I always find it hard to deal with the output of OULIPO. It seems almost like crossword puzzles: fine to while away the time, but a good use of my reading time? Still people obviously more serious, creative, and intelligent than me have gone in for it, so I should just get on with it.

OULIPO, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, was founded in 1960 by mathematician François de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau. Its aim is to explore the possibilities of verse and prose written under a system of structural constraints. Lipogram is apparently one of their favorites. Others include snowball, Macao constraint, palindrome, and univocalism: Wikipedia lists them.

The Academy of American Poets gives a brief introduction, in which they allude to the OULIPO technique of N+7 wherein an already existing poem is recast substituting for each noun the noun seven places forward from it in the dictionary. Clearly different versions can be generated by using different dictionaries. At the bottom of this post is an example of what comes out if one uses the Oxford English Dictionary on a bit of Wordsworth. What is one to make of this? Not much I fear, and certainly not enough to make me want to repeat the experiment with Chambers’ or Webster’s New World. To me it seems utterly trite and boring. I suppose the juxtaposition of two American Indian tribes might be seen as “interesting”, but it all seems a waste of time. Maybe a real OULIPOist would reject this one and move on to another — original or dictionary.

When it comes to translating OULIPO works, what’s a translator to do? Not I think reach for the OULIPO translation techniques discussed in this paper by Harry Matthews from Electronic Book Review. He quotes this (to me just plain silly) example of seriously intended work: Marcel Benabou’s translation of “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” to “Ah, singe débotté, / Hisse un jouet fort et vert”. It’s just like “Mot d’heures gousse rames”. Translating “Ah, singe débotté . . .” into English is clearly futile. This sort of thing is a one-way street: though I wonder what a “translation” into German might turn out to sound like. Better leave such things to German OULIPOists. I guess each translator, faced with an N+7 work in French has to decide on whether to translate a noun seven places forward in their English dictionary from the translation of the French word used, or a translation of the exact word used by the author, or even, I suppose, to go back to the original word before its N+7 adjustment, translate it and move 7 nouns forward in their English dictionary. I suspect that such tortuous manipulation shows that OULIPO ought not be translated.

Nevertheless David Bellos has translated lots of Georges Perec’s work. He wonders whether any of the translations he’s made are stylistically not Perec, Kadare, whoever, but just examples of Bellos-style. Of course Perec, although a member of the group, didn’t have to write everything as an echt-OUPIPO-text, but his 300-page novel La disparition (1969) is a lipogram, written without ever using the letter “e”. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994) Wikipedia tells us.

In the end I think these OULIPO constraints are more fun to do than to read: like so much 20th century art, the real consumer is the bored artist.


My N+7 example:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
   Or let me die!
The Child is father to the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
My heaume leaps up when I behold
A raita in the slade:
So was it when my ligase began,
So is it now I am a Manahoac,
So be it when I shall grow old
    Or let me die!
The Chilkat is fatling to the Manahoac:
And I could wish my deaf-mutes to be
Bound each to each by natural piggin.

Nate Brown the managing editor of Short American Fiction provides a fairly long piece on the process of writing in such a way as to get your short story accepted. On the way he tells a tale of amazing persistence in submitting stories and getting back rejection notices. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, and again, and again, and again. His ten points:

  1.  Avoid adjective, adjective, noun constructions.
  2.  Reconsider beginning your story or chapter in dialogue.
  3.  Avoid filler phrases and empty words.
  4.  If you use ellipses, be aware of what they connote to readers.
  5.  No “trick” endings. Yes, this still happens, and, yes, it still mostly stinks.
  6.  Just as a story that’s too easy on a character can be too subtle to be engaging, a story that’s too hard on a character can fall flat.
  7.  Speaking of suffering, avoid using suffering, abused, or killed animals as objective correlatives.
  8.  Make your prose beautiful.
  9.  If you’re working with a character whose attitudes, actions, beliefs, decisions, morals, or politics are suspect, alienating, distancing, or noxious, treating them with some modicum of empathy will make them palatable to readers.
  10.  Err on the side of kindness rather than caricature when creating characters, and be thoughtful with dialectic speech.

