ADVANTAGES

Anatomy of Criticism is a little like Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle said plot was the crucial element of fiction and drew some inferences from that — which went mostly unrefuted. Frye showed that there were four basic plots. more or less. But neither theorist established what we now call a “research program” that others could imitate and extend.

To understand a story one must follow it along, like an argument. The story’s plot is central, and it turns out that there are only so many basic plots. Frye worked out the details of the four basic forms, and added a quasi-religious sense of what the purpose of it all is. Aristotle thought good stories gave us psychological knowledge. However, as in the case of anatomy itself (the biological discipline), once you have the facts about plots right, that is just about that. Poetics and Anatomy are two of the greatest works of literary theory ever written. The third is Meyer Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp (Galaxy Books, 1971), which describes the one significant change in our basic ideas about literature in the last 2,500 years: the move from the centrality of fictional stories to expression. Sadly, these texts are not much read by students today.

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