Plot Summaries Rampant in the NYTBR: Are the Nice People Even Trying?

Every week, the New York Times Book Review features a handful of novels. And every week, the people writing about those novels tell you what they're about and how good they are.

Mostly, though, they tell you what they're about. Endlessly, criminally; and always incredibly impressive in their ability to do a thing so lazy with such diligence. Indeed, after getting through the fiction section of the NYTBR, one tends to feel quite satisfied—so satisfied, in fact, that actually reading the books being discussed seldom feels even vaguely necessary.

We decided to get scientific about this problem—hey, it's worked before—and figure out the precise ratio of plot summary to evaluation/interpretation in this week's edition of the Review. Our sample is meek but stacked, with only six titles but a few giants among them.

First, a glance at the guilty:

  • Dana Vachon's Mergers & Acquisitions, reviewed by writer D. T. Max.
  • Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, reviewed by the Texas Monthly's Karen Olsson.
  • Dani Shapiro's Black & White, reviewed by Times of London literary editor Erica Wagner.
  • Steven Hall's The Great Shark Texts, reviewed by Tom Shone.
  • Robert Olmstead's Coal Black Horse, reviewed by Roy Hoffman of Mobile, Alabama's Press-Register.
  • Christopher Buckley's Boomsday, reviewed by Jane and Michael Stern.
  • James Wilcox's Hunk City, reviewed by lit blog clown-dog Mark Sarvas.

    We were charitable with our math: most of the time, if a reviewer summoned a plot point in order to illustrate an idea, we let it slide. What we were looking for was gratuitous regurgitation and flabby invocation of quotes, and boy, did we find the shit.

    First up, the much-anticipated Mergers & Acquisitions review, buried on page 15 and barely visible at the bottom of the online TOC (knee-jerk over-compensation? Maybe?). To be honest, reading this piece is what gave us the idea to conduct this little experiment: take a look on the web-version and you'll notice that the entire first half—that is, 731 words, all the ones on page 1—consists of naked, unadorned plot summary. Everything after—484 words—says the book's not that good. Put them on the scale and you get an astonishing split down the line at 60% plot summary and 40% other stuff.

    Still more astonishing is that D. T. Max turns out not be the worst offender this week. Just take a look at Karen Olsson's piece on The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which starts off with three graphs on plot before pulling back to say that Hamid's book is more special than most immigrant books because of its portrayal of the main character's "class aspirations and inner struggle." After that, it's back to plot all the way to the bottom, where we get three graphs of riff-raffing, some rhetorical questions, and a remark about how maybe "Hamid would have us understand the novel's title ironically." Full count is 658 words of plot, 326 analysis for a pitiful 67:33 finish.

    Next up, Erica Wagner's take on Black & White by Dani Shapiro, which turns out to be an outlier with only plot 233 and a whopping 1015 of analysis. In keeping with this deviation, Wagner takes an unorthodox route at the top and starts her piece with a little wonderment instead of a scintillating plot point:

    To whom does a novel belong? There it is — an object of a certain size, shape and weight, its title, its author's name on the cover. So there can be, you would think, little doubt. "Black & White," this one says, "a novel by Dani Shapiro." So this novel belongs to, is made by, Dani Shapiro. So far, so good.
    Jesus! Again, it bears repeating that Wagner is the literary editor of a major newspaper, so maybe she's allowed to say things like this. Still though, Jesus! The formidable final count: 19% plot summary, 71% analysis.

    Onwards, now, to Tom Shone's short piece on The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, which avoids extremes for a middling ratio of 57% plot to 43% analysis (357 words to 272).

    Quickly now through the rest: (we're skipping Way More West, a collection of poems, and Marilyn Stasio's roundup of crime books): Roy Hoffman on Coal Black Horse gives us 46% plot and 54% interpretation (229 words to 269). Jane and Michael Stern on Boomsday yields the same exact numbers (418 words to 490). Mark Sarvas, finally, considered by some to be a controversial figure in the lit-blogger anthill, soundly rounds out the pile, treating Hunk City by James Wilcox with 564 words of plot summary and 316 of analysis for an emblematic 64/36 split.

    In conclusion, maybe these people are in the wrong business—maybe they should go get jobs at Cliff's Notes! Ballin'!—LEON