This is a good article, emphasizing the pleasures of reading. Brown ends “My point here is this: our time is short, so write as best you can as often as you can. Write as beautifully as you can, then make it better. Write until you have to give it up, either because you know it’s done or because you don’t know what else to do with it. Then send it to a friend or send it to a magazine. Then wait and, while you wait, write something else. If you’ve gotten this far (in writing and in reading this essay), you already know it’s worth doing.”

(Link via Lit Hub Daily.)

99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn has been denied landmark status.

Sure it’s not very beautiful, but still, of the fifteen addresses Walt Whitman had in Brooklyn, this is the only one still there, underneath the vinyl siding, and with an added third floor. His birthplace on Long Island, and the house where he died in Camden, NJ have been preserved. Sure he didn’t live here long, but there aren’t any others, and surely New York should memorialize the poet who claims to be rubbing shoulders with us all as we walk the streets of our city today.

“What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.”


See the story at Gothamist, where there’s a link to WNYC’s radio report about the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision. Maybe we can get them to reconsider in time for the celebration of Walt’s 200th birthday next year — on May 31st. Surely landmarks need not all be handsome, perfectly preserved buildings.

The Mind of the Book is perhaps a strange title for this Oxford University Press book by Alastair Fowler, which was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement on April 6 2018.

In the period when books were sold unbound the title page, often with a picture, performed the promotional job now taken over by the cover or jacket. The page started off blank, merely there as protection during storage prior to sale. Quickly a title was added for easy identification, and then things got more and more elaborate. The TLS review describes Fowler’s analyses of the title pages of Cranmer’s Bible, Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Dickens’ Edwin Drood as “tour-de-force readings, bringing the earlier material alive, showing how a title page might function as a systematic aide-memoire to a work’s contents.” The full listing of the title pages Fowler discusses is:

Geffray Chaucer, Workes (1532)
Great Bible (1539)
John Dee, General and Rare Memorials (1577)
John Harington, Orlando Furioso (1591)
Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622)
Ben Jonson, The Workes (1616)
Francis Bacon, Instauratio Magna (1620)
Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648)
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
Francis Barlow, Aesop’s Fables (1666)
Edward Sherburne, The Sphere of M. Manilius (1673)
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1733)
John Baskerville, Virgil’s Works (Birmingham, 1757)
Thackeray, The Rose and the Ring (1855)
Charles Dickens, Edwin Drood (1870)
Geoffrey Chaucer, Works (1896)

Ben Jonson’s poem “The Mind of the Frontispiece to a Book” offers a key to the title page/frontispiece of Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1614) and was printed alongside it.

From death and dark oblivion (near the same)
The mistress of man’s life, grave history,
Raising the world to good or evil fame,
Doth vindicate it to eternity.
Wise providence would so, that nor the good
Might be defrauded, nor the great secured,
But both might know their ways were understood,
When vice alike in time with virtue dured.
Which makes that, lighted by the beamy hand
Of truth, that searcheth the most hidden springs,
And guided by experience, whose straight wand
Doth mete, whose line doth sound the depth of things,
She cheerfully supporteth what she rears,
Assisted by no strengths, but are her own;
Some note of which each varied pillar bears;
By which, as proper titles, she is known
Time’s witness, herald of antiquity,
The light of truth, and life of memory.

New Yorkers will have to wait to look at Alastair Fowler’s book. It’s not due at New York Public Library till 18 Jan 2019. Must be OUP, UK.

Scare headlines, fuzzy analysis: we see them all too often when the commentariat gets going. Gabriella Page-Fort, who has a dog in this fight of course, should know better than to allow them to entitle her piece at Literary Hub Why Do Americans Read so Few Books in Translation. As she’s head of a translation-only imprint, I guess she can be said to be doing what she can. However, despite all the lucubrations of the Three-Percenters, I’d be willing to bet that the majority of reading done by most Americans today was of translations — well, of one in particular, the Bible.

