The Grass is Black/The Air is Pink

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#Writing

The Lingerie Theory of Narration(1)

There are many excellent ways to learn about narration- reading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse, for example-but perhaps the most accessible lessons about such writerly matters as description, overwriting, and opening and closing stories can be found by reading (well,reading is probably imprecise) the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, that ubiquitous ninety-page glossy circular that most women (and some men) find in their mailboxes about once a month.

Over the years, I’ve tried not too pay too much attention to these catalogues. Mostly, I’ve just pulled them out of my mailbox, eyes averted like a Puritan’s, and deposited them straight into the recycling bin. Just flipping through those pages can make the average girl crave Prozac- how those women manage to look that glamorous in just their underwear can be downright depressing. (For many men, I imagine, it’s another matter…) But not too long ago I started noticing the similarities between the VSC and writing fiction, how both rely on a certain level of artful seduction.

In his book Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and The Power of Literature (University of Minnesota, 1984), the literary critic Ross Chambers reminds us that the storyteller’s primary job in narration is to “excercise power” over the reader, to make him want to listen. In order to succeed at controlling the “other”, Chambers says, a story’s speaker must both “achieve authority” and “produce involvement.” But how does the speaker provide enough information but not so much that the reader feels alienated or overwhelmed?

All writers struggle at some time with the problem of balance between authority and involvement, seduction and revelation. Beginning writers commonly struggle with how much description to employ, and more advanced writers commonly struggle with how much plot is too much or too little. And there is no better place to find answers to such problems than in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, where the arts of seduction and revelation are so commonly and successfully practiced. After all, the secret of the effective lingerie ad is the same secret at the heart of effective storytelling: to provide, moment by moment, the illusion of imminent exposure, to give the viewer (read: reader) the uncanny sense that something fundamentally compelling is always about to be revealed. In short, it is the art of the tease, the craft of selective “coverage”,that works to enthrall.

Words by Julie Checkoway
To be continued…

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