The Oulipo - in full, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature - was founded in France in 1960 by the French author Raymond Queneau and the mathematical historian François Le Lionnais. Made up of mathematicians as well as writers, the group assigned itself the task of exploring how mathematical structures might be used in literary creation. The idea of mathematical structure was soon broadened to include all highly restrictive methods, like the palindrome and the sestina, that are strict enough to play a decisive role in determining what their users write. The most notorious example of this approach is Georges Perec's novel, A Void, written without a single appearance of the letter e.
Derik has focused more intensively on the literary use of "constraint": "A constraint can be syntactic, semantic, or formal. Syntactic constraints are by nature easier to define strictly than semantic constraints. Syntax is already a limited systematic field, while the semantic field is much broader. Because of this there has tended towards more syntactic constraints (lipograms, anagrams, and such). Formal constraints are often more obvious and less rigorous. None of these three categories are necessarily mutually exclusive." Anybody who has visited the MadInkBeard site will have seen both critical discussions of the use of such constraints in various contexts (including film) and also Derik's own ongoing fiction, "Premises in the Snow," which attempts to demonstrate the use of constraint.
I find all of this inherently fascinating, but I do have something of a problem with the breadth of application it sometimes seems to inspire. Thus, I'd like to pose a few questions about the potential utility of the concept of "constraint," to which I hope both Derik and anyone else interested in these issues might like to respond.
Most generally: How does "constraint" in literature fundamentally differ from what I have just generically called in several of my own posts "experiment"? Isn't most experimental fiction--from the modernists to Sorrentino or Barth--the deliberate adoption of some kind of what could loosely be called constraint? Joyce constrains himself to writing a novel whose "plot" can be paralleled with The Odyssey.
Nabokov constrains himself to the kind of story that can be "told" through a fictional poem and the annotations attached to it. Robert Coover limits himself in telling the story of one man's mental deterioration to what can be revealed through this man's interaction with an imaginary baseball game he invokes through rolling dice (a constraint within a constraint).
Is the technique of using constraint thus just another word for experiment or innovation in literature, is it a special subset of such experiments, or is it separate from this more "mainstream" experimentation altogether?
Further: Is constraint to be understood in essentially negative terms, as something that is held back or taken away? Does this assume conventions or conditions for literature that are more "normal" (or at least expected), from which the use of constraint is a departure? Or can constraints be considered as an affirmative act, an adding to, by which the writer demonstrates that fiction can be whatever we want it to be? Is such a writer actually illuminating the ways in which constraints can be taken simply as contributions to the open-ended repertoire by means of which literature can be "made"?
Finally, to what extent is it true that all works of literature involve constraint in their very terms of existence? A widely-held view of what motivates someone to write fiction or poetry--and I think this view can be challenged-- is that he/she has some vital concern or idea to express but has chosen to embody this idea indirectly in a work of literature rather than state it outright. This seems to be an initial constraint intrinsic to choosing literary form in the first place. Also, when a writer such as Chekhov (whom few people would call experimental) decides that, in effect, he'll write a kind of fiction that mostly sacrifices "plot" in favor of character or setting, is this a manifestation of constraint? Or when Beckett decides to write a kind of fiction that sometimes sacrifices character as we usually recognize it, is this constraint? And of course in choosing to write poetry of any kind, a poet agrees to "constrain" language to its use in artificial creations of sound and verse pattern. Is poetry as a whole the most salient exemplar of "contraint"?
For myself, I would say that perhaps the most ideal situation for writers and readers of literature would be when constraint, or any other device, is simply accepted as an example of the myriad kinds of devices a writer might put to use to compose a work of fiction or poetry. In other words, when it is acknowledged as that sort of thing the appearance of which in a piece of writing marks it as being literary to begin with.