The Plot Thins

English majors! Christopher Booker's new study just made your life much easier—maybe


Sir, what if the writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don't change, they don't have any epiphanies, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved—more a reflection of the real world? —Charlie Kaufman addressing Robert McKee in Adaptation


Story bored: The brothers Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) talk genre in Adaptation
photo: Columbia Pictures
Story bored: The brothers Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) talk genre in Adaptation

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    Booker has written a manifesto for a fiction that believes in heroes capable of growth and change, a proudly overdetermined creature that forswears bleak fatalism and lurid sensation. Fair enough, but even if you excuse the metafictionists, the digressive social novel (ruling out Tristram Shandy and much of Salman Rushdie), and most short stories from the table, and concentrate solely on recent nonexperimental narrative fiction, it's amazing how many largely optimistic, popularly successful stories of recent years don't fit into any of Booker's assigned slots. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections doesn't. Nor does Zadie Smith's White Teeth or Monica Ali's Brick Lane. (Nonwhite, non-male writers don't exist in Bookerland.) Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicleis a Quest, maybe, but the hero is too passive and unassuming for Booker's tastes. Adaptation and Toni Morrison's Beloved both amalgamate Overcoming the Monster with Rebirth, but if you cram a meta-comedy about a blocked, self-loathing screenwriter into the same pigeonhole as a supernatural novel that reckons with the legacy of slavery in America, you only succeed in trivializing them both.

    The Seven Basic Plots, for its part, remains archetypal to its last breath. It begins as Overcoming the Monster and ends as a meta-Tragedy: The book crosses over to the dark side of the grumbling fuddy-duddies, while storytelling in all its polymorphic perversities continues skipping, shuffling, and crawling toward the light.

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