Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The necessary but onerous duty of summary

The phrase is pilfered, more or less, from 10 Rules for Criticism by D. G. Myers.  Please note that Prof. Myers does not specify what needs to be summarized, and also note Rule 10, which suggests something about the spirit of the list.

James Wood, in How Fiction Works (2008), includes chapters titled “Detail,” “Language,” “Character,” and so on, but none called, or at all about, “Plot” or “Story.”  Wood is, though, an eminently professional critic – he dutifully summarizes.  What does he summarize?  How does he do it?  Here he is introducing Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings:

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat ([clarification on what a swan boat is]) passes them.  Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. (How Fiction Works, 12)

A quotation from the McCloskey's book follows.  This strikes me as something close to ideal.  What the book is about in one clause, followed by an illustrative incident.  Wood follows the identical pattern on the next page, this time with What Maisie Knew by Henry James.  Wood claims to be a gleeful revealer of plot secrets, but he is fibbing.  He in fact reveals only what he plans to use, like any parsimonious writer.  It might well still be too much for a reader far over on the experience side of the continuum, but his touch is delicate.

I find it hard to understand how Wood’s plain plot summary is any more intrusive than something like this, another type of necessary summary:

The nameless narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is highly unreliable, and finally unknowable (it helps that he is insane)…  Italo Svevo’s Zeno Cosini may be the best example of truly unreliable narration.  He imagines that by telling us his life story he is psychoanalyzing himself (he has promised his analyst to do this).  But his self-comprehension, waved confidently before our eyes, is as comically perforated as a bullet-holed flag. (How Fiction Works, 6)

Wood has now given us specific instructions on how to read these two novels.  Good instructions, yes, but aimed directly at the core experience of reading the books.  The thrill of discovery in these novels lies exactly in figuring out what these lunatics are doing, why and how they’re telling us their stories.  The plots, the incidents, just give the narrators something to do.  The narrators could do a range of other things with similar results, although the first chapter of The Confessions of Zeno, the “last cigarette” chapter, is irreplaceable.  Hunger is particularly pure – it has a “theme and variations” plot, a repetition of a specific kind of rise and fall in tension.  I seem to have summarized it in three sentences in this antique post, which, oddly, also has movie recommendations, darn good ones.

Hunger and The Confessions of Zeno are Modernist novels, working on principles that directly question earlier methods of fiction.  Pre-Modernist novels also question earlier methods of fiction, often in similar ways, but let's just stay on the standard path here.  I read on Modernist principles (other principles, too), regardless of what I am reading, so I feel comfortable with these novels.  I have been trained by them (experience), and by critics like Wood (knowledge). 

The service Wood is providing as a critic is to provide a point of entry into these books for readers not used to their peculiarities.  Wood is not suppressing discovery, but allowing it, encouraging exploration.  Or so I hope.  In those last two sentences, please replace “Wood” with “I,” “is” with “am.”


  1. By coincidence I picked up Zeno's Conscience this past weekend from the library. Looks like I need to make another trip to pick up Wood. Thanks for the tip.

    Oh, and no need to do.

  2. "What the book is about in one clause, followed by an illustrative incident."

    This was my theory too, if you exchange "illustrative incident" with "occasional brief opinion", and then that's all your review consists of (see link under my name for examples).

  3. obooki, everyone already reads your Books Read lists. Right, everyone? Right?

    Well, everyone should. They are very much to-the-point. The score acts as a calibration. Someone in England, the Spectator, perhaps, should run it as a column.

    Now, I should warn you, Dwight, that Wood's book is not quite accurately named. It's a bit narrower than that. It tells us a lot about How Flaubert's Fiction Works, something about Hugo's, and basically nothing about Voltaire's, just to stick with some French examples.

    And Svevo is only mentioned in the quotation I used. He shows up once more, in a list.

    Still, what Wood does, he does so well. Thanks for the kind words, too.

  4. "Revealing what you want to use" makes sense as a way to limit plot details--and speaks more to me that "summary" does, since the borders there are so awfully vague.

    I second your recommendation of James Wood's book. I had not noticed that he felt no need to discuss about plot until I was talking about the book with my plot-loving husband. He suggested that the book must have been written just for me.

    My son is at an age where he is learning how to summarize better. After listening to him recount every single detail of all the children's novels he has read over the years, this new skill of his is a blessing. I'm looking forward to learning to do it well someday myself.

  5. No, no one reads Books Read.

    I see you're now following Salammbo with Thaïs by Anatole France - this must be a series you're doing on French books I couldn't bring myself to finish.

