My reprise of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style is over. Woohoo, ninety-nine styles done! (And ninety-nine photos, which were as challenging as the styles.) Having reached the end of what turned out to be a long project, it feels mighty fine.
But beyond personal satisfaction, what’s the significance of revisiting this old and unusual work? A few things come to mind. One is that a book like The Exercises In Style poses a question about the nature of literature, not only from a stylistic point of view but also in terms of story. Because a book that recounts the same mundane anecdote on every page 99 times simply has to be boring. And yet it’s not. It defies expectations, so it amuses and occasionally amazes.
As a result, it’s a book that demonstrates the power of ingenuity, as well as the influence forms have on readers’ experience of plot — from forms that encompass the whole story, like genre, to those that lie within phrases, like metaphors. These elements not only change the reading experience but fundamentally alter the story; the plot elements remain fixed, yet in spite of this the story flows and melts and reforms as something new.
One can ask, then, what’s a story? Because if Queneau has proven anything it’s that while strictly speaking we’re dealing with the same characters and events, in reality we’re not. The story mutates when you write it from a different angle. The original ingredients aren’t well-preserved, they dissolve into the whole. Literature, he proves ninety-nine times, is as much about structure and texture as about plot and character.
Moreover, the former shapes the latter. In other words, The Exercises In Style demonstrates that what people draw from a piece of writing is perhaps more contingent on authorial voice than many realize. And not only does this mean we should pay attention to the sorts of devices and perspectives we employ on the page — a commonplace — but we should actively cultivate a variety of them. Ninety-nine might be a good number to aim for.
Of course, this has its limits. At a certain point in this ‘grand game of styles’ a longing for change, character development, or just anything new to happen creeps up and seizes you by the throat (“Please God, not the same anecdote again!”). I can’t say I’m sad to move to other projects after rehashing the same material what felt like endless times.
On the other hand, it was always fun. The constraint of repeating certain story elements pushed me to breathe new stylistic life into them, for under such limitations that was all I could do. The result was a series of ventures into new genres, voices, and rhythms that I now see have tremendous power to shape how stories come across.
Mind you, such observations could well be made through reading too. But when you try out ninety-nine ways of approaching the same writing assignment, it really sinks into your bones. Not only does such an exercise illustrate that our angle of attack matters, but it underscores our vast creative potential: if you set your mind to it, the literary fount you can tap into is limitless. We are all creativity machines with infinite production lines.
So what does all this boil down to? Creative constraints are good. Exercises that push your literary limits are good. Experimentation is good. And writing? That’s beyond good. That’s magic.
But it’s a magic that bears repeating — that demands it, lest the pencils rebel from their drawers and poke us in the eye. And ninety-nine times is just a beginning.