Although I doubt it is visible, I write with models in mind, critics who read well, think well, and, most importantly, write well. All errors in fact, style, opinion, and grammar are, unfortunately, mine, but I try. Joseph Epstein, Guy Davenport, Virginia Woolf, William Pritchard, Ruth Franklin, Edmund Wilson, Christopher Benfey, Ingrid Rowland, James Wood (your list is presumably different - please, share). I’m thinking about their work as magazine writers, although most of them have done other kinds of writing, too. Reviews of novels or biographies, career surveys, topics of interest to readers. “How Should One Read a Book?” “The Pleasures of Reading.”
Virginia Woolf, in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928) – I’m looking at The Second Common Reader (1932) – surveys, in a fundamentally Appreciationist style, the decaying reputation of the once-eminent novelist. “This brilliant and uneasy figure has his place with the great eccentrics rather than the great masters,” but should you, common reader, read him? Of course, of course.
The piece begins with a bit of life-and-fame, ends with a summary judgment, and in between visits three of Meredith’s many novels, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Henry Richmond, and The Egoist. I have read the last one, hope to read the first, and have doubts about that middle one. The entire essay is about 3,500 words, or close to what I would write if I did a weeklong, five-part survey of Meredith that covered three novels, life-and-fame, etc., etc., although I would not dare employ Woolf’s enormously long paragraphs.
What does Woolf think is in Meredith's novels? Here’s how the description of Feverel begins:
The style is extremely uneven. Now he twists himself into iron knots; now he lies flat as a pancake. He seems to be of two minds as to his intention. Ironic comment alternates with long-winded narrative. He vacillates from one attitude to another. Indeed, the whole fabric seems to rock a little insecurely.
The reader wondering what Meredith’s novel might be about is still wondering. In the next lines Woolf mentions a baronet, an ancestral home, “great ladies flaunting and swimming; the jolly farmers slapping their thighs,” “whiskers and bonnets.” Honestly, I have no idea what the novel is about. Why should I read it? “[T]he vigour of its intellectual power and its lyrical intensity” – that’s it. The other novels are treated similarly. Meredith is discussed entirely in terms of 1) style (“flamboyancy”) and 2) purpose.
Edmund Wilson was the finest writer of plot summaries I have ever encountered. His pioneering essay on Marcel Proust (in Axel’s Castle, 1931) includes a long summary of the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, ingeniously woven into the fabric of the essay along with interpretation and biography. Wilson is not assuming that his readers know the plot, quite the opposite. The essay is a work of advocacy – read Proust! Read all of it! The meaning of the novel is inseparable from what happens.
He does the same thing with a more straightforward review of a brand new novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in The Shores of Light, 1952, pp. 403-407), although the summation only takes two paragraphs. "We are left with the prospect of the lady and her lover [doing what they do at the conclusion of the book]" – Wilson takes us right though the end of the novel. His purpose, again, is serious. He has to convince readers that Lawrence’s novel, already infamous as a dirty book, is artistically and ethically serious. The “about” of the novel is indispensable.
By contrast, in a pair of short reviews of Willa Cather novels, One of Ours and The Lost Lady (pp. 39-43), Wilson efficiently crams all of the plot he wants into one longish sentence per novel, all the support he needs for his brief discussion of the quality of Cather’s prose and her methods of characterization.
I worry, sometimes, that I am too neglectful of the onerous but necessary duty of summary, that my dutiful readers skim through four days of Salammbô or Barchester Towers with increasing bafflement. Look, one is about a bunch of barbarians besieging an ancient city, and the other is about a turf battle among pampered clergymen – I don’t quite remember which is which, but that’s not my point. The stories in both novels are pleasurable to read, but I’m not convinced that they are terribly interesting to read about, even draped with Wilson’s expert prose, while Trollope’s asides and Flaubert’s earrings give me something to chew on. Every novel has a story. Many novels have excellent stories. Very few have Mrs. Proudie or crucified lions.