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.

25 Responses to “Oulipian Larding”


  1. Pat Harrigan Says:

    It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. Before Richardson’s sneering comments of two minutes earlier there had been nothing in the spot. I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

  2. noah Says:

    It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. Sunlight glinted from it like a conspiratorial wink. Before Richardson’s sneering comments of two minutes earlier there had been nothing in the spot. I looked up at his face, sagging in the heat. I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

  3. Mike Alber Says:

    It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. I picked the thing up, rolled it around in my hand and considered it’s appearance. Before Richardson’s sneering comments of two minutes earlier there had been nothing in the spot. Wherever it came from, and despite Richardson’s holier-than-thou, this little gem represented my ticket to upscale hotels and Sunday brunches. I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

  4. Keiron Nicholson Says:

    It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. It watched me. Sunlight glinted from it like a conspiratorial wink. My own gaze faltered, and I looked away. Before Richardson’s sneering comments of two minutes earlier there had been nothing in the spot. I could almost feel his contempt. I looked up at his face, sagging in the heat. He hadn’t needed to say anything at all. I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

  5. Jon Says:

    It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. I looked back at my watch. It watched me. I looked back to the diamond and it looked like it was gone for a moment, but then I spotted it. Sunlight glinted from it like a conspiratorial wink. It was three feet to the side from where it had been. My own gaze faltered, and I looked away. I spat my gum out. Before Richardson’s sneering comments of two minutes earlier there had been nothing in the spot. Richardson, and his new shoes. I could almost feel his contempt. We were already half an hour late. I looked up at his face, sagging in the heat. He hadn’t said anything since we left the meeting. He hadn’t needed to say anything at all. It would have been gauche, for example, for either of us to mention the diamond. I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

  6. SMK Says:

    His silence filled the room as water fills a cup.

  7. SMK Says:

    It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. I looked back at my watch. It watched me. I looked back to the diamond and it looked like it was gone for a moment, but then I spotted it. Sunlight glinted from it like a conspiratorial wink. It was three feet to the side from where it had been. My own gaze faltered, and I looked away. I spat my gum out. Before Richardson’s sneering comments of two minutes earlier there had been nothing in the spot. Richardson, and his new shoes. I could almost feel his contempt. We were already half an hour late. I looked up at his face, sagging in the heat. He hadn’t said anything since we left the meeting. He hadn’t needed to say anything at all. It would have been gauche, for example, for either of us to mention the diamond. His silence filled the room as water fills a cup. . I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

  8. noah Says:

    Since Mike’s thread got dropped, here’s my take on it:

    It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. I didn’t feel exactly right about that wall. I picked the thing up, rolled it around in my hand and considered its appearance. Pixelated, but acceptable. Before Richardson’s sneering comments of two minutes earlier there had been nothing in the spot. “If you don’t stick something there players are going to get through this level rather the wrong-way-round, don’t you think?” Wherever it came from, and despite Richardson’s holier-than-thou, this little gem represented my ticket to upscale hotels and Sunday brunches. I was about to hit the level-design big time, then go have words with that Romero character. I had an idea he thought I hadn’t a refining influence.

    … and, for those who might like another round, here are three haikuizations that might make interesting starts:

    House of Danger by R.A. Montgomery (Choose Your Own Adventure #15):

    Do not read this book straight through from beginning to end! You don’t know if you are going to like this lesson or not.

    Grapefruit by Yoko Ono:

    Once upon a thyme, Kind told Keen that she must tell a gory, every naught, to ease his heavy blind. And as John says: “A is for parrot, which we can plainly see.”

    The Iraq Study Group Report by James A. Baker, III, Lee H. Hamilton, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Edwin Meese III, Sandra Day O’Connor, Leon E. Panetta, William J. Perry, Charles S. Robb, and Alan K. Simpson

    There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq. The CIA should provide additional personnel in Iraq to develop and train an effective intelligence service and to build a counterterrorism intelligence center that will facilitate intelligence-led counterterrorism efforts.

  9. adam Says:

    There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq. The magic may, however, be derived from the space between the numbers, between the forms of the variables; herein lies the terror and terrorism of limitless open space. The CIA, and the CIA alone, is proficient in the reading of this space, and shall oversee a cooperative effort by 12 Talmudic scholars, 6 Vatican-based exegetes, and 3 economists from the California Institute of Technology. The CIA should provide additional personnel in Iraq to develop and train an effective intelligence service and to build a counterterrorism intelligence center that will facilitate intelligence-led counterterrorism efforts.

  10. Mark M. Says:

    Do not read this book straight through from beginning to end! Unless you are that type of person who must stay on the tracks, must cling to your lane, even when you see that there are more picturesque views from that other lane or a slow moving camel headed in the wrong direction in your own lane. You don’t know if you are going to like this lesson or not.

