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Louis Bury

The Exercise and the Oulipo:

99 Variations on a Thesis


Notation: The notion of the exercise is fundamental to Oulipian writing praxis.


Synonyms: The concept of the workout is foundational to constraint-based compositional practice.


Antonyms: The sensation of idleness is inessential to Surrealistic speaking caprice.


W+7: The novice of the exordium is furtive to Oulipian xenophobia precipice.


Double Entry: The notion and the concept of the exercise and of training is fundamental and central to Oulipian and constraint-based writing and inscription praxis and practice.


Compound-words: The heavy-duty writing-notion of the exercise-text tune-up is well-nigh the centerpiece of a constraint-based work-out praxis-ethic.


Homeoptotes: The notion of the exertion motion action in reproduction is constitutional to the coercion composition addiction.


Canada Dry: This motion of the exorcism is firmamental to Ou-leap-ian lightning taxes.


Definitional: The conception or idea of something done or performed as a means of practice or training exists or lives as a basic principal, rule, law, or the like, that serves as a groundwork of a system to Oulipian inscription convention, habit, or custom.


Distinguo: The notion (which is not to be confused with a mere concept) of the exercise (as distinct from the workout) is fundamental (and not simply important) to Oulipian (though certainly not to all writers) writing (but not speaking) praxis (as over against theory).


Reductive: All constraint-based writing – indeed, all writing of whatever kind – can be said to be a form of exercise.


Curtailed: The exercise is fundamental to Oulipian writing.


Equation: Oulipian writing praxis = exercise


Terse: Oulipo? Exercise.


Periphrasis: It is with the utmost urgency that I impress upon you that it cannot be stressed enough that this vital concept of the exercise, of which the Oulipo are ever so fond and which Raymond Queneau draws out with verve in his lively masterpiece, Exercises in Style, is of paramount importance to the playful group of punctilious polymaths, is in fact the governing, ordering principle that lays out and adumbrates both an aesthetic and – just as important – an ethic according to which the group can conduct its austere yet pleasureful literary experiments.


Multiple Choice: The notion of the exercise is:

a. fundamental to Oulipian writing praxis
b. firmamental to Oulipian righting practice
c. firm and mental to Oulipian right wing brackish
d. all of the above


Evasive: If you play your cards right, I just might explain to you the connection between the exercise and the Oulipo.


Teaser: Stayed tuned for next time, where we find out just what the exercise means to the Oulipo.


Infomercial: For just three EASY payments of $9.99 you can have your very own Oulipo Compendium, which will teach you all the secrets to exercising the Oulipo way, but hurry! call within the next ten minutes and as a special bonus to you we’ll include Raymond Queneau’s indispensable Exercises in Style, which provides you with 99 extra exercises that can all be performed in the comfort of your home—that’s the Oulipo Compendium plus Exercises in Style, a sixty dollar value, all for under thirty dollars! (tax and title fees apply, shipping & handling extra).


Film trailer: In a world where all writing is a form of exercise, this daring group of writers constructs the mazes from which they must escape.


Blurb: In this masterpiece of storytelling, executed with characteristic stylistic verve, Raymond Queneau retells the same mundane tale ninety-nine different times, establishing, in a bold gesture of anticipatory plagiary, the paradigm of the exercise that would become so central to the OuLiPo (Workship for Potential Literature) thirteen years later.


Word anagram: The fundamental exercise of Oulipian writing praxis is the notion “to.”


Anagram: Within intimate expanses, the Oulipo finds an exotic trail of noir urge.


Marxist: The notion of writing as a form of exercise is insidious because it posits the sphere of literature as a space of free play apart from any political or ideological concerns. It is for this reason that constraint-based writing has taken hold in North America at the start of the twenty-first century: it perpetuates the belief, so prevalent in capitalist countries today, that the members of the bourgeoisie – the social class with time for game-playing and pleasure-seeking – are innocents who, by attending solely to their own personal affairs, are not culpable for capitalism’s atrocities.


New Criticism: The notion of writing as a form of exercise privileges process over product, devaluing, regrettably, the only thing that truly matters, the poem as such.


Pick-up line: Do you know karate? Because your text is really kickin’.


Qualified: It could very well perhaps be the case (assuming, of course, the literary-critical community reaches such a consensus) that this notion, if notion it can be called (“idea” might be more accurate), of writing as a form of exercise, may in fact, for all of its imprecision, nevertheless be the dominant model – the dominant paradigm – for Oulipian (and only Oulipian) writing praxis, assuming we take the term “writing praxis” in its broadest sense possible, and assuming, too, that we understand exercise in figurative terms.


Litotes: The notion of the exercise is not inessential to Oulipian writing praxis.


Question: How could you not consider the notion of the exercise fundamental to the Oulipo?


