The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This tome could’ve been two or more books (or, alternatively, could’ve been heavily edited into one book that stays on task.) The book’s first part contains the book that the reader expects to find. It’s that section that proposes that historically (e.g. pre-20th century) all popular stories fit into one or more of seven plot categories, each of which has a specific purpose. Part I clarifies the nature and purpose of these plot types. The seven plots are: 1.) overcoming the monster, 2.) rags to riches, 3.) quest, 4.) voyage and return, 5.) comedy, 6.) tragedy, and 7.) rebirth. While one might niggle about whether all the various myth, folklore, plays, epic poems, etc. of previous centuries can be categorized by seven plots (or some other number — bigger or smaller,) this first part isn’t particularly controversial. From “Beowulf” (overcoming the monster) to “Hamlet” (tragedy,) most of the stories one might think of probably do lend themselves to such categorization.
Where the book gets controversial, not to mention convoluted, is from Part II onward. Part II delves more deeply into the ideas of Jungian psychology upon which Booker (like Joseph Campbell) hangs his ideas about story. Now for my own controversial views. First, I think Jungian psychology is pseudo-scientific nonsense that should never be used in the treatment or understanding of the mind. While Freudians and Jungians have a big conflict with each other, I think they’re similarly useless. They both start from a laudable view that there is an unconscious mind and we should seek to better understand it. But then, instead of trying to objectively understand the workings of the unconscious mind (granted, it’s a terribly challenging task given our inability to witness the subjective mental experience of others,) each psychiatrist decided to furnish the unconscious mind with his own pet provocative scheme – Freud’s being centered on sexuality [particularly of an infantile nature] and Jung’s being more mystical, but neither man seemed to stop and think about whether said pet scheme could be defective and not universal.
Now, having said that, I don’t find it so objectionable that Booker (and Campbell) use Jung’s ideas for evaluating the fantasy realm of story. Jung’s archetypes may be a perfectly logical way for a writer to think about their characters, about symbolism, and about building nightmare realms. Therefore, I wasn’t that put out by the Jungian focus of the book – despite my lack of belief in the validity of Jungian psychology as a means to understand the mind or to treat mental illness. Still, it does reflect a mindset that is Booker is frozen in, a particular era and approach to psychology that creates many a blindspot in the author. Parts III and IV are about how plot is dead because writers have dared to go off book and abandon the purposes presented them by the titular “seven basic plots.”
Long story short: if you thought that Jung was the bee knees and that mid-20th century views on gender, art, and meaning were the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then you may love this book. (At worst, you might find it rambling in places, but it often rambles intriguingly.) If you thought Jung was more a mystic than a psychiatrist, and that the approaches to art from recent decades are as valid as those that came before, you may hate it. I, personally, found a book that contained many interesting ideas, but also found that they were usually deep in the weeds (or maybe – more aptly – encrusted in the ice by which this book’s framework is frozen in time, a time that by no means represented the height of human understanding.)
View all my reviews