But there isn’t really anything particularly virtuous in reading a translation — well for some, I guess, reading the Bible may count as virtuous. One might claim there was some good in simply reading a book, any book; but whether it’s by a Bulgarian, a blonde, a bottle-washer, or a bastard doesn’t make the virtue any greater. If we don’t read more translations, I would argue that’s because we have more than enough non-translations available to us. The choice doesn’t seem to me to be between translated books and non-translated books, any more than it’s a choice between books with blue covers and books with black ones. Publishers will publish books on which they can look forward to making a profit. There has to be a limit to the number of books which can be economically published in any one year. We don’t not publish translations because we think publishing translations is a bad thing to do: it happens because we have invested our funds in lots and lots of books written in English, and to flood the market with more titles would lead to losses. To accuse Americans of ignoring other cultures is just silly at a time when we must be more familiar with the other side of the moon than at any time in our existence. So Germans read more books in translation.* They also drink more beer, eat more sausages, and drive faster on their autobahns, and nobody seems to think we need to be shamed into matching their performance in these areas. It’s all just stuff to say and sound like you are engaging seriously. God, if only Americans would read more books written in English!

Still it’s always nice to tell others off about something. Here, to represent the other side of the coin is a BBC piece about how shockingly and dangerously monoglot we Americans are. Maybe we need to stamp out these subversive translations, and make folk read their Proust in the original.

On a more practical note: it is apparently Women in Translation Month. Go ahead and help the cause by reading a book.


* Numbers can be made to say pretty much whatever you want. If you divide population by number of books published we find that Germany annually publishes 884 books per head of population. Surprisingly the US, despite our sinful disregard of translations, puts out 1,075 titles annually per head of population. For anyone who cares, the number for the UK is 359. (These are all very rough-and-ready calculations, and no-one should put too much weight on them. They are based on Wikipedia numbers for population and for books published annually. There’s no consistent year base. Frankly I’m surprised at the relationship between the US and UK numbers.)

Dare one also suggest that Anglophone culture is just more significant for the German speaker than the reverse. Even Britain keeps falling deeper and deeper into the American cultural ambit. To the hegemon go the spoils.

I know that sales numbers about books are all incomplete, inconsistent, potentially misleading, and subject to definition, but life’s ultimately too short to try to track down “the truth” about book sales — even if such a thing were ultimately available to the eager researcher.

But I’d like to point out a report in Publishers Weekly (tainted as it may be in the eyes of the commentariat as yet another fake news booster of traditional publishing) that sales of printed books rose 2% in the first half of 2018 — 4% for adult non-fiction books. (Link via Book Business Magazine.) Now, there’s really no way, however cynical you want to be, to regard this as bad news*.

Are thanks for this development paradoxically due to our aggressively anti-book president? May he have done more for reading and book sales than his super-literate predecessor — who is still sending us lists of recommended reading?


* Except of course if you are one of these dedicated to the death of publishing under the juggernaut wheels of the free (or almost free) ebook, and liberty in the shape of self publishing.

A clay tablet, containing a bit of the Odyssey has been discovered at Olympia.

Photo provided by the Greek Culture Ministry on Tuesday, July 10, 2018 showing a slab inscribed with 13 verses from the Odyssey’s Book 14 that was found near the Olympia sanctuary, dating to the Roman period, possibly before the 3rd century. Greece’s Culture Ministry says the inscription unearthed at the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games could be the oldest written excerpt ever discovered of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. (Greek Culture Ministry via AP)

Reading the entire Odyssey on clay tablets must have been quite a commitment — you probably had to have an ox-drawn cart following you around on your visit to the Olympic Games.