Passive: Fundamental to Oulipian writing praxis is the notion of the exercise.


Parts of Speech: Article: the

Substantives: notion, exercise, writing, praxis
Adjectives: fundamental, Oulipian
Verb: to be
Prepositions: of, to


Gertrude Stein: The composition exercise is the composition exercise. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the exercise the movement which makes the continuous present present. Many do not like exercise but if you like it enough it is easy enough to do and so I feel about exercise as I did when I first began to write it must be done and is easy enough to do so why stop doing it.


Parataxis: The exercise and the Oulipo and the writing and the praxis.


Lecturer: To consider writing as an exercise is to treat it as an experiment, an essaying, a testing out—not necessarily a finished or polished product. Remember, the word “essay” comes from the French verb “essayer,” which means “to try.”


Literary-Historical: Though Queneau and other Oulipians take great pains to distinguish their methods of composition from the aleatory methods of the Surrealists, in particular the latter’s use of automatic writing, both methods possess, importantly, a ludic quality to them. The difference in the methods, then, lies less in the supposed chance/constraint divide (a divide that is the product of Oulipian efforts at self-differentiation) and more in their opposing conceptions of literary game playing. For the Surrealists, literature was, famously, in service to the revolution, while the Oulipo, on the other hand, is notably – remarkably – silent on the question of its politics and the politics of its writing practices.


Probabilist: Enough monkeys with enough typewriters and the notion of writing as a form of exercise was bound to happen eventually.


Negation: It is not the case that the notion of inspiration is fundamental to Oulipian writing praxis, nor is it the case that the notion of the exercise is not fundamental to it either.


Homovocalism: Devoid of hope, where might the wit turn? Answer: An old ploy: build in a binding rail.


Homoconsonantism: Thin? Tone fat. Hex a raucous sofa node: a man tool too loopy on war to neg a poor axis.


Cultural Studies: The surprising vogue for constraint-based writing in present-day American literary circles must be understood against the backdrop of the country’s fitness boom in the 1970s and 1980s. For better or for worse, exercise has become a language nearly all middle-class Americans speak.


Mathematical: {Ou, C-B}, X > P

                          in the set of Oulipian and constraint-based writing, exercise is greater than or equal to product


Morning Show Host: Is your brain getting enough exercise? While everybody knows that regular exercise is essential for a sound body, recent scientific evidence suggests that the brain needs its own special forms of exercise to stay in tip-top shape. Our guests on the show today have almost fifty years of experience in the field of avant-garde literature and they’re here to show you how in as little as thirty minutes a day you can increase your brainpower through writing.


Psychoanalytic: The desire to equate writing with physical exercise represents nothing more than a yearning, destined to remain unsatisfied, for the idyllic realm of childhood play.


Paragogue: Them notions, oft themed exercisions, isn’t fundamentally towards Oulipianish writings, praxist.


Revolutionary: The notion of writing as a form of exercise upends the bourgeois myth of artistic genius, throws civilization itself into arrears.


Corporate: This exercise-based initiative empowers cutting-edge users to optimize efficient methodologies and embrace scalable infrastructures, thus allowing them to utilize compelling experiences to target next-generation relationships in the process of redefining revolutionary niches.


Binary code: 10001111010101110001001100000111101


Postcolonial: At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss constraint-based writing as the idle literary exercises of a privileged, leisured class. Doing so, however, ignores perhaps the most interesting facet of such writing: that the writers, typically white, middle class men, willingly adopt, in their writing, a subaltern subject-position or something close to it—a position where the writer’s/subject’s freedoms have been curtailed. What’s more, these writers contend that such a situation is, paradoxically, liberating. It must be pointed out, however, that their situation is fundamentally different from that of a true subaltern, since the latter subject-position is by nature involuntary. Even so, this complex power relationship means that every constraint-based text implicitly interrogates, willy-nilly, the very concept of freedom itself.





Melting Snowball:



Formalist: Implicit in the notion of writing as a form of exercise is the idea that the way in which something is said matters just as much, if not more, than what is being said, that the true pleasure of writing lies in the how.


Slow: The. notion. of. the. exercise. is. fundamental. to. Oulipian. writing. praxis.


Colons: The notion: the exercise: the constraint: Oulipian praxis.


Feminist: While Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young have proposed a feminist version of Oulipian practices, foulipo, arguing that so-called “process-based” writing does not typically highlight the writer’s body in the way other works of feminist art do, it could also be argued that process-based writing, with its affinities for the exercise, actually treats writing and language as bodies—textual bodies, and the minds that create them, can be trained and conditioned in much the same way human bodies can. Underlying Oulipian practice, in other words, is a tantalizing analogy between language and the body.




Urgent—99 Reasons to Smile

May 28, 19:48

Is your vocabulary not BIG enough? Do you constantly feel like women notice how SMALL your words are? Tired of telling the same old stories in the same old ways?

