The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories Paperback – 11 Nov 2005
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This is a truly important book, an accolade often bestowed and rarely deserved in our modern age.
-Dame Beryl Bainbridge <br \><br \>This is literally an incomparable book, because there is nothing to compare it with. It goes to the heart of man's cultural evolution through the stories we have told since storytelling began. It illuminates our nature, our beliefs and our collective emotions by shining a bright light on them from a completely new angle. Original, profound, fascinating - and on top of it all, a really good read. --Sir Antony Jay, co-author of Yes, Minister
This is a truly important book, an accolade often bestowed and rarely deserved in our modern age. --Dame Beryl Bainbridge
This is literally an incomparable book, because there is nothing to compare it with. It goes to the heart of man's cultural evolution through the stories we have told since storytelling began. It illuminates our nature, our beliefs and our collective emotions by shining a bright light on them from a completely new angle. Original, profound, fascinating - and on top of it all, a really good read. --Sir Antony Jay, co-author of Yes, Minister
From the Publisher
Breathtaking in its scope and originality, Seven Basic Plots examines the basis of story- telling in literature, film, and libretto. No one will ever read a novel in the same way again.
Comparable to Harold Bloom's masterpiece The Canon.
The fruit of a lifetime's research and fifteen years in the writing.
Christopher Booker is an author with a high profile with a weekly column in The Sunday Telegraph. This is his most important book to date.
Review coverage and fierce argument and debate about this book are guaranteed. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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.
In the first half of the book Booker very convincingly argues that there are 7 basic types of plot that constantly reoccur in stories throughout the ages and throughout the world. All of them in their own way, Booker argues, in fact reflect upon a basic human (unconscious) yearning for 'resolution': the proverbial happy ending in which the masculine values of the hero are joined with the feminine values of the heroine, and they live 'happily ever after'. He draws heavily on Jung's theories here, but there's no denying that his argument makes sense, and he provides plenty of examples (not just from novels but from films, plays, opera, etc.) for each of these seven basic plots in all their possible nuances and versions.
So why only two stars? Well, to my mind it's one thing to 'discover' that there are 7 basic types of plot, but it's quite another to argue that only the stories that conform to these types are 'worthwhile'. And that is what Booker (to my mind erroneously, and certainly subjectively) does in the second half of the book. In that part he analyzes what - to his mind - went wrong with the stories being written in the last 200 years. True enough (again, he provides plenty of examples), there have been plenty of stories written in the last 200 years that do not end in 'resolution': the forces of 'light' do not win, the hero does not 'get the girl' in the end (or if he does she turns out to be not much of a catch), ...
Time and again Booker argues that the fault (although he doesn't use the word) lies with the individual authors of these stories: the protagonist of Stendhal's 'The Scarlet and the Black' is 'a fantasy projection of the emotionally immature author himself' (p. 369), George Lucas 'had not got the pattern right' in his script for Star Wars (p. 382), William Burroughs is catalogued as 'an American homosexual and heroin addict' (p.481), Goethe invites us (in 'The Sorrows of Young Werther') 'to identify with the foolish young central figure in his infatuation with the cardboard heroine' (p. 650), Proust's 'Remembrance of Time Past' is an 'immense essay in self-absorbed futility' (p. 660) because Proust had an unresolved tie to the Mother-figure, etc. etc. etc.
The real issue here I think is that Booker is convinced that 'The underlying purpose of all art is to create patterns of imagery which somehow convey a sense of life set in a framework of order' (p. 552). I don't know about your life of course, but mine certainly isn't always 'set in a framework of order', and however gratifying it may be from time to time to read stories about people whose lives are, it is to my mind as necessary and equally enriching (and/or challenging) to read stories that do not end with a 'happily ever after', that (dare to) show that in real life there isn't always a happy resolution.
In this second half of the book the whole theory comes across as very conservative. What would Booker have authors do? Submit their manuscripts to a 'Basic Plot Conformity Board' before publishing and re-write according to their remarks? I think the world would be much the poorer for it if only stories that come to a full resolution had survived.
Booker's writing is so vigorous, sharp and smart it's hard to believe how much of what is in many ways a reference book you can read at one sitting... you feel cleverer just by being in its company.
But there's a slow dawning, especially in the later chapters and especially in the chapter on sex and violence, that there's a polemic at work, a really quite pained and exasperated dislike of 60's social progressiveness and the storytelling and experimentation which it permitted. Booker wants to deny that voice, and once I felt the chill finger of the social reactionary against my lips, my admiration for the book collapsed and was replaced by a shudder at the idea of being nearly blindsided by what seems to be a rather zealously puritanical mind.
Think of it as you might think of an otherwise excellent medical textbook whose final chapters contain theories about racial difference and eugenics.
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