Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Book reviews, plot summaries and other ways of writing about books

Henry Oliver complained a few days ago about the prevalence of plot summaries in book reviews and in writing about books generally. He has a rule on The Common Reader: “No lengthy plot summaries”. I agree with this in principle but I’ve been finding it harder not to include substantial summaries in my own posts on Talk about books. Indeed, I’ve been finding it hard to prevent the summaries from dominating those posts. I was already persuaded that the latest post, about Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, has too much summary, not enough analysis, when I read Henry Oliver’s post, so I was ready to take his admonition to heart.

I often find that some measure of summary is necessary to support the argument I want to make. The problem, particularly with a novel as big and complex as The Moor’s Last Sigh is that the work of summarizing tends to be exhausting, and it left me with less time and energy for the argument than it ideally requires. I may need to approach posts like that one in two stages: summary first, then (after a break) argument. Luckily, I’m hoping to retire soon, so I should be able to give more time to Talk about books. I think that ought to solve the problem.

Henry Oliver’s complaint is primarily about book reviews, though his own publication (which has that rule about no lengthy plot summaries), doesn’t usually carry reviews, but is dedicated to a deeper and more wide-ranging discussion, the kind of thing I’m ideally aiming for in Talk about books.

I remain largely unperturbed by the decline of the book review. A few years ago, I wrote that the book review was dyingand we didn’t need to mourn it. I haven’t changed my mind about that.

Book publicist Kathleen Schmidt recently wrote, in Book publicity: what works and what doesn’t:

I’d love to write that reviews sell books, but I’d be lying. The correct statement is, “A critical mass of reviews mixed with other media and marketing efforts can sell a book.” I understand why reviews are essential, and I respect book critics. Literary criticism is necessary. However, reviews and book sales don’t often align.

I get the impression that she finds it regrettable that reviews aren’t as influential or as plentiful as they used to be, but that she’s realistic and clear-sighted about the facts that this is no longer true, and is very unlikely to be again.

As I’ve said before, I’m inclined to see the eclipse of the book review as an opportunity for the emergence of a less constrained discussion of books: precisely the kind of thing that Henry Oliver has been doing with The Common Reader. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to summarize less and to get more of my analysis down on the page.

Posted by Art, 20-Aug-2023.