Oh dear oh dear oh dear. What can one possibly say?
Contrary to what you might think, I do try to say something positive about every book that is mentioned on this blog. A book, after all, usually represents a year (at least) of the author’s life; and it represents an investment of perhaps £20,000 on the part of the publisher. So positive I try to be. But in this case it’s going to be difficult.
The problem is that Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots reminds me of the story of Professor Jowett’s father.
In the nineteenth century, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, was an eminent man; but his father was a failure. Towards the end of his life, Jowett senior got it into his head that what the world needed was a metrical translation of the Psalms. He spent several years obsessively working on this project, during which time the son had to support his parents financially. It was obvious to everyone except the old man that this was an entirely futile undertaking, and, when it was eventually published, the metrical translation of the Psalms received absolutely no acclaim whatever.
And that’s the problem I have with Mr Booker’s opus. It seems to me to be entirely pointless.
Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Booker (or someone) were to work out the seven (or 15) basic plots on which every story, novel, play and opera could be found to be based. What possible value would this be? How could the knowledge be put to practical use?
Let us take the novel, for example. How would a knowledge of the n basic plots help a publisher, a bookseller, a writer, or a reader?
Would the publisher put out a sign saying, Don’t send us anything but plot no. 4? I doubt it. Would the bookseller arrange his stock according to plot, and alphabetically within each plot? It seems unlikely.
And what of the poor bloody writer? How does it help him? Is he going to say, I shall write plot no. 5 this time, because that was a massive hit for Shakespeare and Goethe, so it’s sure to put me at the top of the bestseller list? Hm? Would he?
Even the reader doesn’t get much help from such an analysis. Is any reader going to say, I only read plot no. 4 because the rest just don’t do it for me?
It’s all futile, useless and pointless. I get no pleasure from writing those words, but that’s the way I feel. Booker’s book seems to me to be gloriously beside the point. The point is not that the number of plots is limited: it is that the number of possible emotional effects that can be created in the reader/audience is limited. The number of ways in which those emotions can be aroused, however, is infinite, and depends largely (but not entirely) on the skill of the writer. (For a much simpler and shorter explanation than Booker’s, see Chapter 5 of my own book The Truth About Writing; the chapter is 53 pages long.)
Let’s go back a bit.
Christopher Booker has been a fairly well known writer in the UK for some forty years. In the 1960s he was the very first editor of Private Eye, and he has produced a number of well-received non-fiction books. As a journalist he is best known for his weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph, where he has been a fierce critic of bureaucracy.
But in addition to all that, Booker has, by his own account, spent thirty years (on and off) faffing around with this nonsense about basic plots.
The book itself, as a physical object, is distinctly off-putting. It is heavy, and thick. It runs to 728 pages, and by my calculation contains over 400,000 words. The typeface is small.
I have a fundamental problem with non-fiction books which are long; and I am not alone. Thirty years ago, one of my duties was to process students’ PhD theses in a university. One day, an academic came into my office and picked up a thesis which was three inches thick. ‘If I were the examiner,’ he said, ‘I would fail this on sight. A student who hasn’t learnt how to condense the results of his research into a volume of reasonable length hasn’t learnt very much.’ And that’s my view too. At one fifth the length, The Seven Basic Plots might be readable; as it is, it ain’t.
I also have a problem with what in academic terms is called the methodology. In other words, how the author went about things. In the humanities we can, of course, pretty much forget about science from the outset; but we can at least be systematic, and adopt some kind of structured approach. Has Booker done that? No. ‘I embarked,’ he tells us, ‘on an almost indiscriminate course of reading and re-reading, through hundreds of stories of all kinds.’
Another difficulty, for me, is that Booker has chosen to use Jung as a guide to generating insights. You see, when Booker and I were lads, Freud and Jung were not only respectable but positively revered. But the world has changed, and Booker doesn’t seem to have noticed. Freud, to my mind, is so hopelessly unscientific that he comes close to being a charlatan; and when Jung is mentioned, I fear that the phrase ‘mumbo-jumbo’ enters my head. So to me Booker's approach does not seem promising, and I am not surprised to find that, in my judgement, it has led nowhere.
One way and another, Booker has spent thirty years in reading, drafting, and re-writing. And in the end this is what he has come up with: an amorphous mess. His seven basic plots, in summary, and for what they are worth, are listed on the cover of the book: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth.
Comedy, I may say, is not a plot at all. It’s an effect: it is something which is generated by stories of various kinds, if the material is properly handled.
There are endless, endless problems with all this. And I could go on. But I won’t. Not for long.
