October 18, 2007

Oulipian Larding

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 9:57 am

Nick turned Grand Text Auto into a platform for literary gameplay with his post on When Musicians Play Interactive Fiction. Then a recent email query from Mike Alber reminded me of one of my favorite Oulipian literary games, much less well known than “N + 7”: larding. I suggest we give larding a try here on GTxA.

The process of larding, also known as “line-stretcher’s constraint” (after 19th Century writers who were paid by the line) creates a very simple game. From a given text, pick two sentences. Then write another sentence in the interval between them. Then write another sentence in each of the two available intervals of the new text (between first and second, between second and third). Then write another sentence in each of the four available intervals, and so on until the desired length is reached.

I have used “larding” as an exercise in writing workshops, a situation in which it can be practiced individually or collaboratively. In the collaborative version, one person chooses the initial sentence pair, the next inserts a sentence between them, the next inserts a sentence into each of the two available intervals, and so on. One thing that the collaborative version brings to the fore, strikingly, is the similarity of the form of this activity to that of the Surrealist “exquisite corpse.” We are passing a piece of paper from person to person, each of us continuing — in the space allotted — the writing of the person who preceded us, just as we would with the Surrealist activity.

And yet the experience of writing text for “exquisite corpse” or “larding” is utterly different. The writer in the Surrealist process is blind to the text that will surround their contribution, and tempted toward a minor cleverness of the sort that Mad Libs inspires. Whereas the writer participating in the Oulipian process is working with open eyes — with perception of the shape of the overall text, and of the specific sentence gaps to be filled, creating the sense of seeking solutions to a literary puzzle that can be steered in many potentially correct directions.

This seems to fit well with our understanding of the difference between Surrealism and Oulipo. One is interested in what will happen if we let go any attempt at control, if we deny ourselves the information or state of mind that might tempt us to try to control the situation, allowing us to think in new ways. The other is interested in setting a linguistic challenge of an unusual and interesting shape that will motivate us think in new ways.

So, let’s see how it works with GTxA, rather than a piece of paper, as the medium. I propose we begin with a “haikuization” (to put it in Oulipian terms) of Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse:

It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

The next move, open for anyone to make, is to write a sentence to go between these two… or start a new round by posting another sentence pair.