The group was founded around November 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. The constraints that these authors put on their work were meant to trigger new ideas and inspire the writers to try things that no one else has ever tried before. Some of these techniques include lipograms and palindromes.
The former refers to the practice of writing without a specific letter. The practice dates back to the sixth century BCE. For example, writing a poem without using the letter “a.” In other examples, a writer might try to avoid more than one letter. Pangrammatic lipograms were also used. These referred to styles of writing that use every letter except for one. One of the best-known examples of the former is Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby, published in 1939. The novel is 50,000 words long and does not use the letter “e” one time.
Raymond Queneau, one of the founders of Oulipo, used the following quote to describe himself and other writers:
rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.
This quote refers to the way in which the below writers create new and interesting constraints for themselves that they had to overcome in order to write something successfully.
- Lipogram— as noted above, lipograms used in order to challenge writers to create a work of literature without using specific letters.
- “Exercises de Style” — refers to a work written by Queneau which told the same story of a man on a bus trip in ninety-nine different styles.
- Cut up technique — a style of writing in which an author either cuts up lines of their own work or someone else’s. These can then be rearranged to create another, or more than one, written work.
- N+7 or S+7 — a literary constraint that forces the author to replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. Depending on which dictionary an author uses, their literary work will vary.
- Snowball Verse— is a poem in which each line is a single word. Each word is one letter longer than the previous.
- Palindromes — a popular technique in which sonnets and other types of verse are constructed using palindromes.
- Univocalism – a poem that uses only one vowel letter. The same vowel letter can represent different sounds.
- Stile — each new sentence in a paragraph is born from the previous word or phrase in the last sentence. This means that each sentence overlaps.
Members of Oulipo
Some of the notable members of the Oulipo group include:
- Georges Perec
- Raymond Queneau
- François Le Lionnais
- Italo Calvino
- Oskar Pastior
- Jean Lescure
- Jacques Roubaud
Examples of Oulipo Literature
Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes by Raymond Queneau
This well-known work of the Oulipo founder Queneau was inspired by children’s picture books. The title translates to “A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.” Within the book, which was published in 1961, the author (with the help of François Le Lionnais) included a set of ten sonnets printed on cards. Each line of every sonnet was on a separate strip. All the sonnets have the same rhyme scheme and the same sounds. This means that any line from any sonnet can be recombined with nine lines from the other sonnets. This means that it was possible to create 100 million poems with the lines Queneau provided.
La disparition by Georges Perec
La disparition, or A Void, is a 300 page 1969 novel that was written without the use of the letter “e.” The book follows a group of people seeking out a missing friend. Parts of the novel are humorous while others are darker, tapping into traditional horror genre elements.
The book was translated into English by Gilbert Adair in 1995. He was awarded the Scott Moncrief Prize the same year for his work. There are three other versions of the novel in English, all of which take different titles. The translators utilize the same lipogrammatic constraints as the original author—avoiding the letter “e.” Here is a quote:
And my Black bird, still not quitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On that pallid bust — still flitting through my dolorous domain;
But it cannot stop from gazing for it truly finds amazing
That, by artful paraphrasing, I such rhyming can sustain–
Notwithstanding my lost symbol I such rhyming still sustain–
Though I shan’t try it again!
The novel has also been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Croatian, and more. In the Spanish version, translators avoid the letter “a” in the Japanese version, translators do not use any words containing the “i” sound.
Singular Pleasures by Henry Mathews
This literary work shares similarities with Queneau’s Exercises de Style. Within Singular Pleasures, Mathews describes sixty-one different scenes, each with a different style. For example, using elaborate or poetic writing. All sixty-one scenes depict someone masturbating.
“N7” poetry or N+7 poetry refers to a literary constraint that forces the author to replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. It can also be used to create prose fiction.
Oulipo refers to a group of writers, mainly of French origin, who created unusual writing constraints in order to challenge their own abilities and push themselves as writers.
The term “Oulipo” translates, loosely, to “workshop of potential literature.” It is a group of writers working in the mid-1900s, mainly in France, who challenged themselves with constraining writing techniques such as N+7, stile, and the cut-up method.
Related Literary Terms
- Dadaism: an art and literary movement in Europe during the 20th century. It was a reaction to the senselessness of war during the early 1900s.
- Style: the way a writer writes. An individual writer’s style is original and unlike any other.
- Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
- Experimentalism: one part of modernism and postmodernist literature. Writers take risks, try strange new techniques, and attempt to create something that’s never been seen before.
- Postmodernism: a literary movement that began in the late-20th century. It was a reaction to modernism after World War II.