Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Christopher Booker: The Seven Basic Plots

Oh dear.

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.’


Peter L. Winkler said...

Thank you for that excellent review. I particularly enjoyed your sharp reasoning, as when you pointed out that comedy is an effect, not a plot.

I'd heard about this book several months ago and Polti's and Egri's books immediately came to mind. I wondered why anyone would bother to go to such great lengths to essentially repeat the efforts of others before him. Maybe Booker thinks his book will be a big seller among wannabe novelists and screenwriters.

I bought a copy of Aristotle's Poetics several years ago. I never could get beyond the first two or three pages.

Perry Middlemiss said...

And here I was thinking that Joseph Campbell had nailed it in "The Hero with a Thousand Faces". I seem to remember Campbell putting the contention that there was really only one plot, you just took out the bits and variations you wanted.

Anonymous said...

Hmm and there I was thinking he meant comedy in the shakespearean sense.ie everyone ends up married at the end rather than dead like the tragedies.

Oh look he noticed there is a plot form called the quest.
and presumably takes a hundred pages to define it. most definitons of the quest motif I have read were well under 5 pages. I doubt they took years to write either.

Anonymous said...

I am feeling negativity here... Perhaps I should remove this book from my Amazon wish list... Ah well, there are already several hundred "How to be a writer..." books on it anyway...

Anonymous said...

Well, the problem is that Christopher Booker doesn't know what a plot is and it's a shame and a bit of a surprise that an author doesn't have this basic understanding of the language of his craft. I can't understand how he was able to get the book published with this title!

He's not talking about "plot," you see, he's talking about mythic structure or archetype or, less eruditely, dramatic situations (as used by Polti) --not plots.

"Plot," as any student of literary criticism will be happy to remind you, is defined something like this: "the series of events in cause and effect relations that define the progression of a work of fiction." "Plot" is: "The king dies and then the queen dies of a broken heart." Surely all plots have, at a finer level of abstraction, some structural quality that can be likened to that of many other works, but those basic structures are not "plot."

At least, that's what I was taught so very long ago.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is a very good review. I suspect the author is far too delighted by the mertis of his own penmanship to ever write well.

For example, the pay off in the final sentence didn't work. The rhetorical device at the the start of the article looks juvenile.

As a rule if a writer asks at the start of his piece "what can one possibly say?" the answer is seldom worth reading.

The Jowett comparison was a bit strained and clunky and felt pseudo-intellectual - wheeled out for effect rather than to further illuminate a point. A more apposite comparison would surely be with Dr. Casaubon.

How interesting that in one breath the author describes the importance of brevity, and in the next describes Booker's work as "futile, pointless and useless." What inelegant tautology!

"There are endless, endless problems with this" the author says of Booker's book. But Booker is not the only one.

No wonder Bookman doesn't write on paper.

Anonymous said...

As the author of the book so extensively slagged off above, may I chip in? I feel quite guilty to have been the cause of such obvious distress, not least to all those contributors above who haven’t read the book but rely on your review’s highly idiosyncratic account of it. Of course anyone is entitled to dislike the book, even to be made angry by it, like all those journalist-reviewers you mention, although interestingly there is no mention of all the people who have written about it with generous enthusiasm, ranging from Fay Weldon and Beryl Bainbridge to Ronald Harwood and Richard Adams. But the first rule of book reviewing is that one must try as honestly as possible to answer the question ‘what is this book trying to do or say?’. Only then is a reviewer qualified to move on to the next two questions ‘is it is worth saying?’ and ‘how well or badly is it said?’. I’m afraid the picture given of what my book sets out to say is so bizarrely wide of the mark that your review doesn’t even get to square one in qualifying qualify to answer the other two questions! The other general rule of debate relevant here, of course, is that the easiest way to win an argument is to caricature one’s opponent’s views in such a way as makes it the easiest thing in the world to dismiss them as ridiculous. I am grateful for the common sense of your last contributor, but otherwise I am afraid these postings give the impression of various grouchy old bores sitting round in a pub, cantankerously banging on about something they know nothing whatever about. It is just remotely possible that some reader of your blog might actually find my book quite interesting.. But they would first have to discover that it bears not the slightest resemblance to the picture painted of it here. Greetings to you all!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Booker,

I was delighted to read your response to this review and to the comments above regarding it. Your points are excellent. I also found Allen's Grumpy Old remarks unfair. One tip-off being his strange comment, "I have a fundamental problem with non-fiction books which are long..." Hmmm. We used to speculate in college that our professors graded manuscripts by weight, but WE thought the heavier tomes received the higher grades. If my prof followed Mr. Allen's prescription I may finally understand the reason for some of my scores.

I must admit, though, that I have not read your book. (I hope I will get around to it, if only to see what so upset Mr. Grumpy.) Obviously, then, my remark in a post above about the definition of "plot" is not based on a direct knowledge of your book but on reading several published summaries. Still I would like to know if I am right or wrong or merely on one side of a meaningless distinction regarding "plot" and ... well, something else. I ask because I do coach writers now and then and have always relied on the definition given in my post above. Now, it seems, I may have been declaring the sky to be green for all these years!

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Anonymous said...

Mr Booker,

your book is absolutely fabulous! It is a work of extraordinary research and it oozes substance from every page. I have read Campbell, Frazer et al and your work sits well, head high, with them all. It is a seminal text for those with a profound interest in the power of story telling in this age of communication overload.

I have enjoyed every word, most especially because you have brought clarity to many themes that are of interest to me and thoughts I have had on the subject. These themes form part of my work in that I am a mediator and use stories to help people resolve conflicts/disputes.

My most favourite insight is your perspective on the Garden of Eden the 'Fall'. It explains why gardens are places where we feel connected and peaceful rather than 'pieceful'. It has helped enormously with a 'Story Garden' project I am involved in Italy.

If you are inclined to find out more, please contact me Amanda@amandabucklow.co.uk. I hope you do.

Kind regards
Amanda Bucklow

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Anonymous said...

Mr Booker your book is interesting and gave me something to think about, so thanks for all your work. However, I don't 'buy' the animus/anima thing - especially your dismissal of homosexuality as 'the dark side' and of literature which does not conform to moral certainties and archetypes within your theory: my opposing view is that allowing the varieties and grey areas of life can assist us in widening perception and understanding. Most importantly, of course, your book does not appear to understand the interplay of style and human conflicts... Obviously, sometimes it's not the archetypes or the morals but the way you tell em!