Express press service
BENGALURU: Constrained writing is a literary technique that sees the writer bound by a condition that prohibits something, or ensures a particular pattern. One of the most famous of these constraints is a “lipogram”, where a particular letter is forbidden. It sounds easy when the letter in question is Q or Z, for example, but to really challenge yourself, you can banish the use of a much more common letter. Or the most common letter of all – E.
Gadsby is a 50,000 word novel by Ernest Vincent Wright which was published in 1939 and does not use the letter E at all. Wright spent five and a half months writing on a typewriter with the ‘e’ key attached so that it cannot be used at all. A warehouse containing copies of the book burned down shortly after it was printed, destroying most copies of the ill-fated novel. The book was never reviewed, but through word of mouth it became an underground cult classic. The rarity and strangeness of the book saw copies sold for $4,000 by booksellers. Over time, this particular masterpiece has opened many curious readers to this unusual reading experience. Later editions of the book sometimes carried the alternative subtitle 50,000 Word Novel Without the Letter “E”. Despite Wright’s claim, however, published versions of the book may contain a handful of uses of the letter “e”.
Un Vide by Georges Perec is another of the most famous lipogrammatic novels, but even more impressive is the number of translations it has undergone. Originally published in 1969 in French under the title La Disparition, the novel follows a group of friends who try to find their companion Anton Vowl. The novel does not contain a single letter E (except the four unfortunately present in its name). It has since been translated into various other languages, with a similar rule imposed on every translator. Because E is so prevalent in many languages, it’s usually the one that gets dropped, but the Spanish version drops the A, Russian the O, and Japanese the I.
Dr. Seuss was famous for his plain-language, catchy-rhyming books, but perhaps his most famous title was written as a result of a bet between Seuss and his publisher, Bennett Cerf. After The Cat in the Hat which used 236 different words, Cerf bet Seuss he couldn’t finish one with even less. Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1960, with only 50 different words used in the entire text. Despite this strict limitation, by 2001 it had become the fourth best-selling English-language children’s hardcover of all time.
And for those who are curious, some of the 50 words are: a, am, and, are, be, boat, box, car, dark, do, eat, fox, goat, green, ham, here, I, if, in , let, like, can, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
Another example of constrained writing is Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang which does not use a single comma. In Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, every word in the first chapter begins with A. In the second chapter, words beginning with A and B are allowed, and so on.
It seems to me that the only purpose of constrained writing is good writing practice. For trivia and quiz addicts, this can provide some fun facts to remember!