Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

monkeysI like Scarlett Thomas books, I harbour ambitions of writing a novel one day and I love (in a very amateurish manner) thinking about how fiction works. So one would have thought that Thomas’s ‘Monkeys with Typewriters, How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories’ would have been right up my street. Whilst I enjoyed aspects of the book, the overall the impression I am left with is one big ‘Meh’. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to pinpoint why.

The book is split into two sections ‘Theory’ and ‘Practice’. In my mind it’s really three, as practice breaks down further into ‘Ideas’ and ‘Writing’. Coming from an academic background where literary theory was something layabout arts students pretended to study, I have never encountered any serious overview of the subject before. I found it mostly interesting. Plato and Aristotle, Fairy Tales and Tragedies are all examined and dissected. Toy story, Supernanny and Oedipus are deconstructed and their similarities revealed. It’s an interesting exercise.

The theory section ends with a look at the ‘8 Basic Plots’. What we essentially have is a Haynes Manual for fiction; how to bolt together the frame of your story, so its ready to add airfoils and go-faster stripes. Like a technical manual it’s a little dry in places but Thomas is an engaging instructor and she makes a dusty subject palatable.

It’s at the start of section 2 when things begin to go awry. I’ve never really read this type of book before and so have nothing to compare it to, but the problem for me stems from the fact that novel writing is an art not a science. Clearly, it is a technical discipline too, but if you don’t have a spark of creativity inside you, you can’t produce a novel. This is in fact is the spine of Thomas’s contention; infinite monkeys might come up with the complete work of Shakespeare, but to paraphrase Truman Capote, they are merely typing, not writing. The book falls down when attempting to teach artistry.

The ‘practice’ section is where the art should come in. There are some technical elements, but ultimately just about everything Thomas outlines in this book as good practice is contradicted by countless high quality novels. Thomas heavily promotes using a minimalist approach to writing, but is then forced to concede that many great novels are not minimalist, and say that there’s no need to be minimalist if you don’t want to.

I think the problem stems from this book being a distillation of the author’s Creative Writing MA course notes. We readers are being given, for little more than a tenner, thousands of pounds worth of expertise. Great value, except we can’t ask questions. There is no way to clarify, to dig deeper. If you don’t understand, you’ve had it. I became very confused during the tense/point of view discussion, to the point where I understood the subject less than I had before I started reading. I’m sure if I could have asked some questions, I would have got there. Similarly, some of the case studies are novels I haven’t read, or didn’t care for. In these cases I found it hard to buy into what Thomas was selling. Again interaction would have helped.

I could never afford to go on the full course, and even if I could, I doubt very much I’d be accepted. So access to Thomas’s methods is welcome. It is rather churlish to complain that the author doesn’t come round for a chat and a cup of tea at the end of each chapter. Having said that, in the middle sections I only continued reading out of loyalty to Thomas, her fiction and the publisher I shamelessly begged a copy from.

There are a number of exercises in the book aimed at ideas generation. Without making a concerted effort to use them (I haven’t) it’s hard to comment on their effectiveness, but whilst on the face of it they seem like a good idea, overall the concept feels abstract. They are heavily based around writing what you know, it being Thomas’s assertion that most people’s lives are far more investing than they give themselves credit for. This is all well and good, but these matrices are not so useful when it comes to writing genre fiction. Indeed there is a strong bias in the book towards producing contemporary literary fiction, which is of course what Thomas writes herself.

The final chapters piqued my interest once more, particularly on writing a good sentence. On the rare occasions I do write, I agonise endlessly over word selection and order. Thomas gives some very useful pointers. The final section, on the graft of writing was also useful, probably because this is more of a science than an art. It helped me realise some of my habits (generally work avoiding ones) are acceptable and commonplace, and gave a few helpful suggestions on increasing the amount of quality work produced.

The book ends with a question would-be authors should ask themselves, ‘If the only copy of my novel was stranded on a mountain, would I rescue it?’ It’s a powerful question, but I wonder how Thomas would have answered it whilst writing this book. Perhaps it’s because it’s a non-fiction book, but it lacks the passion of her fiction.

Monkeys with Typwriters, is in no way a bad writing manual. It just didn’t thrill me. I found some of the book useful and interesting, but there are no earth-shattering secrets held within its pages (perhaps because none exist). So on completion, I posed myself a question I ask of a lot of books, ‘If I left this book on a train, would I go back to rescue it?’ Probably not.

Many thanks to Matthew at Canongate for sending me a copy to review.

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2 thoughts on “Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

  1. Interesting to read your slightly more forgiving review, especially since you are more likely to write a novel than I am. Looks like we’re agreed on the need for the other, student’s side of the coin to be present in a book like this though. 🙂

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