The folly of synopsis-based publishing

Robert McCrum’s eminiently sensible article, “The Curse of the Synopsis,” has been the subject of intelligent discussion elsewhere. Here’s the crux of his argument:

In the Grub Street o4f the twenty-first century, books are traded on less and less material, and almost never on complete manuscripts. First novels are sold on sample chapters; translations snapped up on hearsay. In one notorious recent contract, admittedly for the work of a well-known writer, more than a million pounds changed hands after the publisher had been allowed only to glimpse a few pages of synopsis, cobbled together by the writer’s agent. Even with serious fiction, more and more publishers are having to base their offer on just a few pages of outline.

The synopsis is ideal for an email culture. It makes a handy attachment. It can be read online without difficulty in a few minutes. Then it can be dispatched, for further and better evaluation by the marketing and publicity people, at the click of a mouse.

Promoted as having, for example, ‘the narrative sweep of Cold Mountain’ or the ‘narrative urgency of Ian Rankin’ and the ‘passionate intensity of Alice Sebold’, these virtual books are rarely described on their own terms. Some literary agents, who are scarcely superior to conmen, trade on these banal formulae, scattering their synopses/outlines across the publishing landscape like so many snake-oil salesmen. Forget books; in America, synopsis-mania has got so bad that there is already an annual prize for the best one.

The synopsis has become the curse of the business in so many other ways. You don’t have to be Roland Barthes to see that such puffery has little, or nothing, to do with real writing. Whoever can master the black art of preparing an outline will not necessarily have the talent or stamina actually to complete a book itself. And every writer knows that the book you complete is often dramatically, even cruelly, different from the book you set out to write.

As a writer (and a pessimist), I’ve always felt the synopsis sale is an alluring but potentially deadly deal for novelists. McCrum correctly points out that few novels resemble the one the author envisioned at the outset. And even assuming a book follows the trajectory of the outline, how often does a summary capture the true texture of a work?

Consider the Guardian’s “digested read” pieces. These are much shorter than the novel outline a publisher would require, of course, but they reveal that nearly any book can be summarized to hilarious and absurd effect. Anita Brookner’s The Bay of Angels, for instance, is a nuanced and moving novel that nonetheless was transformed into a very funny 300-word parody.

If it is possible to make a good book ridiculous, how difficult would it be to put an interesting spin on a story that will end up making The Nanny Diaries look profound?

Based on the synopses I’ve compared with finished debut novels, it’s pretty damn easy.


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