Here’s your chance to do something about it. Literature expert Raymond Queneau reveals all his best kept secrets about how to tell stories with style in his exclusive new book Exercises in Style. These exercises will rejuvenate your vocabulary and your love life!

All this for only $19.99, a price you can’t afford to ignore!


List: Oulipian Exercises

Elementary Morality
Mathews’ algorithm
Etc, etc.


Anthropological: When I lived among the Oulipo, I was continually struck by their artistic selflessness and their authentic generosity of spirit. Yes, they sign their texts just like other Western authors, but their artistic exercises — the core of the group’s production — are not created for reasons of personal gain. They are, instead, public property, gifts bestowed upon like-minded and needy scribes the world over. This potlatch ethic distinguishes the Oulipian tribe from almost all other collectives in the history of Western art.


Deconstruction: An ineluctable contradiction lies at the heart of this metaphor of writing as a form of exercise: script, écriture, always signifies corporeal absence, a trace.


French accent: Zee no-shun of zee eggs-err-cease eez ee-sent-shell to zee ooh-lee-po.


Imagist poem:

the exercise

of the mind
at play upon
the grid

of consequences

like a thunder-

whose visitation
the children ride
like sacrament


Structuralist: The architectonic structure of Exercises in Style is repetition plus variation: the same story repeated in stylistically variant ways. This structure is a grim commentary on the state of Western storytelling in the mid-twentieth century: no meaningful new stories – no meaningful new myths – are possible, only idle stylistic re-touchings of the same wearied tales.


Analogy: the exercise : Oulipo :: alphabet : language.


Sports talk radio host: Now, now, now hold on a minute. The idea that all writing is just a game is… I mean, c’mon, you know me, Mike, you know I’ve been a fan of avant-garde art since I was kid: I read all the books, my father took me to all the galleries and the readings, just like I’ll take my son when he gets older—heck, I was there at the Berkeley poetry conference in ’65, one of the greatest readings you’ll ever see—but I cannot, I just cannot, give the Oulipo a pass this time. It’s gone on long enough. When you are making as much money as these writers are, you cannot turn around and then tell me that it’s all just an exercise, that it’s all just a silly game. Be fair now. Be fair. It’s a business. Bottom line. It’s a business.




Reader Response Theory: The notion of writing as a form of exercise, and the types of texts such a notion tends to produce (such as Queneau’s 100,000,000,000 Poems), divest the author as the locus of meaning creation and instead encourage a playful interaction between reader and text.

66 reader review (laudatory):

Eye Opener for All Professions (five stars)

I see after reading this book how many ways there are to present information in different and interesting ways. Forget my monotonous ways! I have found myself in my engineering profession writing technical presentations with a new awareness of the style of my presentation.

Exercises in style is fun to read on the bus or at home, and in moments of “writer’s block.” I read the styles a few at a time, and am constantly amazed at the variety of styles given a simple little story. This book is a “must read” for those looking to expand their creativity with almost no effort.


New Age: The Oulipo’s writing exercises are phenomenal consciousness-raising tools to help aid your meditations as you travel The Long Road© to spiritual enlightenment.


Stock quote: OUL Oulipo, Inc. 19.60 ▲0.12 (0.01%) 3,705,084


Text Message: r u goin 2 libry 2day 2 xr-size? ;)



              Five repetitions
              Five repetitions plus two
              Five repetitions


Historicist: While in 2009 America the term “exercise” connotes a physical activity done for the sake of pleasure and self-betterment, in 1947 France the term would most certainly have had militaristic overtones: drilling, marching, nuclear testing—the sound of jackboots in occupied Paris.


Queer Theory: Constraint-based writing queers the very category of literature itself by throwing into relief the normative rules that govern even the simplest and most common of literary conventions.


Word palindrome: Writing exercises restraint wherever restraint exercises writing.


Lipogram in A: The notion of the exercise is key to the Oulipo’s writing methods.


Lipogram in E: Writing as a form of a workout is paradigmatic to Oulipian praxis.


Lipogram in I: Textual workouts are a fundamental concept of the French, rules-based art group that spawned the Ou-x-po’s.


Lipogram in O: The idea that writing can be an exercise is a central tenet held by the French art enterprise that practices rule-based writing.


Lipogram in U: The notion of the exercise is important to the constraint-based French writing collective.


Drill sergeant: Wipe that smile off your face you pathetic little maggot! You call that a lipogram!? Get down on the floor and give me twenty more! Now!


Nervous: Well, what I’d like to, uh, suggest is — and I I hope it, uh, doesn’t come off as being too, um, bold — what I’d like to suggest is that the, um, that the exercise seems vital to the, uh, to the Oulipo.


