Friday, August 14, 2009

Book Warning

I recommended The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker a few weeks ago, after having read about 150 pages. With unfortunate prescience, I wondered whether it would change at around page 200 and I would unrecommmend it.

I still recommend it, but with warnings. It does change at about page 200. After setting out how the standard archetypes fit into the seven basic plots - dark feminine, light rival, Wise Old Man, all that - it rings all the changes (to use a favorite campanological phrase of mine) for the next 150. Do you wish to find an example of the hero rejecting the light anima in the Quest plot? It's here. It becomes clear that Booker's intent is to ram home the idea that proper use of the archetypes are what make literature satisfying and whole. He does as thorough and as good a job of this as any I have read.

He makes one enormous omission throughout the book. He focuses entirely on the hero or heroine coming to balance and adulthood by accepting or incorporating both the masculine (strength, order) and feminine (empathy, intuitive whole) virtues into their personalities. The other great set of archetypes, which relate to the scapegoat and sacrifice, he neglects almost entirely. He simply doesn't see these as key. As a consequence, he misses the point of some stories entirely, cramming them badly into his anima/animus framing. I noticed, as other Christian readers might, that he misses the point of Biblical stories and Christian works especially. He provides stunning insights into these stories, then walks blindly by great hulking gobs of archetype that don't fit his pattern. He is emphatically but incompletely Jungian in his interpretations and psychology.

But all is not lost. Booker traces an interesting literary starting with the Romantics, showing how western storytelling has gone all wrong in the last 200 years, tracing its decline. If anyone would be sympathetic audience to the idea that our thinking has gone off the rails since 1800, it would be I; but CB doesn't make the case, even to me. He provides an enormous amount of evidence for his case, and displays remarkable insight, but doesn't close the deal. If you want to get an efficient precis of film, opera, novel, and theater plots, this is as good a summary as any. I can now pretend I have read about 100 more books because of Booker.

All this is setup to what may be Booker's secret aim, a hundred-page rant about the deterioration of story in the 20th C, with particular attention to the intentionally transgressive books, films, and plays.

And a glorious fine rant it is, too. His editors apparently gave up the struggle at this point, as Booker includes sputtering incendiary points flying off from the main thread every few paragraphs. Beautiful, some of them, though they flash and die, igniting nothing.

I gave up entirely at page 600. Whatever brilliance he added after this I will just have to do without.

6 comments:

Donna B. said...

My copy arrived yesterday!

karrde said...

One thing I find strange is that these archetypes and storytelling tropes can be found easily in modern sci-fi and fantasy writing.

This can also be seen in films (take a look at the original Star Wars trilogy, and see how many of those archetypes appear there...or The Matrix). It's not guaranteed, but it seems more likely that you'll see the archetypes in that type of film than outside of it.

I have the impression that modern "serious" literature has tried to move away from the classical tools of storytelling. Mostly an impression; I don't have a deep well of data to draw on.

I do note that stories which seem to resonate and last have to use one or more of the old archetypes.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Booker touches on that, noting that Sci-Fi and fantasy literature are able to do that in a way that more traditional literature seems to avoid these days. He approves of some of it and disapproves of others.

Jonathan said...

karrde: Well, Lucas was trying to put the archetypes into Star Wars, so I wouldn't count that as an example. But it does prove that those stories sell. Especially if you have lightsabers in them.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, lightsabers are sort of the bacon of sci-fi movies. Once you've got those, even a bad movie is worth watching.

karrde said...

As I recall, both Lucas and the Wachowski brothers (directors of the Matrix series) deliberately mined the deep archetypes for their stories.

I can't remember if any of the big archetypes ended up dominating the world of Star Trek...though I seem to remember that there's an old pattern about a team of three that ended up dominating the original TV series (Kirk, Spock, McCoy...Leader, Reason, and Emotion in tension).

I was pleasantly by the written works of Timothy Zahn (and later Neal Stephenson) when I recognized themes and characters. There's the old seer who helps the hero in his quest but may not live to see the result. There's the young person who must separate himself from the comfortable and familiar while attempting a quest...etc.

I don't know if I can identify every such archetype, but can usually tell when a storyteller is invoking one.