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on 24 February 2012
I started this book with high hopes, and had it been only half as long I would happily have given it a five star rating. That in the end I only gave two is not so much due to the fact that it's overly long, but entirely due to the point Booker tries to make in the second half of the book.

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.
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on 8 January 2011
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.
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on 29 June 2017
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on 18 July 2017
fascinating,reading will never be the same
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on 25 October 2014
The seven plots part of the book is great, well-informed and highly readable, exciting. Erudite.
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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on 11 May 2012
This weighty 700 page book is divided into four Parts. The first Part goes through a plethora of stories from different cultures and from different times to show recurring themes in each and to demonstrate how any story can not only be shown to belong to any one of seven plots (which are not mutually exclusive), but also that these plots all share common stages and archetypes. Part Two of the book talks more about the Jungian archetypes mentioned in the first Part which form the basis for Booker's analysis of plots, as well as showing what 'conditions' need to be met before the story can be fully resolved. Part Three explores the stories which in the last 200 years generally have missed the mark of being complete and resolved, at the same time supporting the contention that all stories have to conform to the same archetypal rules. The final Part of the book attempts to explain why we tell stories, discussing a wide range of aspects pertaining to human existence from the archetypes found in stories and trying to understand how they can help us interpret our psychological evolution.

I notice that some people have criticised this book for several reasons. I don't think that Booker is reductionist. He is attempting to formulate an objective way in which we can analyse stories. His theory attempts to identify what the plots are, why they are as they are, and when books don't conform to this theory explain why they have diverged. It is as scientific and objective as any approach to stories can be, considering evidence to support a hypothesis while also taking note of counterexamples. Booker shows why the Jungian approach seems sensible, because it yields an internally consistent theory. This does not have to be the ultimate way of performing plot meta-analysis, but it seems as good as any and it is important as a work not just to encourage further research (Booker doesn't pretend to know all the complicated issues that are raised in Part 4 about storytelling and humanity) but also as a method of interpretation to be compared to other methods.

There are some things that held me back from giving a top rating. Although on the one hand Booker presents an almost scientific and certainly decent analysis of stories, it doesn't stop him from being judgemental in an almost unscholarly way about works that have been regarded as masterpieces and authors who are regarded highly. For example he often attempts to ascribe psychological problems to author who have not produced a resolved plot. This seems mere speculation, and Booker doesn't consider why their works have been so highly regarded and doesn't consider how stories can be praised apart from the way their plots work. In this sense, the reductionist charge has some credibility. In some Parts (for instance Part 2) the book can get repetitive and rambling and some points could have been made much more concisely.

Yet on the whole the book is well written and contains a fascinating range of stories and information which has improved my literary knowledge and general knowledge a lot and made me think a lot more about what goes on behind storytelling.
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on 21 October 2014
This book is remarkable, in that its first part is brilliant and the rest is terrible. I got this book because I was reading into the first chapters and thought it sounded interesting. And indeed, the first part (the only one actually concerned with the title-giving seven basic plots) is great. It outlines seven main plots, among them the Quest, Overcoming the Monster, and Comedy and Tragedy, and gives lots of examples. There may be a bit too many examples, but overall this part is very convincing - you really see how similar plots are repeated time and time again, usually under the same five-part structure. It is remarkable here how Booker sometimes even names minor details that are always similar, such as that Tragedy usually ends on the image of the hero on his own. What's so good about this part is especially that it leaves room for flexibility - Booker explicitly says that stories may combine different plots, and so you can really fit almost any story you can think of into one of the seven plots or a combination of them.

But then it all goes wrong. Already the second part, when Booker writes about the archetypal happy ending of the hero combining his masculine and feminine qualities through union with his other half, feels at many places unconvincing, precisely because there are so many stories that don't feature this happy ending - but I still thought Booker would refine his theory and account for alternative endings too. But no - instead, Booker with a handwave simply dismisses all the stories that don't follow his archetypes as flawed or unresolved. He outlines how for the last 200 years, authors have turned away from the archetypal stories and therefore somehow failed to write good stories. A little tip - if your theory requires you to dismiss everything written in the last 200 years, including great novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray or Frankenstein, your theory might be wrong. Booker also seems to ignore the concept of surprises and twists - surely, if there is only one truly resolved ending, then all books would be very predictable?

The whole rest of the book is basically a rant about why modern stories are not as good as those conforming to the archetypes (such as Shakespeare or Oedipus - and that's about the only examples that remain, because most others he mentions do not conform to his archetypes). It becomes clear that Booker has written a book not about how stories are actually written, but how stories should be written according to his theory. And his nostalgia for a supposedly better past doesn't stop at stories; clearly, he also thinks life and society have degenerated. This starts by his bizarre evaluation of authors' lives, which he blames for the supposed flaws in their works (In search of lost time is unresolved, because Proust himself could never find a fulfilling marriage), and later turns to rants about politics, when he decries Clinton and Blair as boys who cannot grow up and contrasts them with masculine leaders such as Thatcher or Churchill.

