French Avant-Garde, SEO and the Creative Freedom of Character Limits
We live in a world of character limits. 25. 140. 60. 165. The Internet demands you pare things down. Even where the Internet hasn’t put a limit on you, your audience probably has (e.g. if your Instagram captions are routinely broken into paragraphs, I hate you). Especially in digital marketing, we understand that attention spans are fleeting and we have to get our point across neatly.
As an SEO, I understand and appreciate these character limits; I understand how it benefits user experience to have concise, accurate reflections of a page’s content displayed in the SERPs, but sometimes the creative in me feels stifled by them. I feel limited, god dammit!
It is times like these that I like to think of Georges Perec. In part, I do this because thinking of his image just makes me happy.
But also because his philosophy was that limitations and rules could be the key to creating new literary works.
Perec was a founding member of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, which translates to the Workshop of Potential Literature (Oulipo for short). The Oulipo was a collective of writers fed up with the literary canon and seeking to expand the practice of writing by experimentation. They did this by trying out different structures for their works, which they borrowed from mathematics, history, even architecture. As they saw it, Potential Literature could be explored through these borrowed structures, which served in place of inspiration.
In fact, the Oulipo believed that traditional inspiration (and I am paraphrasing here) was kind of a lie. Contrary to the Romantic ideology of the time, they believed that inspiration wasn’t divine, and that it didn’t just come to a privileged few. They weren’t waiting around for a muse. Inspired writing was ready and waiting for those willing to try.
“The truly inspired person is never inspired, but always inspired,” they said.
And they were right. Oulipan Raymond Queneau composed “Cent mille milliards de poèmes” a collection of poems that couldn’t be read in multiple lifetimes. Georges Perec wrote “A Void”, a full novel without using a single letter “e”. Italo Calvino gave us “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”, a novel that is ten variations of a story that somehow turns out to be more about the reader than the story itself. And so on.
Now, if someone were to call my writing formulaic, I would be pretty bummed out. I would take that to mean it was uninspired, predictable, boring, etc. (we all know when we are being insulted). But formulaic was exactly what the Oulipans strove for. They saw it as the way to explore and discover new literary capabilities. By posturing that writing is a practice that can thrive when treated with the sterile rules of math, the Oulipo produced a body of rich literature.
Cut to today, and here I am. Not a mid-century French literary genius. Not saying, “To hell with the canon.” Using the letter “e” all the time. It’s just me, optimizing some title tags and drawing inspiration from Perec.
Now, I am not calling the title tags and meta data I compose avant-garde literature. (If you want to, that’s fine.) But sometimes, when I am optimizing an endless list of title tags for a niche market client, trying to ensure that they are capturing organic traffic for queries I previously didn’t know existed in the world, I pause. I pause and I think of Georges Perec and his glorious hair, and I feel a little more inspired to write those potential title tags.