No, it’s not 1 April: The Guardian really is telling us that some books are selling well, specifically intelligent non-fiction. We may find this hard to believe in the face of all these doom and gloom pieces about the end of reading, the loss of attention span, the dumbing down of the electorate. The publisher of John Murray Press is quoted as saying “We’re living in a world that suddenly seems less certain than it did even two years ago, and the natural reaction is for people to try and find out as much about it as possible. People have a hunger both for information and facts, and for nuanced exploration of issues, of a sort that books are in a prime position to provide.”

Maybe. It’s always a temptation to extrapolate from current affairs to the performance of your business. But haven’t people always bought rather serious books? Notorious for being more bought than read is always A Brief History of Time. Popularizations of science played a significant role in Cambridge University Press’ publishing between the wars: Jeans, Eddington et al. Academic publishers, at least, have always been alive to the potential sales value of serious popularization of science, history and almost any other academic discipline. The difficulty has always been finding people who are able to command the material while communicating it clearly to a non-specialist audience.

Bookstore promotions do have an effect, and the article reports on Waterstone’s efforts, which have surely helped. But it would seem to me that this holds true across a whole range of subject matter — and that there are just more people (the demographic effect) buying books of all sorts, and, with increasing education levels, more egg-head tomes in particular. Short-term bumps in the numbers are less significant than long-term trends. Increases in the numbers of people going to university trump the effects of political uncertainty.

At the really intelligent non-fiction end of the spectrum, Cambridge University Press specified , in reporting on improved sales and profit numbers for the year 2017-18, “Academic had a strong year for book sales worldwide, particularly in the North American market. The good results came in the face of continuing change across the industry, as academic publishers grapple with the effects of squeezed library budgets, price sensitivity in the higher education textbook market, and threats to copyright posed by the illegal sharing of academic papers online. “

But in a rather odd story Slate assures us the academic books are not written to be read. (Link via The Passive Voice.) What this disguises is the two (at least) ways in which academics will use books. Many are read through by people in the discipline who have to know what the author (a potential rival) is saying, while most are quickly referred to in an effort to discover references to the topic they are themselves researching. The non-fiction readers in The Guardian article cited above will no doubt include many academics, reading for pleasure, general information, self-education or whatever. Reading for a graduate seminar is clearly a specialized subset of the reading of academic texts.

We can all heave a sigh of relief: we are free once again to use the word “cocky” in our book titles. Fallena Hopkins has apparently agreed to cancel her trademarking of the word. The decision is announced by The Cocky Collective as shown. See Inqusitr.

Until Ms Hopkins speaks though, a little breath-holding may still be in order.

See What a cock up for an account of the original trouble.

Let us hope this is the last we have to hear about this silliness — and I mean at both ends. Who’d want to use the word cocky in a book title, and who’d want to gain exclusive access to such a thing? Still, a victory for free speech is always nice.

The Atlantic (via The Passive Voice) seems to be trying to fool us with a headline suggesting that microfilm was invented around the same time as Gutenberg’s successors were getting the moveable type and letterpress printing business going. However their title “Microfilm lasts half a millennium” is in fact forward looking, referring to the durability of microfilm as an archiving medium. The National Archives assure us that they continue to microfilm records, despite the lure of the digital. Microfilm is a low-cost, reliable, long-term, standardized image storage medium and has a life expectancy of hundreds of years. All you need to view microfilm images is light and magnification — presumably likely to be available long after there’s nobody left who’s even heard of iOS or Windows.

Microfilm was patented in France in 1859 by René Dagron who built on earlier work by John Benjamin Dancer. It remained a clever but unneeded technology until it was used during the Franco-Prussian War to enable pigeons to carry miniature messages into besieged Paris. In 1906 a couple of Belgians suggested that microfilm might be used as a means of space saving space in libraries, though it took till the 1930s for this to get going as an archiving strategy. Navigation remains clunky — see the video below — but everything involves trade offs. Secure and clunky or fast and ephemeral: you probably want both. Indexing will help, but a) it’s expensive, and b) you still have to turn the wheels to get to your target.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

Atlas Obscura’s story includes the link to the Geena Davis, Chevy Chase video clip.