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.”