Hating the Plot Summary

Pity the poor plot summary. Librarians say they hate them, but how do you answer “What is this book about?’ without resorting to at least a little plot summary?

In the upcoming NYT Book Review, Will Blyte, reviewing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, makes a great case for what is wrong with plot summaries,

They’re the flyover country between a reviewer’s landing strips of judgment, revealing almost nothing about the way a book actually works, almost nothing about why it succeeds or fails. If plot were the crucial measure, there’d be no difference between a story about the fish that got away and Moby-Dick. Reading such summaries (or writing them) is usually as beguiling as listening to some addled fan of Lost explain what happened on that botched rune of a show.

All of which serves as a lead-in to Blythe doing exactly what he hates most, a plot summary of Egan’s book. In this case, he claims, it is fun to try to “… summarize the action of a narrative that feels as freely flung as a bag of trash down a country gully.”

Blythe gushes eloquently about Egan’s already heavily-praised book, saying, “Egan possesses a satirist’s eye and a romance novelist’s heart.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan
Retail Price: $25.95
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Knopf – (2010-06-08)
ISBN / EAN: 0307592839 / 9780307592835

Audio; BBC AudioBooks; 9780792771746; 8 CD’s; $79.95
Adobe EPUB eBook from OverDrive

3 Responses to “Hating the Plot Summary”

  1. Susan in Las Vegas Says:

    “Librarians say they hate them….” What librarian says she hates a plot summary? The absence of a decent plot summary (or the presence of a particularly crummy plot summary) will make or break my recommending a book.

  2. k d mccrite Says:

    Thank you for this. It supports everything I believe about plot sums AND synopses.

    It seems every editor, every agent wants a completely different kind of synopsis, anything from one page to fifteen pages. Format varies. What to include/what to leave out varies. It is wearying to body, mind, and soul.

    I hardly see how these plot sums or synopses can serve as an effective tool for selling. Certainly they do not showcase a writer’s voice or ability to tell a story.

  3. Laura Pearle Says:

    I don’t hate plot summaries/synopses, what I (and my students) hate are those endless promo blurbs: “a luminous look at childhood” etc.. THOSE should be killed. No one cares that Holly Black or PD James or Tony Blair thought this the most innovative, important, life-changing work they’ve read. We do want to know what type of book we’re looking at.