  11. Dr. Hawkins Says:

    Do not read this book straight through from beginning to end! Instead, read it in arcs, in culs de sac, in the alternating radii of switchbacks heading up a mountain, or in curlicues, your sportscar spinning out in the gravel. Unless you are that type of person who must stay on the tracks, must cling to your lane, even when you see that there are more picturesque views from that other lane or a slow moving camel headed in the wrong direction in your own lane. Then, for heaven’s sake, ease off the gas and pull to the left—and allow yourself to idle on the shoulder while you catch your breath. You don’t know if you are going to like this lesson or not.

  12. Malcolm Says:

    There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq. Magic has long departed the wide burning deserts of Persia. The magic may, however, be derived from the space between the numbers, between the forms of the variables; herein lies the terror and terrorism of limitless open space. Remorseless, without respite or relief. The CIA, and the CIA alone, is proficient in the reading of this space, and shall oversee a cooperative effort by 12 Talmudic scholars, 6 Vatican-based exegetes, and 3 economists from the California Institute of Technology. Together, this motley band of heroes will dare challenge the plains of sand. The CIA should provide additional personnel in Iraq to develop and train an effective intelligence service and to build a counterterrorism intelligence center that will facilitate intelligence-led counterterrorism efforts.

  13. noah Says:

    Those have developed so well I don’t want to lard them any further! Would someone else like to propose a starting pair of sentences? If not, we could call it a game…

  14. andrew Says:

    Here are the first and last sentences of the first chapter of one my favorite books, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine.

    At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned towards the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. In the stapled CVS bag was a pair of new shoelaces.

  15. Bob C. Says:

    At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned towards the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. I swallowed hard, and wiped my brow with a throwaway napkin, to erase any sign of trepidation for the mistake I was about to make. In the stapled CVS bag was a pair of new shoelaces.

  16. noah Says:

    At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned towards the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. I peered, still walking, at the brushed metal trash canister, watching for a tail’s matching movements, but the image was warped and indistinct. I swallowed hard, and wiped my brow with a throwaway napkin, to erase any sign of trepidation for the mistake I was about to make. After stepping on the escalator it would be too late, always, to run back and find the man with whom I’d switched bags at CVS. In the stapled CVS bag was a pair of new shoelaces.

  17. Mark M. Says:

    Those have developed so well I don’t want to lard them any further! For larding, if carried out too far, can lead to a big congealed ball of unreadability and basic fatigue. Would someone else like to propose a starting pair of sentences? I’ve got some blogging to do and can’t just sit around larding all day while Andrew, Nick, Michael, Scott, and Mary zip out posts faster than a spambot plugging Cialis (available online at a discount). If not, we could call it a game…

  18. Fox Harrell Says:

    Here are two lines to start anew.

    If a herald you desire…then a herald I shall be! Let me probe the heavens…scan the starways…roam the endless cosmos for you!

    – from Straczynski, J., Ribic, E. Silver Surfer Requiem, issue 1, Marvel Comics, 2007.

  19. noah Says:

    Nice move, Mark.

    Taking up Fox’s suggestion:

    If a herald you desire . . . then a herald I shall be! I will carry, in the pitted grooves of my golden disk, the sounds of a kiss, a mother’s greeting, a boy’s voice: “Hello from the children of planet earth.” Let me probe the heavens . . . scan the starways . . . roam the endless cosmos for you!

  20. Pat Harrigan Says:

    If a herald you desire . . . then a herald I shall be! The New Combined Galactus Publishing Group is dedicated to customer service. I will carry, in the pitted grooves of my golden disk, the sounds of a kiss, a mother’s greeting, a boy’s voice: “Hello from the children of planet earth.” For speed of delivery and one-click convenience, no matter what your stellar messenging needs, the New Combined Galactus Publishing Group is your Ultimate Notifier. Let me probe the heavens . . . scan the starways . . . roam the endless cosmos for you!

  21. andrew Says:

    At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned towards the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. My right shoe hounded me, its lace having snapped just before dawn when I kicked open the emergency exit door of the church basement and fled. I peered, still walking, at the brushed metal trash canister, watching for a tail’s matching movements, but the image was warped and indistinct. A black tunic – could that be Sister Janis, the nun who knew my game, who saw straight through my fake smile? I swallowed hard, and wiped my brow with a throwaway napkin, to erase any sign of trepidation for the mistake I was about to make. To hesitate now would broadcast my sin to all the righteous and good people milling around the lobby. After stepping on the escalator it would be too late, always, to run back and find the man with whom I’d switched bags at CVS. Only later, after reaching the sixth floor, locating my target and committing the act that would send my soul to burn in hell forever, that I realized luck was on my side after all. In the stapled CVS bag was a pair of new shoelaces.

  22. Fox Harrell Says:

    (I love the “Ultimate Notifier” Pat!)