Simile: Oulipians write as if exercise were a harpsichord and rules its taut strings.


Epic Simile: Oulipians write as if exercise were an anchor planted firmly in the depths of each new day, mooring the seasick scribes to the comforting pleasures that only habit, routine, and rules can provide in this tempestuous, rocky world.


Carnival barker: Step right up, step right up, folks, don’t be shy. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, we have here today, for your reading pleasure, one of the most amazing, most spectacular, most death-defying feats of literary showmanship ever attempted. The one and only Raymond Queneau will tell a breathtaking, heart-rending tale, a tale of murder, love, and passion, not once, not twice, but ninety-nine, yes NINETY-NINE, different ways. Gather round, gather round, ladies and gentlemen, the show’s about to begin.


Filler:   F i l l e r


Game Theory: While works of literature are generally considered to lie outside the purview of game theory, the notion of writing as a form of exercise – and everything that such a notion implies – opens up the possibility that constraint-based writing involves strategic situations that are susceptible to a mathematically-based analysis of the author’s artistic decisions, of the kind game theory traditionally undertakes.


Baroque: This dashing conceit – that all composition is naught but calisthenics – forms the backbone of the Oulipian belletristic ritual.


Epenthesis: Thee notiron oof thee exercircumcise its fundafirmamental too Oulileapian wrighting peraxis.

88 reader review (critical):

A joke more than a book (2 stars)

The basic idea is charming, but as I suspected beforehand, it doesn’t translate very well into a reading experience. To put it simply, Queneau was wrong when he assumed 99 versions to be “the classic ideal” or something like that. Most of these passages are unreadable, at least all the grammatical exercises.

Having said that, I must admit two things. First, since I don’t know French, I had to read a Finnish translation. It’s quite clear to me that some of the details must disappear in translation, especially as the Finnish language is not even related to French. (On the other hand, some passages generated specially for the Finnish edition were quite hilarious.)

A more important point is that Queneau can definitely demonstrate the infinite variations in language and storytelling. How many viewpoints can you take on a simple story! The varying description of details was pretty amusing.

In the end, this book is just a joke, even though a clever one. I don’t think it has much to do with fictional prose.


Legalese: The exercise is the de facto modus operandi, the sine qua non, of the literary properties of this offshore entity, the Oulipo.


Anaphora: To exercise

To notate
To write
To leave somewhere a furrow, a heady trace


News Story: French Writing Group Exercises in Style:

New York, NY (AP) — They may not yet be a household name in the U.S., but the Oulipo (a French acronym for “Workshop for Potential Literature”), a group of avant-garde French writers dedicated to utilizing constraints in their writing, are making a big splash on the contemporary American literary scene with their fashionable writing exercises.


D.H. Lawrence: The exercise. Basta! It is French claptrap, through and through. The Oulipo is not interested in exercise. Exercise is the free movement of sinew and bone, of muscle, nerve, blood. Not these feeble mind-tricks. Write without the letter e! Compose a sentence that is the same backwards as forwards! Write a plot based on the movements of a chess piece and the secrets of the universe shall be revealed to you! It is only so much hokum. Strokes of the bloated French mind-brain. But the brain doesn’t need any more strokes, at present. It has gotten too big from being stroked by sordid rules. Once and for all, let us have an end of thou-shalt-nots. Only then can we know true freedom, true exercise. Only then can we know in the blood.


Telemarketer: Good evening, Mr. Bury. Our research indicates that you, or someone in your household, appreciate avant-garde literature. Would you be interested in—CLICK.


Baseball player: Well, you know, I worked really hard this past off-season, my trainer had me out there every day doing grammar exercises, studying vocabulary flash cards, you know, just getting back to basics, so when I got to spring training, I felt like I was in the best writing shape of my career, and I think that really, you know, came through in the quality of some of my work this year.


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Fitness trainer: Ok, baby, you’re doing good, you got this, you got this, now give me three more, just three more, c’mon, baby—UP, one—UP, two—one more, push it, baby, push it—


Sociological: Just as people have been shown to bond through physical exercise, so too can they bond through mental exercise. In both cases, the group coheres by virtue of a challenging, shared ritual. For the Oulipo, the pleasure of writing exercises lies, first and foremost, in the friendships they forge.


Exclamations: The notion! and what a notion it is! of the exercise! imagine! the exercise! is fundamental! absolutely essential! to Oulipian writing! write it! praxis!


Resigned: It is impossible to explain adequately the relationship between the exercise and Oulipian writing praxis, so why bother trying.

Louis Bury

Louis Bury

Louis Bury is currently an English Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at work upon a constraint-based dissertation about constraint-based writing. In addition to working on his dissertation, he teaches literature at New York University. He is editing a collection of experimental short stories by the artist Richard Kostelanetz, and he plays poker semi-professionally.

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