One of the more misleading headlines of recent times was the one that suggested, for readers, there was no difference between the trashy romance porn of Fifty Shades of Grey and such established classics as Ulysses, War and Peace or Metamorphosis.
This led into a report of a research study that found that all novels are based on one of only six plots.
The University of Vermont academics reached this conclusion – which has long been a staple of fiction-writing courses everywhere – after using “sentiment analysis to examine the “emotional arcs” of 1722 novels.
Their work was hardly original; but at least they had the grace to acknowledge it was inspired by an 1985 lecture by Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse 5, that advanced the same six-plot theory.
Examples of these half-dozen story-lines include the “man in a hole” plot of Moby Dick, the “riches to rags” of King Lear and the “rags to riches” of Oliver Twist.
The Cinderella theme sees fortunes rising, falling and rising again. The Icarus plot has characters making a spectacular rise before an equally spectacular fall. And the Oedipus story-line has the protagonist fall, rise and fall.
All of which might well be true and demonstrable.
However, what the researchers did not say (and nor did Vonnegut) was what was implied by the Daily Telegraph headline: that because of plot similarity there is no greater literary merit in a classic than that offered by the trashier novels now proliferating at an alarming rate.
Two writers may well set out to create a rags to riches story. But there the similarity ends. It is how the writers develop that basic plot line and the characters it involves that will make the eventual difference between them. As will their use of language, their style and the complexity of the narrative.
Let’s hope that the Telegraph headline does not mislead anyone into believing that they have immersed themselves in great literature by spending a few hours with Fifty Shades and others of that ilk … because they sure as hell haven’t.