Where an author crows that it has taken 34 years to write an academic study, and that academic study is 728 pages long, I suppose it is inevitable that people will be inclined to praise it - especially when the author is the famous Christopher Booker - and overlook its faults. To my mind, though, this work is an opportunity sadly missed, and is more than one draft short of its intentions.
To start with an issue not relevant to Booker's scholarship, it has to be said that the paperback edition is badly made. I ignored another review here and didn't buy the hardback; I am now regretting the decision. The cheap and insubstantial binding (by MPG Books)springs shut like a trap, and if you attempt to flatten it the pages fall out. Publisher Continuum's roofreading too falls short of the professional standards one might expect for a putative classic work of literary theory - for example, the spellings "tsar" and "czar" jostle together on the same pages as if they had different meanings.
These, though, are very minor issues compared with the substance of the study, whose failings fall easily into Booker's own Aristotelean definitions of Tragedy. The book is strong on ideas, and I often felt myself agreeing with the author's Jungian analyses of basic plots, but Booker's "hubris" - his conviction of the rightness of his own opinions - results in the "hamartia" that these ideas are not carried through with any cogency - with the possible "nemesis" that a better, more succinct and concise anaysis will soon supplant it. Take as an example the progression of his argument: the development of his initial concepts works along the lines that if he can tell enough stories - from a huge ragbag of novels, poems, plays, operas and films of variable quality - then by sheer volume of evidence he has proved his points.
His retellings, however, become undesirable for three reasons: sometimes he distorts the narrative so that it better fits his theory; he gives away all dramatic twists, reversals, surprise endings and so forth in a clunkingly banal fashion (so too bad if you haven't read every book or seen every film with which the author has been entertaining himself for over three decades); and (most damningly) The Seven Basic Plots is shot through with basic errors of fact. Where on earth was an editor in all this? The mistakes include jaw-dropping schoolboy howlers - for instance, in his account of Much Ado about Nothing he informs us that Don John the Bastard (whom he unaccountably refers to as "Duke John") is Claudio's brother. No, Christopher, he's Don Pedro's brother - do your homework next time. Failure in his grasp of foreign languages, poor indexing and pure ignorance can be illustrated by just one example: he refers to the classic French film The Wages of Fear as The Wages of Death, doesn't bother to index it, and gives the French title as La Salaire de la Peur ("salaire" is in fact masculine - write out 100 times).
There is still a lot to be gleaned from this volume, and Booker's premises mostly hold true. But as a would-be major work of scholarship it is lumbering, long-winded and repetitive, with an authorial smugness belied by its casual inaccuracy. It lacks the genius of simplicity which is at the heart of the best works of this kind. Sadly, the masterwork on the key stories of humanity remains to be written.