In The Well of Lost Plots and his other novels set in an alternative universe in which fictional characters move to the real world and characters of the real world enter fiction, Jasper Fforde creates comedy from many ideas accepted by both eighteenth-century Neoclassical and twentieth-century Poststructuralist literary theorists — not as one might expect by mocking these ideas but by dramatizing them, by making them the stuff of his plots. In particular, Fforde, like any good neoclassicist, rejects romantic and modernist notions of creativity and originality: according to him, literature, especially storytelling, is a technology employing lots of off-the-shelf parts. As Miss Havisham explains at one point, all characters begin as generic types that authors then modify and embellish as they wish. Plots, too, have a limited number of possibilities, and this turns out to threatens literature as we know it:
"But to understand the problem we need a bit of history. When we first devised the BOOK system eighteen hundred years ago, we designed it mainly to record events — we never thought there would be such a demand for story. By the tenth century story usage was so low that we still had enough new plots to last over a thousand years. By the time the seventeenth century arrived, this had lowered to six hundred — but there was still no real cause for worry. Then, something happened that stretched the Operating System to the limit."
"Mass literacy," put in Miss Havisham.
"Exactly," replied Libris. "Demand for written stories in creased exponentially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ten years before Pamela was published in 1740, we had enough new ideas to last four hundred years; by the time of Jane Austen this had dropped to thirty. By Dickens's time ideas were almost wholly recycled, something we have been doing on and off since the thirteenth century to stave off the inevitable. But by 1884, for all intents and purposes, we had depleted our stock of original ideas." . . . .
The twentieth century has seen books being written and published at an unprecedented rate — even the introduction of the Procrastination 1.3 and Writer's-Block 2.4 Outlander viruses couldn't slow the authors down. plagiarism lawsuits are rising in the Outland; authors are beginning to write the same books. The way I see it we've got a year — possibly eighteen months — before the well of fiction runs dry."
Let's see: In many key aspects, Jane Eyre rewrites Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Gaskell's North and South and Browning's Aurora Leigh rewrites Jane Eyre. One conclusion might be, therefore, that reusing plots is not in the least a problem. Of course Vergil also self-consciously rewrites Homer, and Milton both Homer and Milton (and quite a few others). Is the limited number of plots a problem, then, or an advantage — a bug or a feature?
Fforde, Jasper. The Well of Lost Plots. Penguin, 2003. 68-69.
Last modified 19 January 2006