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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary history

Many Subtle Channels

Daniel Levin Becker

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To purchase Many Subtle Channels

Title: Many Subtle Channels
Author: Daniel Levin Becker
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 318 pages
Availability: Many Subtle Channels - US
Many Subtle Channels - UK
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Many Subtle Channels - India
  • In Praise of Potential Literature

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Our Assessment:

B : decent insider-look at the OuLiPo

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . 4/2012 Andrew Hussey
Publishers Weekly . 9/4/2012 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 10/6/2012 Seth Lerer
TLS . 19/10/2012 Lauren Elkin
The Washington Post . 31/5/2012 Michael Dirda
Weekly Standard . 20/5/2013 Sara Lodge

  From the Reviews:
  • "But most importantly he is a sharp-witted guide to the most obscure details of Oulipo activity. Above all, he emphasises that this is not merely an eccentric offshoot of Surrealism. Rather, he describes the Oulipians as scientists in a laboratory -- they experiment endlessly, preferring no conclusion to false certainty, especially the false certainties of literature in a didactic or imperative mood. As Levin Becker puts it, this is the science of literature in a conditional mood." - Andrew Hussey, Literary Review

  • "Levin Becker's palpable enthusiasm for potential literature becomes infectious. One finishes this book not only with an appreciation for Levin Becker's prose and Oulipian literature, but also with an urge to attempt it." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(W)itty, dazzling and at times breathtakingly loony (.....) Levin Becker paints vivid portraits of a group of literary figures, prominent in the last third of the 20th century, whose personal quirks are at least as fascinating as their verbal feints. At times, this book reads as a love letter to a French avant-garde, sidelined by the recent revival of representational fiction and affective poetry. At times, it reads as a work of literary criticism and theory, arguing for a way of writing that bypasses traditional notions of inspiration and emotional content in favor of formal architecture." - Seth Lerer, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "But is the Oulipo really just a lot of old men sitting around doing word games ? Levin Becker is sensitive to his readers' scepticism, but works to convince us otherwise. (...) In Many Subtle Channels, he succeeds in sharing his quirky regard for the unpredictable coincidences of language, and in making the reader see the world, briefly, in an Oulipian way." - Lauren Elkin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "While there are several anthologies of OuLiPo writings available in English (including a valuable primer by Warren Motte), Beckerís book gives a sense of the real people behind all this linguistic exuberance. He relies on written documents and oral history for his portraits of the early Oulipians, but brings the current generation to idiosyncratic life." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Becker's account of the OuLiPo is not seamless. It starts out with the wit and verve of a piece of literary journalism, but in places has the finicky attention to detail of a graduate thesis. (...) But Becker is set to join the select band of triple-barreled American authors (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer) who write hip books with weird titles that are nonetheless engaging." - Sara Lodge, Weekly Standard

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Many Subtle Channels is an insider-account of the OuLiPo -- the 'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle' ('workshop of potential literature') whose members include Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, and Harry Mathews. ('Include' -- present tense -- because even death apparently doesn't release you from the club: among the amusing titbits Levin Becker shares is that the only way to get out of the Oulipo once you're in is to commit suicide for the express purpose of leaving the organization; conversely, one way to assure you're never asked to be a member of the group is to ... ask to become a member, which gets you blackballed for life (and, presumably, death).) It's a surprisingly small group -- accumulating only thirty-eight members over the decades, Levin Becker says, of whom seventeen are deceased (disappointingly there's no appendix or table simply actually listing all the members ...); Levin Becker is one of the few foreign ones (though with Mathews and Ian Monk the English-speaking contingent is currently a strong one). He was 'co-opted' to their ranks in 2009, and Many Subtle Channels is both an account of his getting-to-know the Oulipo and his fellow Oulipians as well as a general sort of history of the organization.
       Levin Becker does not proceed chronologically: the book is divided into three parts, 'Present', 'Past', and 'Future'. The present parts, which for example describe the Oulipo on tour and conducting workshops, make for a decent introduction of the current cast of characters and some of the games they play, but for the most part reads like a (too-)extended piece for a glossy up-market magazine.
       The best -- and most useful -- part of the book is the historical overview, of the five-decade span when "the Oulipo grew from a hard-to-articulate idea to a hard-to-articulate global phenomenon": how the Oulipo came about and how it developed, and how it was shaped by leading figures such as co-founder Queneau and then early recruit Georges Perec.
       The final part considers the present again, as well as the potential -- both literary as well as what other ou-X-ian possibilities there are (since such 'constrained' activity is hardly limited to literature).
       Levin Becker's status -- a relatively new member, he shifts a bit uneasily between student, acolyte, and insider -- both helps and hinders in the shaping of the book. What he presents is not a simple, neat history of the Oulipo (a work that is long overdue and sorely needed), but it's also not quite simply an insider's take on all matters oulipian. Meandering all about, it's also far too chatty. Some of this is good fun -- Levin Becker certainly offers enough entertaining anecdotes and insights ("The oulipian reader would notice that "The Raven" is a lipogram in Z"), can turn phrase nicely, and has a knack for footnotes (at least for those of us who enjoy amusing digressions of this sort) -- but it makes for a very lumpy book.
       Trying to give a sense of the large cast of characters, Levin Becker generally remains too warily respectful; the dead (Queneau, Perec) often come to life better than those he actually deals with in person. The descriptions of readings, workshops, and meetings offer more atmosphere than substance, and leave at least this Oulipo-fascinated reader itching for more detail. While some projects are quite well-described -- Jacques Roubaud's grand one, for example -- too often the narrative meanders about without sufficient focus. While giving a reasonable general sense (and occasional precise explanation) of what constrained and potential writing is, Many Subtle Channels offers less new insights than one would have hoped from an actual Oulipo-member.
       Certainly of interest to anyone interested in the Oulipo, Many Subtle Channels is a nice if small addition to the literature about the organization and its activities. The essential go-to text, however, remains the Oulipo Compendium, which is still both the best overview and introduction to all things Oulipo. And, yes, there is still room -- a lot of room -- for a proper history of the Oulipo; perhaps Levin Becker will be able to write it after having spent a couple of decades in the oulipian ranks.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 April 2012

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Many Subtle Channels: Reviews: Other books by Daniel Levin Becker under review: Daniel Levin Becker: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Oulipo-member Daniel Levin Becker was born in 1984.

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