A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Was C. S. Lewis the Father of Potential Literature?

Oulipo is the “Workshop of Potential Literature”, a group of French (with usually one token American) writers and mathematicians who experiment with new ways to write. Their most famous examples are when they set themselves seemingly arbitrary constraints, as in Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style, where he tells the same dumb story 100 different ways, or Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, a 300-page novel written without using the letter “e”. (The English translation doesn’t use “e” either, which is just as remarkable, especially when I noticed that one of the characters is Jewish.) Book cover Oulipo LaboratoryIt seems like pointless whimsy, until the readers realize that they’re now pondering why sonnets have fourteen lines, and then notice that all literature has apparently arbitrary constraints in it.  I’ve been a fan of Oulipo ever since Michael Dirda tipped me off to their existence in a review in the Washington Post  (reprinted here).

So it hit me with a small shock (as if I’d forgotten to open the circuit breaker before replacing an outlet) when I read, “Whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature.” in C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. That book’s as old as I am; I’d never seen the phrase “potential literature” so long ago. Did CSL coin it? Better yet, it’s at the beginning of Chapter XI, which is entitled “The Experiment”.  There is nothing more Oulipian than a literary experiment.  (In fact, it’s a great disappointment to me that literary theory has nothing to do with literary experiment.  Shouldn’t one validate the other?)

The English phrase “potential literature” isn’t used enough to register on Google N-grams, but the French “littérature potentielle” is.  The N-gram frequency chart jumps off of zero in 1964: just the right amount of time for Lewis’s book to make it across the Channel, sink into people’s memories, and re-emerge in publication in France.

Is Lewis the founder of Potential Literature?  It’s certainly possible.  The literary experimenters who make up Oulipo are fond of science fiction.  (Hari Seldon is a saint on the ‘pataphysical calendar.)  It strains credibility to think that none of this group who are so interested in literary experiments read a book with that title.

I can’t find any overt admission of the link.  I did, however, find a literary blogger who wrote about C.S. Lewis and Oulipo on successive days, which convinced Google that I wanted to know about it. (I did. Thanks, Larry & Sergei!)

Works Cited

Lewis, C. S., An Experiment in Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1961. Electronic edition via iBooks.

Perec, Georges, A Void. Gilbert Adair, trans., London: Harvill Press, 1995.

Perec, Georges, La Disparition.  Paris: Editions Denoël, 1969.

Queneau, Raymond, Exercices de style. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1947.


The meaning of “Hwæt”


RIP Harry Mathews


  1. One might argue that the lack of a connection between literary theory and literary experiment says all there is to say about each of them. One might. Not that I ever would.

    There is also something hysterically funny in the notion of Lewis being behind it all.

  2. Oh Lewis. I definitely love the idea of literature becoming proper literature when it has good readers. It reminded me of the quote I often see at Goodreads. It’s from John Cheever: “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”

  3. This is pretty clever, Joe. To misquote someone else, the French always struggle with C.S. Lewis already talking about what they think they are so avant-garde in. I would love to suggest that Lewis was either a prophet or a founder. He saw the coming postmodern turn, and critiqued its popular version. He was a modern critic, but thought about criticism differently. So is he a prophet? Or does he create theory?
    I don’t think so (though I might be wrong). I think Lewis had a sense of the cultural turn, and Levi-Strauss and the French gang were partly a cultural product too. As the credibility structures of the world were shifting, public intellectuals were on the front end of that shift, playing and thinking and writing. Lewis too.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén