Recently Matt Cheney (and later Miriam Burstein) discussed the kind of narrative exposition pejoratively called the "infodump," in which "an author needs to convey a lot of information and does so by coming out and stating it. Telling vs. showing. Choosing efficiency over subtlety."
To me, Matt's most interesting musing on this point is this:
Does a foregrounding of psychology rather than action in a story reduce the challenges of exposition? If we're deep inside, for instance, Mrs. Dalloway's mind are we less concerned about expository lumps than if we're reading about Mrs. Dalloway's adventures in time and space? It could be that the tangential and associational writing associated with the representation of a mind undercuts the need or desire for straightforward exposition. But probably only if the setting and situation are ones that a general audience can be assumed to have some familiarity with. If Mrs. Dalloway were thinking about buying flowers on the planet Xsgha, where the riuGsj splort the frunktiplut, the need for some sort of exposition would increase. But would it look different as exposition because we're so deep inside Mrs. D's brain than it would were we following her from a more objective viewpoint?
Although Virginia Woolf's version of "psychological realism" needs to be taken as a special case--it's so pure an attempt to stay within the flow of her character's stream of thought--I would argue that most expository passages in modern fiction do in fact take place as part of the "foregrounding of psychology." We may not always be as "deep" into a character's consciousness as we are in Mrs. Dalloway, but in most ordinary "literary fiction" (by which I mean literary fiction that adopts established strategies and techniques as the markers of "craft") we are certainly at the very least being oriented to the world in which the characters move as it is inflected through their awareness of it. If anything, this makes information-laden passages of exposition, however brief, even more conspicuous and artificial: fiction in which external rather than internal realism is the goal surely has a good excuse for resorting to the infodump, since providing information is a large part of its job, but psychological realism, in theory at least, is restricted to the kind of "information" a character him/herself would regard as such. In this context, the infodump seems like the author's intrusion on what has otherwise been set up as the character's "space."
Matt is certainly correct in maintaining that "If Mrs. Dalloway were thinking about buying flowers on the planet Xsgha, where the riuGsj splort the frunktiplut, the need for some sort of exposition would increase." In fact, this very feature of much science fiction has made it difficult for me to enjoy it as much as I'd like, given my admiration for the intelligent commentary on the genre provided by critics such as Matt Cheney. I've found that the problem extends even to what are generally considered the greatest SF writers. Take, for example, this brief passage from Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:
In the miserably high-number conapt building 492 on the outskirts of Marilyn Monroe, New Jersey, Richard Hnatt ate breakfast indifferently while, with something greater than indifference, he glanced over the morning's homeopape's weather-syndrome readings of the previous day.
The key glacier, Ol' Skintop, had retreated 4.62 Grables during the last twenty-four-hour period. And the temperature, at noon in New York, had exceeded the previous day's by 1.46 Wagners. In addition the humidity, as the oceans evaporated, had increased by 16 Selkirks. So things were hotter and wetter; the great procession of nature clanked on, and toward what? Hnatt pushed the 'pape away, and picked up the mail which had been delivered before dawn. . .it had been some time since mailmen had crept out in daylight hours.
This bit of exposition doesn't necessarily originate from "deep inside" Richard Knatt's mind, but it does arise from his specific consideration of the "homeopape" and the information it conveys--information that is surely intended for the reader's edification as much as Richard's. We need to know that he lives in a world of homeopapes and Grables and Selkirks, and that the oceans are evaporating. And when Richard pushes the 'pape aside and takes up his mail, we are clearly to accept as his own rumination that "it had been some time since mailmen crept out in daylight hours."
Unfortunately, I am unable to read this whole passage, providing such specific details about a wholly nonexistent world, without finding it just a little bit silly. I don't think it's because I can't accept such imaginary worlds per se, as I frequently like SF movies, including some made from Dick novels, perfectly well. There's something about evoking such worlds in prose, burdening that prose with exotic information, that makes reading this kind of SF a chore. Indeed, a passage such as this one more or less defeats me:
Shortly, he was aboard a thermosealed interbuilding commute car, on his way to downtown New York City and P. P. Layouts, the great synthetic-cement building from which Perky Pat and all the units of her miniature world originated. The doll, he reflected, which had conquered man as man at the same time had conquered the planets of the Sol system. Perky Pat, the obsession of the colonists. What a commentary on colonial life. . .what more did one need to know about those unfortunates who, under the selective service laws of the UN, had been kicked off Earth, required to begin new, alien lives on Mars or Venus, or Ganymede or wherever else the UN bureaucrats happened to imagine they could be deposited. . .and after a fashion survive.
Probably even partisans of Philip Dick's work would concede that he is not a particularly notable stylist. From what I can tell, story in a Dick novel is more or less all. I don't necessarily have a problem with that approach (and there are SF novelists--China Mieville, for example--who could be called stylists), but the stories he tells are indeed crammed with "information," and relating this information in such an otherwise unadorned prose style only makes the limitations of this style more evident. Dick's approach also underscores the extent to which even pulp or genre fiction has absorbed the conventions of what I'm calling psychological realism. One might say that Dick attempts to portray an unreal world by realistically depicting his characters' response to living in that world. The "infodump" remains a perhaps unavoidable limitation of such an effort, one that may even call into question the aesthetic integrity of the effort in the first place.