The New Critics sometimes appealed to what they called the "heresy of paraphrase." As defined by Hugh Holman in A Handbook to Literature, this meant that " a work of art means what it means in the terms in which it delivers that meaning, so that paraphrase, summary, abridgement, expansion, or translation is bound to miss the point, usually by understating the complexity and misconstruing the uniqueness of the original statement." Pretty clearly, the word "synopsis" could be added to this list.
As usual, the New Critics needlessy phrased this idea in religious language, but the underlying principle is sound enough. And it was this New Critical dictum I immediately recalled when reading Robert McCrum's "The Curse of the Synopsis" in Sundays Guardian/Observer.
As I compose this post, both the Literary Saloon and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind have already commented on this article, but while in both cases their comments are completely well-taken, I don't think they go nearly far enough in capturing the sheer idiocy of judging the quality of a given book--at least when it comes to fiction--on a "synopsis." Perhaps this practice works well enough for some works of non-fiction--those in which information and "content" clearly overshadow all other considerations--but only the most reductive, simplistic approach to fiction or creative nonfiction could settle for synopsis.
Put simply, what does a novel have to do with synopsis, or synopsis with a novel? A synopsis is usually a plot synopsis, and such an account of a work of fiction doesn't come close to describing what the reader will actually experience in reading the work, and with modern/contemporary fiction it's a total disaster. Even most forms of neorealism don't put much emphasis on plot--writers having sensibly concluded there's no point in competing with movies for the slam-bang scenario--and what would be the point of laboriously describing in a synopsis the details of character and setting that the reader simply has to encounter in the finished work?
Think of the great novels that would necessarily seem silly in synopisis: Catch-22? Gravitys Rainbow? JR? Even Rabbit, Run or The Assistant? All of these books have to be experienced in their unfolding on the page for their qualities of language, form, tone, the intangible elements creating a good novel's distinctive voice. If a novel's essential attributes can be presented in a synopsis, why not just save time and go with the synopsis?
Perhaps--perhaps--some genre fiction in which plot is clearly king could be adequately previewed in a synopsis. But even here, can we be certain that a really good genre novel is going to get published because of what is known about it through a synopsis? Do all the movies made recently from Philip K. Dick's novels (a film version being a kind of synopsis) really capture what Dick's fans love about his books?
Most likely publishing through synopsis is just a way of making the job easier for editors and publishers, allowing them to perpetuate the blockbuster syndrome. In my view, most editors and publishers at the "major" houses don't know what they're doing anyway--certainly they know little about literature--and the "curse of the synopsis" is actually a curse on literature itself.