TEXT Review

Cyclopean view of story telling

review by Theresa E. Lauf



The seven basic plots: Why we tell stories
Christopher Booker
Continuum, London, 2004
ISBN 0-8264-5209-4
728pp. Pb AU$69.95

Someone shared this anecdote with me recently. I cannot stipulate as to its accuracy, but that is not the point. Apparently, a large hamburger producer was not prepared to track the meat put into its food because of the scale of the task. In every meat patty, goes beef from around one thousand cows, all combined in an enormous meat grinder. Oddly, this anecdote resonates with my reading of Booker's The seven basic plots: Why we tell stories.

Booker has thrown more than a thousand interesting thoughts into his life-time work, ground them all up and come out with an homogenous mass of his own. At least initially, it tastes good and it satisfies basic hunger, until one starts to suspect the quality control and feels queasy. Unfortunately (and no doubt unlike the meat products which I still half-heartedly consume) there are more than a few mad cows in this patty Booker has thrown in hooves and all, and frankly, it's surprising that his editors didn't pick them out.

This was a very difficult book to review. The four parts could well have been four separate books. It is both brilliant in parts and incredibly one-eyed and wrong in others. The number of typographical errors also surprised me. The sheer size of the book (728 pages) and the amount of (sometimes contradictory) information imparted is overwhelming. In case you're in a hurry, the answer to the central question is literally given in the last sentence of the book. The question, put simply: is why do we tell stories? Remember that.

Booker's intended audience is not easy to identify. The tone is often condescending and the material repetitive. In its current form, only academics, keen scholars and true literature lovers are likely to persevere with it.

This isn't your usual how-to-write book, although by grinding the goodness out of hundreds of stories (mostly classics, predating the Romantic Period) and contrasting that with the sludge that he purports emerged in the last two hundred years, Booker tells us that there is only one right way to tell a story. Is this a worry? You bet. But more on that later.

By stealth, Booker has produced a work that encapsulates his expansions and amendments to the work of famous psychoanalysts, Freud and Jung, into understanding the workings of the human unconscious, no less. The unsuspecting reader is tricked into reading a lot of personal opinions of one man, stacked on top of each other, to seem big enough to equate to a thesis. Some of the opinions are well grounded (but one must question the completeness and integrity of the methodology behind the work). Many are not. The things that are left out tell us as much about the author as the things he deigned to include.

The formal layout and heavy reliance upon 'precedent' (in the form of centuries of stories) gives this book at least the veneer of logic and authority.

Part one: The seven gateways to the underworld

To answer his question, Booker first analyses the plots of many of the stories familiar to Western readers since the beginning of time, and categorises them into his seven plot types, including: Overcoming the monster; Rags to riches; The quest; Voyage and return; Comedy; Tragedy; and Rebirth. The idea of there being only a handful of master plots is not new, but no-one has gone to such lengths to prove it. For that, we can congratulate Booker. Part one of the book is eminently useful for teachers, scholars and literature lovers. Nothing like it has been achieved before. It is superb.

However, it needs to be noted that the stories are not necessarily representative of the entire world. Indeed, they seem limited to those Booker thinks his readers might be most familiar with: those in the Western, Christian or Jewish traditions mostly. Stories of Australian Aboriginals, Asians, gays, feminists, to name a few, are completely left out, and according to Booker, because of America's beginnings, almost nothing good has come out of America - ever. American stories are mostly used to illustrate unsuccessful outcomes. The limitations of the resource material aren't clearly stated. This issue is only alluded to in the Author's Notes (p. 703).

In his Epilogue to Part one, Booker introduces the reader to the chief archetypal numbers around which stories are structured: one, two, three and four. Any others are dealt with only in a footnote (p. 235), including, ironically, the number seven, as in The seven plots…the seven deadly sins…need I say more?

Part two: The complete happy ending

In Part two, Booker submits that there is a familiar cast of characters who keep reappearing in the plots he has just categorized in Part one, and that they are significant in revealing some deep mystery about storytelling and life. The chief archetypes are: Mother, Father, 'animus' and 'anima', and Child. At this point, the reader begins to wonder what Booker's point is. Is he looking for the meaning of life through stories? Is he telling us how to suck eggs?

Booker explains the significance of dark/light figures and corresponding masculine/feminine traits and the need for all to be balanced to achieve a fully resolved story. This all seems tame enough, until he starts applying it to the modern world, particularly in the context of the feminization of men and the masculinisation of women in his very last chapter. But in this part, Booker continues to apply his theory only to traditional stories to illustrate his points, lulling his readers into a false sense of security.

Part three: Missing the mark

Part three catalogues the downfall of modern storytelling, in parallel with the happenings in the world and the shifts in consciousness since the Romantic period and French Revolution. This whole part reads like a long complaint of almost two hundred pages, pulling apart stories of each kind of plot, highlighting the darkness and unresolved natures of the stories.

In Chapter 25, Booker goes further and compares the downward spiral of the quality of Thomas Hardy's work with his own life's tragedies. Chapter 27 obsesses about the active ego and the unacceptable coming to the fore of sex and violence which merely titillates rather than telling genuine stories. In Chapter 29, he suddenly introduces a new plot to the mix, which he says has only emerged recently: The mystery. The mystery does not represent a fully developed and resolved story and is strictly lowbrow in Booker's literary estimation.

