Review: Monkeys With Typewriters

The subtitle of Scarlett Thomas’ writing manual Monkeys with Typewriters is “How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories”, which sounds uncannily like one of those hack self-help manuals Thomas’ character Meg makes fun of in Our Tragic Universe.

The book itself is developed from a series of lectures Thomas developed for her course on creative writing at the University of Kent. It’s divided into two parts, theory and practice. The theory section focuses mainly on how plots are constructed (Thomas thinks there are eight basic plots, not seven), drawing on classics like Plato’s parable of the cave, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Oedipus Rex, as well as a host of contemporary examples. The practice section focuses on, well, practical matters: how to have ideas (which is honestly probably one of my biggest challenges as a writer), how to write character (Stanislavsky’s theory of acting, apparently), how to construct nice sentences. And so on.

Essentially, her advice boils down to: be true; and be specific. She advises aspiring writers to fill in a matrix that asks for things like “four jobs you have held or identities you have had”, “your current obsessions”, “problems you have faced” – with the idea that you’ll use this information, this unique combination of experience and knowledge that only you have, to develop characters and themes and plots. It’s “write what you know”, only more nuanced and practical than that makes it sound.

With that in mind, it becomes very much less surprising that a lot of this material is recognisable from Our Tragic Universe. I’m pretty sure there’s an actual direct quote at one point, when Thomas is talking about Aristophanes’ play The Frogs, although it’s not marked as such. Meg teaches a creative writing retreat because Scarlett Thomas teaches creative writing; she hates genre writing because Scarlett Thomas thinks genre writing is less challenging than modern realism.*

There’s an obvious problem with this approach, which is that, applied poorly, it becomes not so much “write what you know” as “navel-gazing”. Potentially, it restricts your range of expression to your personal experience – which is probably not brilliant news for diversity in your novel. It stops you imagining genuinely new ways of being human, which is one of the things I personally value in fiction.

But! Thomas’ writing voice is as charming as ever: accessible, clear and specific, which, given the concepts she’s chucking around, is pretty impressive. In particular, her analysis of various plots, from Oedipus Rex to There’s No Business Like Showbusiness, is really fascinating and thought-provoking. I’d also be quite interested in filling in her matrix and seeing what spills out – hopefully kickstarting my stalling SF novel back into life. (I’ve already gutted it and redrafted it once, though, so I shouldn’t hope too hard.) I…may even be considering buying my own copy (this was a library find). It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.


*This last is a little surprising given that The End of Mr Y is definitely SFF – albeit SFF with a fascinating conceptual spin. But it’s like writers of clever SFF who come from a lit-fic background think they’re the very first people to write clever SFF? And it’s frustrating, as a person who lives and breathes SFF and who aspires to write the clever kind some day.

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