Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Procrustes writes a book

Slow Denialist and the Seven Plots

Christopher Booker is the author of The Seven Basic Plots, a much-lauded book that purports to classify all literature into seven pigeon-holes. It's quite a tour de force. Of course, for every Fay Weldon who gushes “This is the most extraordinary, exhilarating book,” there is an Adam Mars-Jones who cites “distortion” and concludes that it is “a stimulating, ambitious and unsatisfying book.” Still, the estimable Margaret Atwood admires it; that should count for something.

Booker's tome is my current bedside book. I have not fully plumbed its depths, but I dig through a few more pages each evening. I frequently chuckle. As someone who is widely and eccentrically read, I am susceptible to the book's charms. Perhaps I am particularly vulnerable because I especially enjoy catching literary or cultural allusions. “Aha! I see what you did there!” No doubt there are many that sail right over my head, but The Seven Basic Plots is by its very nature a name-dropping, title-dropping work, and my decades of reading have equipped me to occasionally nod my head in a knowing way when certain books are cited. Ooh! I feel so smart!

But my bedtime browsing has not been spared the sudden twinge at odd intervals, as I purse my lips, frown, and regard some authorial pronouncement with suspicion. On page 77, Booker referred to the “Portugese explorer” in H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. Ah, careless proofreading! One demerit! But then I got to page 90, where Booker is immersed in a discussion of Robinson Crusoe and refers to a mutiny aboard a “Portugese ship.” Fie! The man cannot spell “Portuguese”! I naturally take particular offense.

It turned out he also did not know how to spell “Pharaoh.” It's an admittedly tricky word, but there's no good excuse for using “Phaoraoh” multiple times. One begins to despair!

The misspelling were merely disturbing quibbles, but perhaps they alerted me to more significant matters. My antennas were vibrating with a subtle suspicion. While introducing the plot he labeled as “the Quest,” Booker calmly said, “On the face of it, stories based on the plot of the Quest could hardly seem more disparate.” One might indeed think so, since Booker's list of examples included the Odyssey, Pilgrim's Progress, Watership Down, and The Lord of the Ring. Nevertheless, equal to the task he set himself, Booker briskly strips the various stories of most of their elements until he can stuff them into his Quest pigeon-hole. (I can imagine him huffing and puffing and muttering, “Get in there, damn you!”) Only a story's naked armature matters when performing the act of classification.

When he got to the “Voyage and Return” plot, Booker faced the problem of distinguishing it from the Quest. He proved his mettle: “The Quest is altogether a more serious and purposeful affair.” By contrast, of course, the Voyage and Return is rather a lark. Since Frodo and Sam suffer somewhat dramatically on their casual little trip to Mordor and back, Booker points out that The Lord of the Rings is really a dog's breakfast of a work that embodies all seven plots in a glorious mash-up (with due attention to the Thrilling Escape plot device, of course). By the way, the Return component of a Voyage and Return plot needn't be taken too literally. If the protagonist doesn't get to go home again, he might instead return to some condition of normality after the abnormality of his Voyage experiences. It's a Voyage and Return plot as long as the hero has to return to something.

There's no way Booker can lose.

Although I'm still enjoying The Seven Basic Plots, my delight is somewhat tempered after several examples of Booker's trim-to-fit analyses and manipulation of his rather plastic plot definitions. Yes, it's still quite an impressive achievement, but the book seems more thick than profound. At least I'm sure to meet several more old friends and acquaintances as I continue to plow through it.

There is one additional fly struggling in the ointment. After a few too many plot-rackings, I decided to check up on Mr. Booker's credentials. Is he some distinguished litérateur whose name I should have recognized? Wikipedia soon tipped me off to the awful truth. Christopher Booker is one of those self-deluded “thinkers” who imagines that he has pierced the veil of climate change's mysteries and penned a denialist book titled The Real Global Warming Disaster. Of course, when one reads history at Cambridge, one is clearly qualified to evaluate the technical claims of climatologists.

Damn. The man is unsound.


Kathie said...

There are plenty of other wackadoodles out there (and not just Birthers and other tinfoil-hatted commenters on newspaper articles). Why, just this AM I read the following:
"Edward Klein defends his Obama biography, ‘The Amateur’":

Inter alia, he contends he has proof that Obama's a Muslim and a Socialist with delusions of grandeur, despite reliable evidence to the contrary in all three cases. But some people will believe what they want to believe, and not let facts get in their way.

Liam said...

Does failing to have a meteorology bachelors degree preclude expository writing on the matter? Have you actually read his anti-global warming book, or, when you daringly label him "self-deluded", is that restricted to a Wikipedia entrance, and the fact that he shares a different opinion to you?

I don't have a position on global warming. I simply don't approve of the poultry logic or that too-cheap ad hom in any otherwise enjoyable piece.

Zeno said...

Nice try, Liam. I don't need to read his book to know he's in over his head, just like I don't need to read books explaining that vaccinations cause autism or that the earth is 6000 years old. Same principle.

(Did you mean "paltry logic," or were you implying something fowl?)

Blake Stacey said...

Oh, let him yolk on a bit. He just wants to beat his drumstick to prove superiority through contrarianism. Flipping the bird to those so foolish as to listen to actual experts, as it were.

Liam said...

I'm in fact a fan of your blog, and read your posts on my phone. (I did inquire as to when your book would be published a few months ago). On this ocassion, I was disappointed. Your piece started off rather interesting. You corrected spellings and so on .. I was expecting a grander point in conclusion to the piece, but it just dampened off. I wasn't impressed by your character assassination. I think your last sentence is rather parochial and frivolous. I don't know what I am "trying" (as per your first sentence) as I do rather like this blog, but I think I'll dulcify my future comments.

Blake Stacey - Is it contrarianism (which presumably you associate with some sort of sin?!) to express a criticism of someone's style? As I said, I hold no interest in this matter. I find this global warming "debate" too reminiscent of some sort of egocentric anthropromoprhic religion. (It's not quite clear cut whether global warming is reaching dangerous and unprecedented levels to the point alarmists make - let alone if anything can or should be done about it).

daja said...

It isn't so much the way Booker trims plots to fit his categories that I objected to. Rather it was the way he took some fantastic works of literature and denied that they were proper stories because they didn't fit with his categories. Thus Joyce's 'meandering' Ulysses is a 'claustrophobic little circle, unable to lead anywhere and totally divorced from any real meaning' compared to Homer's Odyssey. Sorry! Any theory which fails to admit Joyce (and Chekhov and DH Lawrence and Chekhov and Proust and ...) as story-tellers is not a worthwhile theory.