    If a herald you desire . . . then a herald I shall be! My name, “The Daily Herald,” will be spit from the lips of andy capped paperboys hawking their wares from round golden mittens. The New Combined Galactus Publishing Group is dedicated to customer service. They hire those boys to sell me — the publishers know how to serve the egos of businessmen eager for the stock reports, allowing them to place quarters in grubby gold disks for hands outstretched for small change. I will carry, in the pitted grooves of my golden disk, the sounds of a kiss, a mother’s greeting, a boy’s voice: “Hello from the children of planet earth.” Those wretched little ones serve my makers well. For speed of delivery and one-click convenience, no matter what your stellar messenging needs, the New Combined Galactus Publishing Group is your Ultimate Notifier. The NCGPG birthed me to make the wingtip and necktie set feel that their petty corners of the metropolis are great solar systems, galaxies, universes. Let me probe the heavens . . . scan the starways . . . roam the endless cosmos for you!

  23. scott Says:

    At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned towards the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. I came to the sudden realization of my own imminent death. My right shoe hounded me, its lace having snapped just before dawn when I kicked open the emergency exit door of the church basement and fled. God, him or herself (it is difficult say as the voice was computerized and the form was that of a conflagration like something exploding out of a corridor in DOOM) had just appeared to me. I peered, still walking, at the brushed metal trash canister, watching for a tail’s matching movements, but the image was warped and indistinct. As always, I doubted what my own sensory perceptions were telling me loud and clear. A black tunic – could that be Sister Janis, the nun who knew my game, who saw straight through my fake smile? I shuddered as I thought of my fantasies and her place within them. I swallowed hard, and wiped my brow with a throwaway napkin, to erase any sign of trepidation for the mistake I was about to make. What is a man? To hesitate now would broadcast my sin to all the righteous and good people milling around the lobby. Again I asked the immortal question, and no one answered. After stepping on the escalator it would be too late, always, to run back and find the man with whom I’d switched bags at CVS. I would be late to my own funeral. Only later, after reaching the sixth floor, locating my target and committing the act that would send my soul to burn in hell forever, that I realized luck was on my side after all. There is more than one way to skin a cat. In the stapled CVS bag was a pair of new shoelaces.

  24. andrew Says:

    At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned towards the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. The staple’s point had broken the skin of my middle finger, drawing blood. I came to the sudden realization of my own imminent death. I told myself I had more important things to think about. My right shoe hounded me, its lace having snapped just before dawn when I kicked open the emergency exit door of the church basement and fled. I had hatched my plan underneath those sagging pews. God, him or herself (it is difficult say as the voice was computerized and the form was that of a conflagration like something exploding out of a corridor in DOOM) had just appeared to me. Save now, save now, the voice said. I peered, still walking, at the brushed metal trash canister, watching for a tail’s matching movements, but the image was warped and indistinct. Beautiful, undulating, like a fat snake. As always, I doubted what my own sensory perceptions were telling me loud and clear. The staple point pushed deeper. A black tunic – could that be Sister Janis, the nun who knew my game, who saw straight through my fake smile? The way she spooned out soup was mindblowing. I shuddered as I thought of my fantasies and her place within them. Not that it mattered now. I swallowed hard, and wiped my brow with a throwaway napkin, to erase any sign of trepidation for the mistake I was about to make. Carefully I replaced the napkin in my pocket, and my mind wandered. What is a man? I was mere feet from the escalator. To hesitate now would broadcast my sin to all the righteous and good people milling around the lobby. The computerized voice, with its soothing monotone, began humming in my ears. Again I asked the immortal question, and no one answered. My eyes widened as I squeezed the staple further into my flesh. After stepping on the escalator it would be too late, always, to run back and find the man with whom I’d switched bags at CVS. Ah, CVS, my sanctuary, my place of refuge – all lost to me now. I would be late to my own funeral. I stepped onto the escalator and began to rise, the Penguin paperback swinging softly in the acceleration. Only later, after reaching the sixth floor, locating my target and committing the act that would send my soul to burn in hell forever, that I realized luck was on my side after all. The computerized voice had been speaking to me all along. There is more than one way to skin a cat. Game on, Joe, the voice said, game on. In the stapled CVS bag was a pair of new shoelaces.

  25. scott Says:

    Those have developed so well I don’t want to lard them any further! Marino gazed with satisfaction upon his teeming vat of homunculi. For larding, if carried out too far, can lead to a big congealed ball of unreadability and basic fatigue. The small blog creatures wiggled their little fingers, as if seeking out a keyboard. Would someone else like to propose a starting pair of sentences? Nearly-intelligible words bubbled up through the greasy lard as Marino rubbed his hands together with glee. I’ve got some blogging to do and can’t just sit around larding all day while Andrew, Nick, Michael, Scott, and Mary zip out posts faster than a spambot plugging Cialis (available online at a discount). Soon, my little creatures, soon, you will be ready to accomplish the mission I have planned for you. If not, we could call it a game…

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