Which exposition strategy adds the most value?

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Our experiment has answered the question of whether narrative adds measurable value to near-worthless tchotchkes with an emphatic YES. But how does narrative do so? Is every form of narrative exposition, for example, equally effective in encouraging the reader to regard a thrift-store castoff as somehow meaningful?

Apparently not. We’ve determined that in the 100 stories we published as part of Significant Objects volume 1, three types of exposition are employed. One of these three expository stratagems, according to the chart following after the jump, is particularly effective at investing insignificant objects with significance.

DESCRIPTION: Over the course of the narrative, peculiarly and uniquely significant characteristics and features (exclusive of use or function) are attributed to the object. Examples:

  • “Russian Figure”: In Doug Dorst’s story, we read that “effigies of St. Vralkomir may come to life and begin dancing, throwing sparks from their wooden pedestals.”
  • “Smiling Mug”: Ben Greenman’s story claims that a surrealist sculptor designed the mug to “like a face, of course, because a face is the only thing that is capable of smiling (or is it?), but it also looks like a tooth, because a tooth is the only thing that is capable of showing when a face is smiling.”
  • “Duck Vase”: The narrator of Matthew Klam’s story notes: “If you decide to keep it by your bed (as I did) and begin seeing colorful lights reflected on the walls and windows as you try to sleep, DO NOT WORRY AS THE OBJECT IS OPERATING NORMALLY.”

SEQUENCE: From the narrative, we learn about the object’s role in an event or sequence of events meaningful to the narrator/protagonist or reader.

  • “BBQ Sauce Jar”: Matthew J. Well’s story claims the jar was used for a “blood-soaked shave” by Harry Thaw in 1908, the night before his murder trial.
  • “Uncola Glass”: Jen Collins tells a story from the perspective of a woman whose father abandoned her family when she was 13. “When I got home after track practice that night, my mother told me my father wasn’t coming back. ‘He left you a present,’ she said. ‘An abandonment present? Is that customary? No thanks.’”
  • “Crumb Sweeper”: When the narrator of Shelley Jackson’s story first meets her future lover, he’s brushing hairs from his clothes with this item.

CLASSIFICATION: During the course of the narrative the object’s use, function, origin, or else its symbolic meaning, is revealed to be particularly fraught.

  • “‘Hawk’ Ashtray”: The narrator of William Gibson’s story claims that Pentagon technocrats lobby one another, in order to get new weapons into development, by manufacturing and distributing promotional items like this one.
  • “Maine Statutes Dish”: The narrator of Ben Katchor’s story would have us believe that the dish, intended for peanuts, was “meant to encourage lawyers and public advocates to acquaint themselves with the latest revisions to state law,” and that in fact each chapter was keyed to an estimated number of peanuts.
  • “Missouri Shotglass”: A character in Jonathan Lethem’s story claims that the bird represented on the shotglass symbolizes the fact that Missouri is “one vast harrowed and furrowed MFA workshop.”

Those are the strategies. Which one shows evidence of offering the most significant value-creating payoff, according to our results? The chart is below.

As you can see, SEQUENCE was the most effective form of exposition when it came to encouraging readers to bid on the stories’ objects. Eleven of the experiment’s Top 25 objects were made significant via sequence, ten via classification, and four via description. (In the Top 10, though, classification edges out sequence.)

However! Mimi Lipson might point out that sequence is the most heavily represented exposition-type in the sample as a whole (58/100), followed by classification (30/100), and then description (12/100). So perhaps the values of these variables were skewed. Ought we instead to look at the sum of the probability of each possible outcome of the experiment multiplied by its payoff (“value”)? Hmmm.

Also: Did we assign exposition-types properly? Was this exercise a useful one? Give us some feedback, readers.

