As someone who has himself been guilty of diagramming out narrative structures, I recently had my attention directed to an infographic alleged to depict the thematic content of a particular book. On first glance, this looks cool, and not unlike the slow downward progress of a Hamlet’s Hit Points beat analysis map.
When you check out what it actually measures, the wonkiness surfaces. Welcome to the blissfully obtuse world of the Book Genome Project, which measures the quantity of certain tropes and motifs, which it seems to think are the same thing as themes. It bases itself on the already peculiar assumptions of the Music Genome Project, which powers the Pandora streaming service. The MGP thinks that people choose music based on abstract, objective criteria like “major key tonality” or a “dynamic male vocalist.” Actually we respond more according to cultural aspiration, identity formation, and the indefinable talent of people working within the styles we’re already drawn to. When Pandora works, it’s because of its user fine-tuning.
Gene-sequenced music seems downright on-point compared to judging a book by the quantity of attention given to a motif or trope in a work of literature. This leads to such hilarity as the following gem, from the Book Lamp FAQ. (BISAC is the standard subject header system, as seen on a book’s front matter page.)
A book with 90% Vampires is a very different book than one with 5% Vampires, but both would probably receive the same label in the BISAC classification.
Clearly the above was typed by an android.
We as readers might respond to certain tropes and motifs, seeking some and staying clear of others. But they are externals, and tell us nothing about why one story using a motif becomes a staple of the canon and countless others vanish from the collective imagination.
Believe me, I didn't want to take the glasses off for this one. But if we’ve learned nothing else here today, vampires are not a theme!