, he emphasizes that this is not merely an eccentric offshoot of Surrealism. Rather, he describes the Oulipians as scientists in a laboratory--they experiment endlessly, preferring no conclusion to false certainty, especially the false certainties of literature in a didactic or imperative mood. As Levin Becker puts it, this is the science of literature in a conditional mood...The activities of the Oulipo group, as Levin Becker emphasizes, are all about practice and opposed to theory... What all these Oulipians have in common is the notion that play is a serious business...Indeed, as the twenty-first century grows darker by the day, it may be that we will need the effortlessly ludic lucidity of Oulipo as an antidote more than ever.
Chicago Tribune - Julia Keller
[A] glorious book. [Levin Becker's] account of acquainting himself with the men and women who are determined to discover "the potentially surprising ways to behold the literary possibilities of language" is all of that: joyous, sublime, mischievous, surprising and filled with possibility...You will be enchanted by Levin Becker's book.
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
A distinctly intimate and exceptionally entertaining book...If you enjoy crosswords, intricately structured mysteries a la Agatha Christie, puns, hypertext fiction, shaggy dog stories, Bourbaki mathematics, the games of chess and Go, or simply work that boggles the mind, then you really need to discover the OuLiPo...[Levin Becker] makes an ideal guide to the ingeniously madcap wonderland that is potential literature and art.
San Francisco Chronicle - Seth Lerer
[A] witty, dazzling and at times breathtakingly loony book...Levin Becker paints vivid portraits of a group of literary figures, prominent in the last third of the 20th century, whose personal quirks are at least as fascinating as their verbal feints. At times, this book reads as a love letter to a French avant-garde, sidelined by the recent revival of representational fiction and affective poetry. At times, it reads as a work of literary criticism and theory, arguing for a way of writing that bypasses traditional notions of inspiration and emotional content in favor of formal architecture.
Times Literary Supplement - Lauren Elkin
In Many Subtle Channels, [Levin Becker] succeeds in sharing his quirky regard for the unpredictable coincidences of language, and in making the reader see the world, briefly, in an Oulipian way.
American Book Review - Jason Conger
Skillfully introduces readers into the domain of constraint-based writing...Part personal narrative, part historical survey, and part expository essay, Channels begins with its author's own curiosity about the Oulipo and proceeds into an exhaustive interrogation of its principal methods and aims...Levin Becker is a charming guide to the joys of this quixotic fixation on form...Channels demonstrates that Levin Becker has earned his place within the Oulipian phalanx: he knows the work and deftly initiates readers into the vexing and prismatic world view which is at the heart of the Oulipian endeavor--an enduring attention to the linguistic coordinates that populate the landscape of daily life...This book is vital because it invites us to read within the reservoir of everyday language a living work where once we saw mere billboards and text messages. Levin Becker convincingly argues that the Oulipo's aims are hardly exhausted and that the methods of potential literature are nowise limited to writerly production--its parameters extend into the possibility for a more attuned attention to the structures that everywhere guide and confine us.
The Millions - Scott Esposito
Many Subtle Channels is something along the lines of a memoir spliced with literary criticism, reportage, and good old boosterism of a fantastic body of literature.
London Review of Books - Paul Grimstad
Many Subtle Channels is a reliable history of the Oulipo and a Bildungsroman-ish account of a young writer's development into writerhood. At its best the enthusiasm is infectious, not just about the Oulipo (and Levin Becker's evident elatedness at having been made a member), but more generally about the pleasures of reading and writing. Becker makes clear what is exciting about the Oulipo: the discovery and application of constraints; the annihilation of cliché; the setting up of encounters between literature, mathematics, music and computers; analyzing and exploring, but also broadening and generalizing, the dynamics of composition.
Weekly Standard - Sara Lodge
In Many Subtle Channels, [Daniel Levin Becker] reports from the frontier about the cultural antics of a group that has stimulated some of the most influential as well as some of the most frivolous works of European literature. Levin Becker is clearly entranced by the OuLiPo, and his likably geeky fascination both with its annals and its ongoing activities draws readers in, until we are persuaded that, despite its reputation as a historical coterie, the OuLiPo's ideas remain alive and offer something of potential value to everyone...Levin Becker is a shrewd and entertaining writer: His youthful enthusiasm is infectious and his style, which has hints of modern American intellectual goofballers such as David Foster Wallace, combines the erudite with a cheerfully self-conscious admission of obsessive word-nerdiness.
Review of Contemporary Fiction - Warren Motte

Much has now been written about the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or

Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians based in Paris, but there is

nothing quite as deeply informed, or as provocative, or as consistently captivating

as Many Subtle Channels.

