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the Complete Review
the complete review - primer

A Primer of Potential Literature

edited by
Warren F. Motte Jr.

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To purchase Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature

Title: Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature
Editor: Warren F. Motte Jr.
Genre: Primer
Written: 1986
Length: 162 pages
Availability: Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature - US
Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature - UK
Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature - Canada
Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature - India
  • Translated and edited by Warren F. Motte Jr.
  • Foreword by Noël Arnaud
  • Most of the included pieces first appeared in La Littérature potentielle (1973) and Atlas de littérature potentielle (1981)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : useful primer regarding Oulipian matters

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Book Rev. . 1-2/1999 Matt Briggs

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The complete review's Review:

       Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature includes a Foreword by Noël Arnaud, an Introduction by Warren Motte, nineteen pieces by members of the Oulipo (including pieces by Perec, Calvino, Mathews, and Queneau), and an extensive (if not complete) bibliography and brief biographies of those associated with the Oulipo.
       The Oulipo -- Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (generally translated as "Workshop for Potential Literature") -- was founded in 1960, "a secret laboratory of literary structures", as Arnaud describes it in his foreword. The origins of the Oulipo, and its goals, are discussed in several of the pieces. Jean Lescure sums it up in his Brief History of the Oulipo:

... the essential object of our quest was still literature, and François de Lionnais wrote: Every literary work begins with an inspiration ... which must accommodate itself as well as possible to a series of constraints and procedures, etc. What the Oulipo intended to demonstrate was that these constraints are felicitous, generous, and are in fact literature itself. What it proposed was to discover new ones, under the name of structures.
       Editor Motte offers a good introductory essay, helping to familiarize readers with the methods, reasons, and cast of characters of the Oulipo. New constraints were (and continue to be) proposed and put into practice, and this volume offers a good introduction to several of these.
       From pieces introducing Potential Literature (by Raymond Queneau) to a History of the Lipogram (by Georges Perec) to a consideration of the varieties of Recurrent Literature (by Bens, Berge, and Braffort), numerous Oulipian constraints, procedures, and ideas are surveyed. Italo Calvino considers Prose and Anticombinatorics, and Harry Mathews himself explicates Mathews's Algorithm in some detail.
       There are also several pieces by and about Raymond Queneau, including Jacques Roubaud's in-depth look at Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau.
       "Constraint, as everyone knows, often has a bad press", Marcel Bénabou begins his contribution (Rules and Constraint). However, as he and the other members of Oulipo show, there's a lot to be said for rules and constraints as well. These essays do show many of the possibilities of Oulipian methods. These methods are then generally fairly clearly explained and elaborated by the authors.
       Most of the Primer (first published in 1986) holds up well; many of the contributions are indeed classics of the genre. Some aspects of the book, however, may seem somewhat dated -- specifically the consideration of Computer and Writer which, though fundamentally still sound, surely deserves some additional space. (Curiously, the much more recent (1998) Oulipo Compendium (see our review) also has little -- and particularly little that is new -- on the subject). Given that, for example, combinatoric literature (of great interest to the Oulipo) is one of the areas that authors have tried to explore using computers (and the Internet) in so-called hyperfictions, one imagines the Oulipo would have valuable insights and thoughts regarding this.

       The obvious point of comparison for this collection is the one other larger Oulipo reference work in English, the Oulipo Compendium (see our review). The Oulipo Compendium is invaluable, offering brief descriptions and explanations of all manner of Oulipian-related subjects, as well as many illustrative examples. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature is both more focussed and more expansive, covering and presenting a great deal of material as well, but offering more detailed and lengthier considerations of the topics. The Primer also offers many examples -- and historical detail as well -- but doesn't stray nearly as far as the Compendium (which also includes material about the various other Ou-x-po's, for example).
       The two volumes complement each other nicely. The Compendium is perhaps more useful as a quick reference tool, but for more in-depth coverage (and as an introductory survey) the Primer certainly holds its own. Not as straightforwardly entertaining as the Compendium, the Primer nevertheless includes significant pieces -- most of which are also quite entertaining. (Note that some (or aspects of some), however, may also seem a bit dry or overly technical.)
       The brief biographies and especially the bibliographies in the Primer are also more useful than those in the Compendium.

       Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature is an important collection of Oulipian writing (mainly theoretical). It offers a good deal of insight into the methods behind what is too often considered their madness, as well as showing much of the personal side of those involved with the Oulipo, especially in its early years. The material should be of interest to anyone involved in writing or, indeed, in reading, as Oulipian thought is applicable to almost all written material (as almost all writing is subject to some constraints and rules -- if not necessarily as unusual as some of those conceived by the Oulipo). Recommended.

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