# But is it literature?

I once saw a video installation at an art gallery (full disclosure:  I do not care for "video as art" so know that before reading on) which showed a fox running around a London art museum after hours.  Naturally, the poor animal was confused and slunk cautiously along the walls, often curling up under a bench to hide.  Now, is this art?  Is it Art?

I don't know (well, I have an opinion, but you know what they say about those).  The accompanying text panel written by the artist, though, made a case.  You see, the fox represents the immigrant in a strange land, trying to find his way in an unfamiliar and often inhospitable environment.  He lives on the fringes and hides in the shadows.  Some other art speak followed.  (Aside:  if you want to generate your own artist's statement, visit artybollocks.com.)

Which brings me to OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle--Workshop of Potential Literature).  This is a French literary movement, dating back to 1960, which deals with certain formal, algorithmic methods of creating literature.  Examples:  write a novel without using the letter e; write a snowball poem in which each line consists of a single word with one more letter than the previous line; take 10 sonnets, one to a page, and cut each page into 14 strips to create an exquisite corpse containing $$10^{14}$$ distinct sonnets.

Or, as we discussed in class, try the $$N+7$$ method:  take a piece of writing and for each noun, look it up in a dictionary and replace it with the seventh noun following it in the dictionary.  Sounds like a lot of work, right?  Luckily, there is software to do it for you, like this site.

Let's do an example.  Here's a paragraph from the book I'm reading now, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel.

Most paragraphs in this book are like this, by the way.  I'm still forming an opinion of it (but it's not so high right now--Eugene Gant is not the most likeable protagonist you'll ever meet).  And, since it mentions William Jennings Bryan, I feel compelled to link to this video.

Now, let's run this through the $$N+7$$ generator and see what we get.

Some of these passages actually make sense, or at least they are not ungrammatical (Orwell spins in his grave).  I rather like the phrase "pate of the Fissure Baptist Chutney" and the transformation of "Christian aid" to "Chuckle airbrick" is amusing enough.  The algorithm is not perfect, though.  Notice that the program read "greeting" as a noun, replacing it with "grief," and also replacing "coming" with "commencement."  These are pretty minor, though, and can be caught easily.

But is it literature?  Is it Literature?  It's certainly an interesting exercise, and sometimes leads to new passages that could be interpreted in a literary manner, but if we are going to generate things almost at random, is it reasonable to expect meaning to emerge?  There is the old saw about a room full of monkeys eventually typing Shakespeare, and Borges teaches us that all of these passages are in an unfathomable number of books in his Library of Babel.  But does that mean that anything we write down has meaning, even if we can make some grammatical sense of it?

Or, as one student asked, "why?"  Bear in mind that this did arise in 1960s France, ground zero for postmodernist thought.  On that level, then, it is unsurprising that someone thought to perform this experiment.  And, one reason to do it is that there is "potential literature" out there, waiting to be discovered.  Do writers create or discover?  I doubt anyone seriously thinks the latter, but in mathematics this is a real argument--do we create mathematics, or is it already out there waiting for us to find it?

How many almost-great novels have been written that are just shifted versions of some great novel?  How many great novels are waiting out there to be found by shifting some banal passages?  What if we take a paragraph from this post and transform it:

Nope.  Not great literature.  Ah well.  I guess it's the potential that counts.

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