Library Journal
American editor, translator, and critic Becker (reviews editor, The Believer) has been a member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, translated as Workshop of Potential Literature) since 2009. The Paris collective, founded in 1960, is most famous for members such as Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino. This book is an attempt to demonstrate how Oulipian writers play with language to create a literary work, i.e., setting themselves a task (e.g., Perec's novel, La disparition, written without use of the letter e) likely to yield unanticipated results. In poetry, the Oulipotes set themselves to write poems made up of other poems, poems of single-word lines, each one letter longer than the one before, and the like. Becker outlines the careers and works of an impressive number of writers who have contributed to this movement and also writes of himself and his work. VERDICT This book is for the literati, or perhaps the mathematically inclined, who delight in playing with grammar and spelling to produce something new. Fans of Perec, Calvino, etc., will enjoy it. However, uninitiated readers may find it nonsensical and quickly lay it aside. Recommended for academic libraries and specialists in this area of 20th- and 21st-century literature.—Robert T. Ivey, Univ. of Memphis
Kirkus Reviews
A playful illumination of the complexities, mysteries and absurdities of an obscure French organization devoted to "potential literature." Serious wordplay abounds within the experiments of the Oulipo, a Paris-based collective devoted to systematic literary exploration, constraints that free the mind and imagination (such as writing a novel without using the letter e), and devising "real solutions to imaginary problems." The organization's pantheon includes Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, while fellow travelers could range from Vladimir Nabokov to Paul Auster. Much of the writing focuses on the processes of writing and reading while an emphasis on language as language trumps such conventional notions of "realism" in character and plot. Words on a page may not be more, but they are never less, than words on a page. American author Becker served an apprenticeship as an archivist before joining the organization in which "anyone who asks to be a member of the Oulipo thereupon becomes inadmissible for life." The author is also the reviews editor for The Believer, and his self-deprecating reminiscences humanize the book well beyond literary theory, while his tone renders even extended examinations of the organization's theories and history more palatable than expected. One work is praised for the "Zen-by-way-of-Kafka simplicity of its zero-sum goal," while the masters rise above mere experimentation: "Like Perec, Calvino was great at bringing humanity into what could otherwise be a soulless structural shell game." There is a strong mathematical, even scientific, component within the philosophies of these theorist-practitioners, whose field of inquiry (like so much else) has been transformed by computer technology. But there's also a disarming element of whimsy: "Like any literary treatises worth their salt, the manifestos are unsatisfying; their saving grace is [their]…tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the notion of the manifesto in the first place." Destined to delight a small, select readership—the Oulipo wouldn't have it any other way.
Michael Dirda
…a distinctly intimate and exceptionally entertaining book…I can affirm, utterly without constraint, that [Becker] makes an ideal guide to the ingeniously madcap wonderland that is potential literature and art.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065772
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 4/30/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 794,372
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Levin Becker is Reviews Editor for the Believer and has been a member of the Oulipo since 2009.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3: Reading Out Loud


The Oulipo didn’t start doing its reading publicly until the early seventies, before which its activities were steeped in a cautious, low-level clandestinity. Its first sorties were mostly tied to festivals and colloquia: a conference at Reid Hall, the Parisian branch of Columbia University; the Europalia festival in Brussels; a “Pompidoulipo” at the Centre Pompidou; the Festival de la Chartreuse in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. The Paris jeudi readings began in 1996, at the 100-seat Halle Saint-Pierre in Montmartre; since then they have migrated to a 250-place auditorium at Jussieu, a University of Paris campus near the Panthéon, then to the far more capacious Forum des Images in the massive underground shopping complex at Les Halles, and finally, in 2005, to the slightly smaller but more suitably prestigious grand auditorium at the BNF.

Readings are a natural and sustaining part of the Oulipo’s public life for a number of reasons. For one, it gives the audience a reason to care, to buy a book after the reading, to put a face to the name on the spine, to rub elbows with other elegantly disheveled mordus. Conversely, while it allows the Oulipians to be approached by their admirers, it has also become a significant means of evolution for the group’s collective corpus. The BNF, which is fairly intimate despite its seating capacity, is a place where new material can be tested before a sympathetic audience and where old material can be repurposed and given new valence—a place, for the most part, where oulipian texts attain the life they were meant to lead.

The jeudis for the last several years have been organized by theme. Each reading in the 2006-2007 season, for instance, was devoted to a color, beginning with Infrarouge and ending with Ultraviolet. For the occasional writer like Salon, someone whose daily life is not centered on literature, a monthly reading is a great impetus to compose, with a sufficiently pliable prompt to yield quality results. (Salon’s offerings, pun-besotted shaggy-dog stories that are at once savant and howlingly corny, are invariably among the most crowd-pleasing texts of the evening.) For younger members who have not yet published much, the theme of an upcoming jeudi can provide the concrete hook for a new idea: Forte, for instance, found that the reading on le bleu du ciel, or blue of the sky, lent itself well to a form he had recently created, a series of 99 pseudo-randomly ordered observations that collectively depict a single topic. (Likewise, after my induction, I used a reading on the theme of les premiers outrages—first indignities—as an excuse to develop my half-baked theory that the tower of Babel episode in the book of Genesis was the first oulipian event in history.) Meanwhile, more seasoned and prolific authors like Jouet can reach into their own back catalogs and find something relevant to the evening’s theme; others—such as Bénabou, whose bibliography is concentrated mostly on metaliterary issues—can just as easily trot out a beloved (or obscure) text by a deceased Oulipian, or a particularly apropos one from someone outside the clan: French poet Tristan Corbière, British screenwriter Richard Curtis, Roman rhetorician Quintilian, and so on.

All this gives an effect not unlike that of the spiral of Oulipian heads projected behind the stage: it suggests that there is no end to the connections that are possible between disparate minds focusing on one thing, the sheer volume of stuff that can be brought together under the aegis of even a couple of humdrum ideas. Like the galaxie, the themes seem to signify this both in practice—what’s been written already—and in theory—what could be written, given a theme and some time and a handful of techniques. Each reading is, in this respect, a small and casual affirmation of potential literature’s potential applicability to the real world.

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