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Ian Reid's Narrative Exchanges arises from the sociological theory of exchange, in which both parties to a communication engage in an often elaborate give and take, involving both cost and benefit. Reid uses this concept to read a varied series of narratives, demonstrating how the idea helps us understand texts and define genres.
Literary exchange is both straightforward and complex. Put simply, storytellers promise to deliver something of "interest" to listeners who, in return, give their attention. "Economically," both gain from the transaction. But as Reid also points out, exchange theory still "needs to be applied with more exactness to verbal behaviour in particular, especially to written fictions," because literary exchange relates more to play than to the marketplace.
Aside from its system of payment and reward, verbal exchange always occurs contextually, with the parameters of that context determining the particular genre. In laying out this theory Reid is consistent with Bakhtin, for whom all communication is not merely transactional but also dialogic because the other's presence is already embedded in the narrative voice. Reid uses "frame" interchangeably with "context" in talking about written narrative, whose key textual features are "substitution and dispossession." In "substitution . . . narrative momentum occurs through a serial shuffling of scenes or takes or rhetorical figures." On the other hand, "'dispossession' refers to a process . . . whereby the balance of narratorial power is revealed as shifty." Within such narrative enunciation, "framing" demarcates a narrative form (say, a poem) "from other things while also relating it to them—as one distinguishes figure from ground, picture from wall, words from page, foreground from background, here from there." Framing is also "double-edged" in that it is "simultaneously inclusive and exclusive."
Reid uses a telling example to make his point about framing. He discusses a much-anthologized Australian story, "The White Goat," then shows how it is a version of a similar story, "Monsieur Seguin's Goat," in Alphonse Daudet's Letters from my Windmill. Aside from the intertextual relationship of the two stories, the frame within which each was published creates vastly different kinds of narrative exchange, both of them within frames that are marked by dispossession. For instance, in Australia "a whole generation of . . . students was nurtured on the series to which it belongs." Readers of Daudet, however, experienced "Monsieur Seguin's Goat" as high art written by a late nineteenth-century French master. Different frames created very different reading expectations and narrative exchanges.
I can only whet the reader's appetite by mentioning some texts that Reid discusses. These include Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, Chinua Achebe' [End Page 209] Things Fall Apart, Gustave Flaubert's Three Tales, Marguerite Duras' The Vice Consul, Katherine Mansfield's "Prelude" and "At the Bay," William Wordsworth's 1805 Prelude, and Jaimy Gordon's postmodern collage, "The Hind of the Further." In discussing these texts Reid demonstrates convincingly how substitution and dispossession frame our responses by constructing the basis of narrative exchange.
Reid reads texts clearly and intelligently, without distorting them to fit his thesis. Although apparently a work of theory, the book is at its most theoretical early on. In overall construction it is more a series of related essays than an interwoven set of chapters building a tight argument. As a result, after reading the opening theoretical sections one can dip into chapters dealing with familiar texts. While the book has a casual tone, the author has a lot to say about how exchange theory relates to narrative. Narrative Exchanges is a solid, though modest addition to the theory of fiction, which students of narratology will find helpful.