Rank (adj.)ObjectExposition TypeAuthor
1Russian FigureDescriptionDoug Dorst
2Indian MaidenSequence R.K. Scher
3Wooden AnimalSequenceMeg Cabot
4"Hawk" AshtrayClassificationWilliam Gibson
5Pink HorseDescriptionKate Bernheimer
6Metal BootClassificationBruce Sterling
74-TileClassificationToni Schlesinger
8Cape Cod ShoeSequenceSheila Heti
9Duck TrayClassificationStewart O'Nan
10Wooden MalletClassificationColson Whitehead
11Fish SpoonsSequenceMark Doty
12Fake BananaSequenceJosh Kramer (Center for Cartoon Studies)
13Cow VaseSequenceEd Park
13Missouri ShotglassClassificationJonathan Lethem
15Kneeling Man FigurineClassificationGlen David Gold
16Rhino FigurineDescriptionNathaniel Rich
17Rainbow Sand AnimalSequenceSloane Crosley
18Meat ThermometerClassificationNicholson Baker
18IdolSequenceAndrew Ervin
20Felt MouseSequenceMeghan O'Rourke
21Bird FigurineDescriptionSung J. Woo
22Ziggy HeartClassificationTodd Levin
23Geisha BobbleheadSequenceEdward Champion
23BBQ Sauce JarSequenceMatthew J. Wells (Slate Contest Winner)
25Ireland Cow PlateClassificationSarah Rainone
26Necking Team ButtonClassificationSusannah Breslin
27Rope/Wood Monkey FigurineSequenceKevin Brockmeier
28Rooster Oven MittClassificationVictor LaValle
29Motel Room KeyClassificationLaura Lippman
30Jar of MarblesClassificationBen Ehrenreich
31Smiling MugDescriptionBen Greenman
32Marines (Upside-Down) Logo MugClassificationTom Vanderbilt (Design Observer)
33Maine Statutes DishClassificationBen Katchor
33Halston MugClassificationMimi Lipson
35Seahorse LighterClassificationAimee Bender
36Hand-Held Bubble BlowerClassificationMyla Goldberg
36Creamer CowSequenceLucinda Rosenfeld
36JFK BustDescriptionAnnie Nocenti
39Mr. Pickwick Coat HookSequenceChristopher Sorrentino
39Round BoxSequenceTim Carvell
41Amoco Yo-YoSequenceMark Sarvas
42Miniature BottleSequenceMark Frauenfelder
42Penguin CreamerClassificationSari Wilson
44Cigarette CaseSequenceMargot Livesey
45Chili Cat FigurineClassificationLydia Millet
46Alien ToyClassificationNomi Kane (Center for Cartoon Studies)
47Ocean Scene GlobeClassificationStephanie Reents
47UnicornSequenceSarah Weinman
49Crumb SweeperSequenceShelley Jackson
50Praying HandsDescriptionRosecrans Baldwin
50Elvis Chocolate TinClassificationJessica Helfand (Design Observer)
52Sanka AshtraySequenceLuc Sante
53Tin ArkClassificationRebecca Wolff
54Windsurfing Trophy/StatueClassificationNaomi Novik
55Pabst Bottle OpenerSequenceSean Howe
56Spotted Dogs FigurineSequenceCurtis Sittenfeld
56Santa NutcrackerSequenceKurt Andersen
58Foppish FigurineDescriptionRob Baedeker
59Kitty SaucerClassificationJames Parker
60Piggy BankDescriptionMatthew De Abaitua
60Mule FigurineDescriptionMatthew Sharpe
62Nutcracker with Troll Hair (or something)SequenceAdam Davies
62Grain ThingDescriptionJoanne McNeil
64Dome DollSequenceJason Grote
65Popsicle-Stick ConstructionSequenceSara Ryan
65Golf Ball BankSequenceTodd Pruzan
67Blue VaseSequenceLauren Mechling
68Candyland Labyrinth GameSequenceMatthew Battles
68Pen StandClassificationLizzie Skurnick
68Military FigureClassificationDavid Shields
71Dilbert Stress ToyDescriptionBetsey Swardlick (Center for Cartoon Studies)
72Uncola GlassSequenceJen Collins
72Choirboy FigurineSequenceJ. Robert Lennon
74Star of David PlateSequenceAdam Harrison Levy (Design Observer)
75Lighter Shaped Like Small Pool BallSequenceRob Agredo (SmithMag Contest Winner)
76DeviceClassificationTom Bartlett
76Cracker Barrel OrnamentClassificationMaud Newton
76Sea Captain Pipe RestClassificationMichael Atkinson
76"Hakuna Matata" FigurineClassificationJennifer Michael Hecht
76Ornamental SphereClassificationCharles Ardai
81Cat MugClassificationThomas McNeely
82Wave BoxClassificationTeddy Wayne
83Toy ToasterClassificationJonathan Goldstein
84Flip-Flop FrameDescriptionMerrill Markoe
85Thai HooksSequenceBruno Maddox
85Small StaplerSequenceKatharine Weber
87Duck VaseDescriptionMatthew Klam
88Fred Flintstone Pez DispenserDescriptionClaire Zulkey
89Basketball TrophySequenceCintra Wilson
90Toy Hot DogClassificationJenny Davidson
91Umbrella TrinketSequenceBruce Holland Rogers
92Toothbrush HolderSequenceTerese Svoboda
93Coconut CupSequenceAnnalee Newitz
94Swiss MedalSequenceKathryn Borel Jr.
95#1 Mom HooksSequenceRachel Berger (Design Observer)
96Clown FigurineDescriptionNick Asbury
97Kentucky DishSequenceDean Haspiel
98Porcelain ScooterSequenceTeddy Blanks (Design Observer)
99Hawaiian UtensilsSequenceStephen Elliott
100Bar Mitzvah BookendsSequenceStacey Levine


Joshua Glenn is an editor, publisher, and a freelance writer and semiologist. He does business as KING MIXER, LLC. He's cofounder of the websites HiLobrow, Significant Objects, and Semionaut; and cofounder of HiLoBooks, which will reissue six Radium Age sci fi novels in 2012. In 2011, he produced and co-designed the iPhone app KER-PUNCH. He's coauthored and co-edited Taking Things Seriously, The Idler's Glossary, The Wage Slave's Glossary, the story collection Significant Objects (forthcoming from Fantagraphics), and Unbored, a kids' field guide to life forthcoming from Bloomsbury. In the '00s, Glenn was an associate editor and columnist at the Boston Globe's IDEAS section; he also started the IDEAS blog Brainiac. He has written for Slate, n+1, Cabinet, io9, The Baffler, Feed, and The Idler. In the '90s, Glenn published the seminal intellectual zine Hermenaut; served as editorial director and co-producer of the pioneering DIY and online social networking website Tripod.com; and was an editor at the magazine Utne Reader. Glenn manages the Hermenautic Circle, a secretive online community. He was born and raised in Boston, where he lives with his wife and sons. Click here for more info.

4 thoughts on “Which exposition strategy adds the most value?

  1. I still say that the rank of Missouri shot glass should be raised a notch or two because, had there not been an oversight on my part, it would have sold for at least $3 more. There is no question that it would have sold for more than $78.

  2. Very interesting, Josh. I suspected there might be somoething there, and I really like the way you categorized the stories. Like Mimi, however, I think some more analysis is called for. If you post (or send me) the data including the final sale price and the type of story, we could assign a vlaue for the story type and run some quick correlations and a little analysis of variance. Happy to help you play with this…

  3. Pingback: Closing tabs, opening minds | Taylor Davidson (@tdavidson)

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