The book is at its most unpleasant when it gets downright homophobic - in Booker's world of masculine and feminine qualities, homosexuality has no place, leading to it being enumerated alongside paedophilia and sex with animals as shocking scenes in novels, and at one point to the dismissal of homosexuals as "effeminate men" who have "lost touch with their inner masculine". Similarly, feminism is derided; when he talks about the tendency to give the hero's role to a heroine, he snidely asks what one would think if instead of Perseus a princess were to slay the monster.

It is sad to see a book that starts so wonderfully degenerate into such a reactionary rant about the good old times, both of society and of storytelling. Booker has produced a theory of storytelling that only confirms his own personal views; those of a world where stories were still told as a battle between good and evil and with clearly defined gender roles, and no such modern nonsense as moral grey areas, homosexuality, feminism or ambiguous endings. If you want to read this book, do yourself a favour and stop after the first part. There is no point in reading any further.
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on 21 March 2008
This lengthy book begins with an exposition of the seven basic plots identified by Booker. He goes on to explain that, essentially, these plots are about the universal human story of growing up, detaching from parents, getting together with one's 'other half' and producing the next generation.

So far, so interesting - and reasonably persuasive.

It is when Booker starts relating everything to Jungian archetypes and examining how literature has developed in the last two centuries (and, latterly, film) that things start to go awry.

Having decided that stories are all about maturing and having your own family, Booker takes the unwarranted leap to saying that any story that departs from this underlying theme is a story that has 'gone wrong'. Moreover - and as an even more unwarranted leap - Booker infers that any author whose story has gone wrong must himself have failed to mature properly.

Briefly, anything that doesn't end up with a man and woman being united is, according to Booker, indicative of egotism. (Oh yes, and said man and woman must be 'mature': an assessment which Booker makes only by reference to their conformity with his hypothesised archetypal characters and themes.) The literature of the last 200 years has experimented outside of his archetypes and themes, indicating, he says, a more egotistical and shallow culture.

This is simply unconvincing, and annoying.

So, a story that ends with, say, a happy homosexual union can't be a 'proper' story? And there must be something psychologically immature about its author? Any story that deals with social alienation and moral shades of grey is a 'bad' story that is infested with egotism, because it doesn't use the black and white 'goodie vs baddie' world of his archetypes?

In my view, the literature of the last two centuries may feature more egotism, but it also features a great deal more reality. How often, in real life, can people really be designated as 'goodies' or 'baddies'? How often are supposed happy endings untainted by uncertainty?

It seems to me that if the only way you can uphold your hyopthesis is by denigrating anything that doesn't fit with it, it is probably a sign that your hypothesis needs rethinking.

In summary, I think Booker is right that many stories are, at their core, about growing up and establishing one's own identity and family. I also agree that some stories are shallow and governed by egotism. However, it does not follow that stories that fail to follow his archetypes are necessarly about the ego, and it's a shame he chose to go down this alley. A little more open-mindedness about the merits of more modern literature would have made a better book.
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on 15 April 2014
Inspired by this book, I have classified the seven basic animals as follows:

Animals with horns
Animals that purr when stroked
Animals with long ears
Animals that taste good with mint sauce
Animals with no hair
Animals that climb trees
Fierce animals

I am now writing a book of a thousand pages, justifying this classification by reference to the works of Franz Gall, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Franz Anton Mesmer.

There can, in my view, never be enough dotty books in this world, which otherwise has such a boring addiction to facts and evidence. Why believe such depressing theories as: "passive smoking causes lung cancer" or "Climate Change is a threat to humanity", when you can join Christopher Booker and myself in your very own fantasy universe where none of these horrid things ever happens?
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on 28 October 2012
The Seven Basic Plots does contain some interesting stuff - there are some useful ideas, well illustrated with examples, about "standard" plot structures. This is all in the first part of the book. It could have been done in less space - with less repetition and fewer examples - but it is readable.

Unfortunately it all goes a bit wrong after that. It seems that the author spent a LONG time writing this - I think it was too long, and an extreme form of self-aggrandisement has taken over. He seems to think that this book is the answer to all of the philosophical problems the world has ever known: bad news, Chris, it isn't.

One immediate failing is that having constructed an elaborate model, he then shoots himself in the foot by identifying a number of well-known and highly regarded novels which don't fit the model. The response? They must be "bad" books - possibly even written by "bad" people.

And don't get me started on the Jungian psychobabble ... Perhaps the most polite thing we can say about Jung today is that he contributed to the psychological conversation in the last century. But Jung does not really have much of a place in modern psychology, and the author's slavish devotion to him does not make this a better book.

The interesting stuff could have been done in 150 pages, easily.

If you want to read about some possible plot structures, then fine, go ahead and buy the book, you might even find it helpful. But a masterpiece, it is not.
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