How to Write a Novel without using the letter “E”

Today’s post is the latest in a series I like to call, “I know what would be fun. I’ll take decades and decades of existential literary theory and interpret and distil it to the size of a blog post!”

This week, I thought we’d take a look at one of the more … how shall I put it … “out there” literary types.

So, this week it’s the turn of George Perec. The first thing to know about George Perec is that he had an afro and a humongous beard. No, I mean epic. Don’t believe me?

Let’s just take a moment to admire that facial hair….

Okay, done? So, it gets better. Perec was a sado-masochistic writer of the highest order. He was part of a French writing group known as Oulipo which was founded in the ‘60s. This group set itself “constraints” when writing. Some examples of this would include “tautograms” (every word of which begins with the same letter) and “permutational” poems (whose lines can be read in any order). Another example is Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, in which a matrix of ten sonnets with interchangeable lines is used to generate 100 trillion ‘potential’ poems.

These guys knew how to party!

But it gets better. In 1969, Perec wrote a novel called La disparition. At first, critics thought it was a run-of-the-mill thriller. But it was, in fact, what’s known as a lipogram – the entire novel was written without ever using the letter “e”! It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). Not happy with this level of self-torture, Perec decided to take it a step further. In his next novel Les revenentes (1972) the letter “e” was the ONLY vowel used.

Perec’s most famous novel, published in 1978, has a great title: La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual). It’s a 600-page novel made up of 99 chapters, and tells the story of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block. What’s interesting is that the whole novel takes place in a single moment. This was another novel written to a complex plan of writing constraints; for instance, each chapter had a list of items, references and/or objects which that chapter had to contain or allude to.

Sounds like a lot of hard work, eh? So, what do you think? Could you try writing a novel without using the letter “e”?


(Image: Click the pic for credits)

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26 comments on “How to Write a Novel without using the letter “E”

  1. This is fascinating. I had no idea! As for writing a novel with any such lettering constraints, I am NO not gonna try! LOL.

  2. KatyO says:

    Am in stitches. Honestly, the beard and staring eyes say it all. Thanks for the laugh Derek! And see, I couldn’t have written that if I left out every e, could I Drk? 😉

  3. That beard is simply fantastic … and I’m fascinated by the prospect of writing under these constraints. I think I’d have loads of fun with it.

  4. Derek Flynn says:

    Sarah: I know, me neither! Where would you start!?

    Katy: Thanks Katy. And “Drk” is my stage name 🙂

    Matt: Do you think you could do it? It’d have to be “Stampunk” though! 🙂

  5. This is NUTS! Absolutely nuts. I was actually trying to “edit” your blog posting and change all the words with an ‘e’…couldn’t fathom trying to write a novel that way. Not even going to make an insane attempt. I think these guys had WAY too much time on their hands. Just sayin. 🙂 Great post.

    • Derek Flynn says:

      Krystal: Well, you’d need a hell of a lot of time on your hands to attempt that! And that’s so funny, he’s actually the spitting image of Elijah Wood! 🙂

      • Jay says:

        His beard?Not so crazy. It’s the eyes. He’s a Elijah Wood/Tobey Maguire look alike—to me. No, Elijah Wood & Tobey Maguire don’t look alike, but something in this guy reminds me of both of them.

  6. Oh, and does that guy kind of remind you of Frodo from LOTR?

  7. Makes me want to read his writing now — Thank you.

  8. John Ivory says:

    That is brilliant. A thought-provoking and amusing blog post from you as usual Mr Flynn. Who would think anybody could accomplish anything so difficult! Maximum I could do without going fully mad would probably not fill this box in which I am now typing. I am starting to find it particularly hard now to maintain this form of writing. God only knows who could think up a plan such as that. I don’t think I will try it out by writing a full book. But do post such fun writings on a constant basis Mr Flynn. I cannot vouch that I will always bring on-board all such discoursing without disambiguation. But I will try! Anyway, last words on this I think should go to Krystal who said “This is NUTS”!

  9. John Ivory says:

    Oh – just a postscript – regarding that e-less novel did you notice his name alone has 4 e’s!! gEorgE pErEc !!!

  10. Louise says:

    I’ll be dreaming of that beard and eyes later – I just know it!

  11. lizamartz says:

    My gosh. It’s one thing to write a book without using an “e” but imagine trying to translate it into another language and still not use one. Give me a headache, it does. The previous two sentences contain 12 e’s.

  12. I’m inclined to agree with Krystal. If you have the time to write a whole novel without the letter ‘e’, you could probably be doing something more productive with your time.

    The question that bugs me, is why would you even want to try? Just to prove that you can? That strikes me as nothing more than self-indulgent ego.

  13. Great post Derek, I don’t know how these guys would write that way…! I tried it for, like, 3 lines and couldn’t it!

    Star light

  14. That didn’t save my vampire drama but thanks a lot Derek for reminding me though I can’t read I did it a few times and my folks aren’t so bad at it 😉

    The Oulipo is the only literary trend I actually though fun ( In French, in English… well I’m a romantic 🙂 Raymong Queneau also wrote a something called ‘Exercices de style’ which is very interesting, it’s one smallish story told in a hundred different ways (emphatic, factual…) he also wrote a pure gem which is the Diary of Sally Mara, an Irish author (a young girl) he made up and who is a pure nympho with absolutely no conscience of it because she is very innocent. I have no idea if it has been translated into English and how it could be rendered (the original French version toys a lot with the use of French and idioms from this Irish girl’s point of view,and even Gaelic expressions …so we want a creative translator there ;). Anyway I hope there’s a way for you to get to know this book because it’s so funny, free and spontaneous even i could read it! Can’t say more, can I? 🙂

  15. Amy Eyrie says:

    I really love this series you’re doing. There is something so amusing about your warm and very earthy and wise observations, especially when the emperor has no clothes on!

    I love this weird experiment Perec did where he sat in Paris for 3 days recording every fracking thing he saw randomly:

    I am far too attached to the letter “e” to live without it.

  16. I’m really liking this series you are doing with the different authors! And this guy would be a fascinating lunch date!

  17. Tania Dakka says:

    I am in NO way smart enough to try to torture myself with the likes of what he did! LOL Love the series! Maybe you should figure out a contest at the end…kind of like a quiz! LOL

  18. He sounds like the type of person that I’d take an immediate disliking to and then hope to never meet him again. That being said, it was a fantastic post.

  19. Debra Kristi says:

    Wow! That’s seriously crazy. I’d be pulling my hair out taking on a task like that. Really interesting post Derek!

  20. susancondon says:

    If I thought it was hard work writing a novel without thinking about the letters you use – reading your post, my eyes could find nothing but the letter ‘e’ everywhere – now writing my novel seems child’s play . . . Well, maybe not, but definitely a lot less daunting than if these restrictions were set!

  21. J.C. Martin says:

    I’ve heard of his E-less novel! What does he substitute for ‘the’ then? :-/

  22. Good grief! Talk about making hard work harder!

  23. Wow. My hat’s off to him. I don’t have the patience for that or the time. And yes, he does look a bit like Frodo from LOTR. 🙂

  24. kandie says:

    that dude looks freakishly scary, and I would totally fail that project, I have a tendency to want to include the letter “e” as my name ends with it and I try to incorporate that into my characters’ names as well. GREAT POST. New subscriber of course (via feedblitz)

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