Since its inception in Paris in 1960, the OuLiPo — ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature — has continually expanded our sense of what writing can do. It’s produced, among many other marvels, a detective novel without the letter e (and a sequel of sorts without a, i, o, u, or y); an epic poem structured by the Parisian métro system; a story in the form of a tarot reading; a poetry book in the form of a game of go; and a suite of sonnets that would take almost 200 million years to read completely.

Here, we gladly present some excerpts — along with the corresponding explanations, of some pieces found in our newest release All That Is Evident Is Suspect, edited by Daniel Levin Becker and Ian Monk.

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The N+7 method is one of the best-known tricks in the oulipian toolbox: a simple operation that can change the driest text into a lurid fantasia of near-nonsense. Jean Lescure’s lab report on the method is a splendid example of the combination of empirical seriousness and spirited play with which the Oulipo approached its earliest experiments.

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Jean Lescure,
from “The N+7 Method
(An Individual Case of the W±n Method)”

The W±n method, initially proposed in the comparatively limited N+7 form (which gave the method its name), consists in replacing, in an existing text (literary in nature or not), words (W) with other words of the same part of speech that follow or precede them in the dictionary at a variable distance measured by number of words. Thus N+7 simply means replacing each noun in a text with the seventh after it in a given vocabulary.

This method is evidently a method with variable results. Indeed, one may change the central tool of its application, which adjustment alone suffices to create the most unexpected modifications in the results—assuming that the patience, attention, and honesty of the operator remain equal.

Thus, in addition to said operator, whose function is purely mechanical, this method requires some text, chosen (or not) from among those texts reputed to be literary, and some dictionary, vocabulary, glossary, or lexicon.

The method known as N+7 introduces its modifications to one part of speech only. One takes, successively, each noun encountered in the selected text and, after consulting the chosen dictionary, replaces it with the seventh common noun to be found following it.

This method can be modified by changing the letter, or, just as easily, the number; it is equally permissible to transform it by replacing the + sign with a – sign. Thus can we imagine an N+3 method, or an N–7 method, or an A+14, or a V–13, where A represents adjective and V verb. Ultimately, a general method may be designated by W±n, where W is the totality of words in the language and n the infinite set of numbers.1

What we are elaborating here, one can plainly see, is a method permitting practically infinite applications to the same text, or in any case a number of interventional possibilities that far surpasses the exercitation time of any human being.

From the small quantity of exercises produced thus far we cannot make many remarks or generalizations with respect to the results achieved. We may nonetheless note that texts taken from newspapers appear to inject into the daily information flow a resonance not commonly allowed to peek through.

Texts of a certain literary quality do not appear to be improved, in an artistic sense, by the application of this method. They do, however, reveal some heretofore unexpected powers, and in any case do not seem substantially degraded by the manipulation. On the contrary, an industrial literary text like Chère Caroline glimmers with interesting nuances: the “suggestive” parts (in the most banal sense) take on a much more daring allure, even without becoming any more explicit or saucy.

Applied to those texts that present the greatest traditional literary rigor, this method gives aberrant but generally pleasant results. For instance:

  • The mineralogy cannot act for long in the roller skate of the hearth.
  • The greatest misanthrope of the Low Countries is the curiosity of cordovan.
  • The contraband of our pasta is no more in our practitioner than the terrace of our lifeline.
  • We do not have enough stride to follow all of our rebuses.

It can nonetheless happen that from these maxims emanates a potentiality entirely distinct from the original’s powers of conviction. For instance:

  • Interment blinds some and enlightens others.
  • We promise according to our horizon and perform according to our feces.

Distinct as these propositions are from those published by La Rochefoucauld, they remain appreciably faithful to their author’s moralizing humanism. Perhaps one will note all the same that they remove the mundanity from the original and reveal energies within its structures that might have driven it toward an objectivity less concerned with morality than with quasi-transcendental fantasy.

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