The Homogenization of Story: Are We Literary Toast?

The homogenization of writing is not something new. After all, various academics and over-thinkers for centuries have theorized and pontificated and argued that there are only a limited number of stories in existence, and that they are simply rehashed over and over again, whether it be the plots contained in something as sublime as the Odyssey or Anna Karenina, or the plot festering in something as regrettable as Fifty Shades of Grey. The number of these master stories, depending on which expert you believe, is anywhere from a modest three to a quite staggering thirty-six (I believe Goethe subscribed to thirty-six). Seven, however, is the most common number bandied about.

One of the more recent and comprehensive books on the subject is Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. I’m not sure if I buy his entertwined theory of the psychological evolution of mankind as reflected by story, but if you want to delve into the seven archetypal plots, his book is probably the way to go.

At any rate, what I’m interested in is the limited number of stories and the enforced homogenization that occurs because of that limit. My theory is that it wasn’t such a problem in the past, but it has become more of a problem in the present.

Why wasn’t it a bigger issue in the past? My guess is that it wasn’t a problem because I’m afraid the writer in the past was probably much better at what he did than the modern writer. Yes, I’m generalizing and making a sweeping statement, but let’s see where this goes. Education tended to be much deeper in previous centuries. If one was educated, of course. Though, that’s a moot point, as writers were, by default, a subcategory of the educated. The writer in older days had a deeper base of philosophy, a slower and richer understanding of the world. He stood on the shoulders of giants, of philosophers, theologians, the monks in their dimly lit monasteries keeping out the dark of the ages. Whether he agreed with them or not, he probably had a working knowledge of thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine, Plato and Socrates. For the most part, we scorn or ignore the giants of the past. Our older counterpart did not live as fast and as shallow as we modern scribblers. His brain was not circumcised by the 22-minute-plus-commercials episode of Law and Order or CSI:Miami, where things must wrap up and wrap up fast, every single night of the week, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.

He was confined by the limitation of seven stories, just as we are. The seven plots are the same, from Homer to George R. R. Martin, but the approaches can be quite different. Frighteningly different.

Let’s look at it from a culinary perspective. Maybe it’ll make easier sense. It’ll definitely make tastier sense. Wolfgang Puck walks into the kitchen. At the same time, Will Blount enters. Will works the lunch counter down at the local public high school. He’s a nice guy, but he’s not Wolfgang Puck. Wolfgang and Will are both given the same ingredients: apples, flour, butter, milk, eggs, heavy cream, sugar, spices, pecans, walnuts, marzipan. They’re both given the same utensils, the same stove, oven, the same amount of time.

It’s a safe bet that Will will cook or bake something radically different from Wolfgang. And vice versa.

Same plot, different chefs, radically disparate outcomes.

The role of entertainment in modern culture is, in my estimation, one of the main reasons why our stories have homogenized to such a bland degree. Inspiration has to come from somewhere. Our entertainment is mass-produced. Oddly enough, even though it seems to be generated at a frightening rate, administered to us via the internet, television and radio at the velocity of a firehose, it is quite limited in innovation and story. Therefore, we’re getting the same stuff all the time. The sitcoms are all the same. The cop dramas are all the same, just swap out the faces and the locales. What we ingest is all the same, a comfortable route 66 of strip malls and big box stores that, no matter how far we drive and no matter which state we find ourselves in, is all the same. We can pull up into any town and go into exactly the same store and buy the same item that we could’ve bought three states back. Consumption equals entertainment equals consumption equals entertainment equals what everyone else is buying and consuming.

Rather depressing, yes?

The problem with this consumption is that it is also the basic energy that powers our inspiration. Our creative adenosine triphosphate. Again, I admit I’m over-generalizing, but I daresay I’m pretty darn close to not over-generalizing.

If you doubt me, take a hard look at a genre. Pick any genre. At random, select one hundred books that have been published in that genre in the last six months and then try to figure out how many easily interchangeable parts they have with each other. Plot similarities? Main character similarities? Romantic interests? Villains? Could you mix plots together without much difficulty? Do the blurbs start to blur together? Can you find profound differences? Does Book X really stand out in comparison to Book Y? Why? What about the world-views…how many different ones can you find?

But, due to the seven story theory, it seems that homogenization is unavoidable, regardless of the crippling issue of where we get our inspiration. So aren’t we literary toast already? To a degree, yes. You can deal with the inspiration issue simply by casting your own personal net wider. That’s easy enough if you want to put the work in. Just turn off the damn TV.

The problem of the seven story theory is harder. My personal thought on fighting that, something I’m tinkering with these days, is character. If we’re confined within seven stories as writers, then attack that limitation with character. Develop characters that breathe and sing and shine, luminous with who they are. Towering, complex villains full of history and darkness and color. Heroes that leap off the page, full of life and promise and hope. Side characters who scuttle off on their own, even when they’re not in the scene anymore; you know they’re off doing their own thing, despite the fact they’ve walked out the door, out of sight. They’re so alive they have keep on living, hidden somewhere in the pages.

Don’t settle for two-dimensional characters. If you have to exist within the confines of the seven stories, and you do, we all do, then do it with characters that are more alive than you are.

Anyway. That’s my solution to the problem. I’m not sure if that’s the best one or the only one or one that suffices without some other kind of answer working alongside. After all, who am I to be pontificating like this? Just some guy who works on a farm and does some writing. But, I do get ideas. What do you think about story homogenization?


4 thoughts on “The Homogenization of Story: Are We Literary Toast?”

  1. Hmm. I’m afraid I disagree with you on a number of points, but haven’t got the time to hash it all out now. The main thing is that I don’t think there *is* a homogenization of stories any more now than there was in the past. You’re comparing enduring classics to today’s flash-in-the-pan stuff. Compare Anna Karenina to today’s Pulitzer Prize winners, or cranked-out trash to Victorian trash, and you’ll be closer to the mark (the latter will be difficult, as it’s long since been used for fire starters and never reprinted).

    Thanks for the Booker book tip, I’m going to have to read that one. I probably won’t agree with him either (I already disagree just from reading the blurb on Amazon), but I definitely need to hear what he’s saying. Have you read Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces”? I’d be surprised if Booker doesn’t heavily reference him.

    1. Yeah, I found myself not agreeing with Booker too. No, I’ve yet to read Campbell. I’ve certainly read a LOT about Campbell over the years. Seems like everyone refers to him, from George Lucas on down. I suppose I should read him.

      Well, that’s the thing. If you do compare Karenina to today’s Pulitzer’s, I’d argue there isn’t much comparison. Karenina is a monolith of profound story-telling, whereas most of what gets lauded today, in my incredibly humble opinion, is shallow cream puff. But…big topic. We’ll have to come visit up in in BC one day and spend some meals arguing this.

      1. Tell truth, I’ve read neither Anna Karenina (don’t like books with unhappy endings) nor Pulitzer winners (ditto). However, there’s also the fact that C.S. Lewis calls some of the tried, true and still-popular classics trash (Edgar Rice Burrows, for example).
        I’ve just got Booker from the library, and, holy smokes, it’s a doorstop! I might have to defer actually reading that for sometime in the future.
        Yes, do come visit; you can do research for the Ogopogo story while you’re at it.

        1. Well, it does have an unhappy ending for Anna, but the parallel plot running alongside hers has a happy ending. Very well worth reading.

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