Although this frisky little book doesn’t exhaust its subject nor truly answer the question posed, it provokes a worthy debate on the future of Oulipo. It also brings some important ideas to the table regarding experimental fiction. It may even lead to a few food fights among avant-garde writers.
THE END OF OULIPO? is made up of two essays by Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin, respectively.
The argument, in short, is that the Oulipo has strayed from its roots, lost its way, and is drowning in orchestrated performances, teach-ins, and has essentially gone show-biz. “Oulipo lite” versus the rigorous exploration of potential literature.
Have all forms of experiment and Oulipian techniques been exhausted? Well, no. The author’s clearly state they do not believe the Oulipo is “over and done”… just that “the dynamism of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have flagged.” And who can argue with that?
Esposito places a good deal of focus on the author of Life A User’s Manual and his analysis is incisive. He also highlights how the Canadian poet Christian Bök’s work is clearly a response to Perec’s writings.
Ms. Elkin’s incendiary text will get the most attention since it offers a trenchant (and often amusing) feminist critique of works by the Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier. Unlike most members of the group (with the exception of luminaries like Queneau and Perec), Le Tellier’s books have been prominently translated into English which, apparently, is why Elkin targets him here. And yes, his writing leans toward the sexist. Yet the essayist clearly admires the overall efforts of Oulipo and Le Tellier and tries to have it both ways. Her endnote: “Le Tellier does strike me a serious guy, one who has thought seriously about the Oulipo, its history, and its operations. Which is why, in spite of the foregoing, I believe there is hope for him.” This comes as a surprise after she has described his work as “philosophically unserious.”
Still, Elkin will inspire readers to explore deeply the works of Perec, Harry Mathews, and—one of the few female Oulipo members—Anne Garrèta.
THE END OF OULIPO? includes a concise timeline history of the group and suggested “Further Reading.” It’s a lively (and necessary) kick in the pants.