    Not to pre-empt your reviewing too much - I'm not sure whether you've read much France before (he's not on your sidebar): - I find him basically a good writer (very readable, with the odd dash of genius), but he should seriously steer well clear of politics and philosophy - Thaïs being a good case in point. Worth reading a few others.

  6. I really like that idea of just summarizing what you intend to use. It speaks to one of the perennial conversations that I see around the book blogging world every now and then and am always a little mystified by--whether one should include summaries, and whether people read said summaries when they are included. I find it hard to separate the two, outside of perhaps a paragraph or two that describes the premise (which I suppose is what people are talking about when they discuss summaries). It feels more natural to me to weave summary and analysis/evaluation/personal reflection together. The amount of each element that I include would depend on the point I'm trying to make. But I don't see much value in separating the two.

  7. Medieval chronicles were often written in the way children tell stories - "And then - and then - and then- and then." Many of the old pre-novel romances were not so different. And people don't believe in progress!

    Thaïs is part of a "French exoticism" theme. I had not read France, but I have searched through obooki's Books Read lists for him!

    The word I have not written all week but should have is "premise" - mostly, all anyone wants is the premise of the book. Then you move on to whatever it is you're trying to accomplish by writing.

    But, I tell you, anyone who takes two paragraphs to tell me the premise is doing it wrong. I've solved the mystery, Teresa: people bring up the issue in a gentle, futile attempt to get other people to stop writing those pointless plot summaries.

    Here's how I summarized the first two Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books: "a child’s view of life on the Midwestern frontier during the early 1870s." I now see how I can cut two words. Still, pretty crisp.

  8. I've solved the mystery, Teresa: people bring up the issue in a gentle, futile attempt to get other people to stop writing those pointless plot summaries.

    Hum. I am feeling obscenely guilty of pointlessness. Off with my head!

  9. Well, we all have room for improvement, but look at your recent post about a Cornell Wollrich mystery. You begin the book itself by describing not the story but the unusual structure, and along the way you include the premise. That looks pretty clean. Flashman's plottiness is captured in one energetic sentence.

    We could do worse than that!

  10. I'm reading Wood's book right now, so your post is timely (I'm having déjà vu, didn't I just write that word in a comment to you a week or so ago? Are our book lists psychically linked somehow?) In any case, Wood is really great, except he adds to the reading burden by making me want to read everything Barthes has ever written.

  11. Jenny, I'm probably "doing it wrong", too. In fact, I'm sure I am in many cases! But it seems to me that whether it takes a sentence or a paragraph (or two) to describe the premise depends on the book and how much detail one wants to include (and how long your paragraphs are). I tend to like detail in book reviews/essays that I'm reading, as long as the details tell me something of value about the style, setting, characters, etc.

    For example, the premise of the book I'm reading now (The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt) could probably be summed up in a sentence or two--whackadoo artsy Victorians and their kids do whackadoo artsy things, with fairy tale interludes--but a lot of the book's charm is in the details and the vastness of Byatt's world, so it would seem important to share more. I suppose that's where the lines between describing the premise and summarizing the book become fuzzy.

    But when people separate out the summary or (shudder) copy and paste the publisher's back-of-the-book sales pitch, I generally do skip over it. If it can be separated out that neatly, it's probably not that important.

  12. Teresa - Wuthering Expectations is pro-details! Summary is anti-details! The summary is the painted stage backdrop, viewed from the back of the top balcony. I see trees, a fountain, a castle in the distance.

    Yes, please, write about Byatt and revel in the details. Pick one of the marionettes from the cabinet and tell us all about it.

    verbivore - I know what you mean. Should I read all that Barthes, and how about Viktor Shklovsky? But I was able to suppress that anxiety. You could read it, though, and report back to the rest of us. Thanks in advance.

  13. Oh, I expect to be reveling in those details unless by the time I finish, I'm weary of marionettes and tunnels and rational dresses--it's a long book, so weariness may very well set in.

    I do love your backdrop analogy. I guess what I attempt to do in what passes for a premise description/plot summary is to zoom in and share some of the telling details that someone in the back balcony might not be able to see. The key here being "telling details."

  14. I second Dwight's commnet: you do this wonderfully. And you recommend Wood's book, I take it?

  15. Rebecca, yes, try Wood. It's an entirely different creature than Bloom's How to Read book. I predict better resuts all around.

    And it's short. You don't like it after thirty pages, toss it out the window.

    I'm assuming that your library return box is right below that window.