The Seven Basic Plots

Very interesting review of a new book about narrative story forms. Excerpt:

The histories of the novel and of storytelling ran together until the early 20th century; since the 1920s, that history has been one of formal drift, away from the novel as a social form that described how characters live in relation to others, a drift that gathered decisive momentum in the 1970s, as self-consciousness was joined to irony. You may object that the novel, as a result of the century’s bitter fragmentation, is no longer required to satisfy EM Forster’s tentative claim that “Yes – oh dear, yes – the novel tells a story”; that Joyce’s linguistic pile-ups have embarrassed us out of anything so simple; that readers are too aware to acquiesce any longer to the novelist’s authority to tell them that, “It was a snowy Sunday afternoon in February,” and that Charles and Emma Bovary have gone with Homais and Léon to see a new flax mill near Yonville.

The first of these objections assumes the novel is a vulnerable form, easily manipulated and destabilised. That assumption is hardly borne out by its tumultuous 400-year history. The final objection, that it is no longer as easy to hoodwink readers as it used to be, is simply a slur on our grandparents. And a further obfuscation has grown up: the notion that there is a difference between novelists and storytellers. The assumption here is that the novelist is a creature of form and language, while the storyteller is occupied with the lesser act of narrative. There are several possible rebuttals to this distinction, depending on your literary tastes, but it is salutary to quote a defender of the contemporary literary novel, Fiammetta Rocco, one of this year’s Man Booker judges: “Reading 132 books in 147 days… you learn a great deal about why so many novels – even well-written, carefully crafted novels, as so many of those submitted were – are ultimately pointless.”

The question for me and my not-so-novel writing project has been: Will a simple, well-written story that explores characters and their lives, in a realistic setting — in other words, a novel cognizant of sociology as well as psychology — be relevant and accepted by an audience? One voice says, “Write for yourself; ignore any idea of ‘acceptance.'” That may be true, though it feels like a dodge — why is it so bad to want an audience, and isn’t writing just for myself a bit selfish? On the other hand, I do realize that the most personal and particular writing often turns out to resonate with the widest and most general audience.
This review, and the book under discussion, say that in fact the qualities I’m aiming for are exactly what’s missing in publishing today. So apparently that excuse for procrastination is eliminated.