This book belongs in a long tradition of books in which the authors have sought to identify the secret of narrative success. There are few indications that Mr Booker realises this – and certainly none in the bibliography – but it may be said that the 'secret of success' sequence started with Aristotle’s Poetics, and it really got under way about 150 years ago. It became obvious about that time that a successful novelist or playwright could make lots of money, could become famous, and would therefore enjoy all the trappings of celebrity. Hence a number of sharp lads began to scratch their heads and try to identify what it was that went into a successful book/play, so that they too could become rich and famous.
The long series of ‘secret of success’ books is most clearly defined in relation to stage plays and, nowadays, movies. It began, I suggest, with Freytag’s Technique of the Drama (1894), and went on through William Archer, Brander Matthews, Krows, Price, Egri, Grebanier, and now, in the present-day movie context, Robert McKee. All of these men sought to produce rules or a set of principles which could be followed and which would guarantee success.
Of course none of them ever succeeded, or they themselves would have become famous playwrights and screenwriters. But their response to the ‘if you’re so clever why aren’t you famous’ line was simple: 'Ah well, they would say; I can show you the basic principles, but to apply them you need a touch of genius.’ And, since there is never any shortage of ambitious wannabe writers who are sure that they have more than a touch of genius, they were able to sell their books.
Booker doesn’t present us with a how-to book for wannabe writers. Goodness me no, that would be far too vulgar. This is a serious academic analysis. But his work is, nevertheless, in that tradition. Its closest comparator, in my view, is George Polti’s The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations, which Booker mentions only in a footnote, and then dismissively. (The British Library lists five editions of Polti’s book, from 1924 to 1944, so it must have sold well. It was reprinted in 2003. Presumably Booker hopes for similar popularity and longevity, but I don't think he's going to get it.)
Enough, surely. You will gather that I don’t recommend this book. I certainly don’t recommend that you should buy it – though you will shortly be able to pick up lots of secondhand copies at bargain prices.
And what can I possibly find to say about it that might loosely be interpreted as positive?
Well, I suppose it is possible – just – that a young person who fancies a career as a novelist or screenwriter might read this analysis and gain one or two insights into the way plots are structured. Possibly. But how does it avail us to have even a perfect template for a plot? We still have to sit down and write Othello, or The Importance of Being Earnest.
Ah – I have it. The book is at least written in plain English, and not in academic gobbledygook. Sorry, but that’s the best I can do for positive.
One person at least does seem to have read this book from cover to cover. The copy that I had was borrowed from the Wiltshire public-library system, and one previous borrower had not only read it – apparently every footnote – but had also commented copiously. In blue felt-tip pen. Now normally I would regard that as very naughty, but in this case the comments were more fun than the text. (‘Too glib’; ‘far too superficial to be taken seriously’.) And the fellow is fiendishly well informed to boot.
Poor old Booker occasionally gets even his facts wrong. He tells us that Peter Brook introduced Waiting for Godot to the London stage. And he didn’t; as we noted last week, it was Peter Hall. (The Phantom Scribbler of Wiltshire knew that too.) And now that I come to use it, the index isn’t reliable either. Peter Brook isn’t in it, and I knew I’d come across his name somewhere in the text.
Finally, I think I must have a look on the internet, and see if anyone liked the book better than I did.
OK. Results. Well, ahem, even the Sunday Telegraph, Booker’s own outfit, was less than enthusiastic. The Daily Telegraph had reservations: ‘Booker's principle of classifying stories is a possible, but not the only possible (or even necessarily the most illuminating) approach.’ The Observer was lukewarm: ‘Christopher Booker’s hefty tome of cultural archaeology is peculiar, repetitive, near-barmy and occasionally rather good.’ The Times piece was not so much a review as an attempted summary plus quotes from the good and the great.
In America, the New York Times man was not happy at all. He claimed that Booker had lifted his ideas from ‘a wide spectrum of influential, even canonical works by writers and thinkers as varied as Jung, Freud, Joseph Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim, Sir James George Frazer, the Shakespeare scholar A.C. Bradley and the folklore experts Peter and Iona Opie.’
Furthermore, Booker is said to have made absurd generalisations about well known classics. ‘Such inane readings of modern literature effectively eclipse the more engaging arguments presented in the first portion of Mr. Booker’s book. Anyone tackling The Seven Basic Plots would be advised to peruse the informative first half and quickly ditch the second half of this 700-plus page tome.’
All the British reviews were written by people who, if not exactly friends, are likely to bump into the author from time to time. Oh, and by the way. If you yourself should happen to be introduced to Mr Booker, and if he should ask you, in that modest self-effacing way that writers have, whether you have, by any chance, read his book on the seven basic plots, here’s a little tip.
What you do not say is, ‘No, I haven’t read it, and I gather it’s a bit of a mess.’ Dear me no. No, what you must say is this: ‘No, Christopher, I haven’t actually read it yet. But I’m really looking forward to it.’