Booker has a disconcerting habit of amending accepted theories in footnotes (for example, his comments on Jung's 'psychological types' theory [p. 559] and how Freud got his 'Oedipus Complex' theory wrong [p. 521]). I wonder how the learned establishment would view such flippancy.

Part four: Why we tell stories

In Part four, Booker steps 'outside this self-contained world of storytelling, and to see how the ways in which we tell stories relate to what we call "real life"' (p. 540).

Booker examines the difference between humans and other animals and highlights that his study differs to all others in that he takes into account 'the consequences arising from the split between the ego and instinct' (p. 553). He asserts that his work picks up what Freud and Jung missed: essentially, they studied dreams to better understand the unconscious, without recognizing 'just how much more systematic a picture of its workings can be derived from analyzing the process whereby we imagine stories' (p. 553).

It is disconcerting to me that Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs was not featured in a study about plots. Maslow is not even mentioned, but masturbation is. Feminism isn't included in the index, but feminization of men is. Booker's work is odd in the things it chooses to completely ignore or highlight and, in that sense, I do not feel confident that it has been balanced and properly presented as a scholarly work. Furthermore, Booker has no qualifications in psychoanalysis as far as I know.

As I mentioned before, feminism is not listed in the index or contents. However, I pushed myself to the end of the book because I couldn't believe that he would have excluded it. I was right.

If you want to read Booker's thoughts on feminism, look up 'feminization of men' (pp. 661, 687-89) and 'The heroine as hero' (p. 486) for starters. I'm not being funny. His feelings on this supposed social disintegration are palpable. I thought I was conservative and traditional in outlook and lifestyle until I read pages 486, 661 and 687 to 691 for example - I thought my eyes were bleeding.

Booker can't hide his contempt for the 'new "mannishness"' (p. 661) and 'emancipated attitudes' (p. 661) ('"mass-individualism"' [p. 661], '"political correctness"' [pp. 689-90], 'new secular Puritanism' [p. 689]) and those who have become 'possessed by a fanatical and humourless intolerance' (p. 689). He doesn't understand the different types of feminism, nor does he acknowledge any positives from its intervention. I don't think I'd like to live in Booker's ideal world, even if all the stories have happy endings.

While it isn't addressed all in one place, Booker appears to suggest that all the evils in the world, including the demise of good storytelling, are because of women's egocentricity (beginning with Eve and Pandora). These days, women in the modern world and modern stories are not complying with their preordained archetypal roles and are upsetting everything, from a psychoanalytical standpoint of course. Reverse 'gender stereotyping' of women in modern stories particularly offends him (pp. 486, 690).

Only women who fulfill their archetypal roles (of two centuries ago) and 'complete' the hero are acceptable to Booker. A woman needs to be '"tamed" back into contact with her femininity' (p. 688).

See page 689 for Booker's views on 'political correctness', the 'mother's boys' (Tony Blair and President Clinton), extremism and anti-discrimination issues. This reads like a John Laws script.

Epilogue: The light and the shadows on the wall

Here Booker preempts any criticisms of his work by relying on Plato's Parable of the Cave, basically, that with our limited state of consciousness, of course we can't see what he's talking about! There are so many other incredible throwaway lines in this chapter about the scientific significance of his work, and religious references about the state of the world, that it's too much to summarise. Once he started talking about 'cosmic mind' (p. 701) I lost it. Happy reading…

Without clearly stating it, Booker has presented us with his life's work (summaries of many stories) within the framework of psychoanalytical theory. It was incumbent upon him to stipulate this at the beginning rather than setting up clichéd cliffhangers on every page, right up to the last page where we finally get the answer, but still within an unclear context.

Psychoanalytical theory presupposes that human beings are pushed and pulled by unconscious instinctual impulses. That should have been in paragraph one, page one. Then he should have prepared his reader for the journey they were embarking upon.

What I realise now is that Booker subscribes to psychoanalytical theory (which he expands upon, on the basis of his reading of stories), and feels that proper stories (which he defines, and which definition seems to hold up until 200 years ago) hold the blueprint to our own 'happily ever after'. The problem with Booker's 'theory' is that he only refers to things which support it and disregards the 200 years of experience which don't. Booker believes in evolution (he describes the first single-celled organism as our ultimate Rags to Riches hero [p. 545]), but somehow, he can't accept that we've changed since we started walking on two legs and that maybe our lives, expectations and consequently stories have also.

Ironically, Booker so clearly explains the role of the 'deadly opposites' (p. 233) in storytelling and how the hero must walk the fine line between them or face a sudden and horrible death, yet, he cannot see that he has in numerous, fundamental respects, overstepped the line himself. And as he says, it's all about fighting one's own egocentric nature. At least on that point, we agree.

As a writer, the most unsettling thing about this work is that it states in absolute terms that if we don't follow the archetypes, both in plot and character, we don't have a satisfying story, because we are all unconsciously programmed to look for these archetypes. It would be an interesting question for someone to take up with Booker: Where do the archetypes end and the clichés begin? Also, is art in all its forms, including storytelling, not art if it engages in and reflects the culture of its time? And could it be that there is more than one reason why we engage in storytelling?

This book is a worthwhile addition to the general discourse on storytelling, however, it needs to be considered with caveats.


Theresa E. Lauf is a Master of Philosophy student in Creative Writing at Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus researching women, gender and the Australian legal profession.


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Vol 9 No 1 April 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady