Scarlett Thomas, Monkeys with Typewriters (2012)

The infinite monkey theorem says that, given enough time, a monkey with a typewriter will almost certainly produce the complete works of Shakespeare just from tapping the keys at random. As Scarlett Thomas points out in the introduction to this creative writing book, though, writers don’t work that way – they write with purpose (though of course that’s not the be-all and end-all of a finished work), and don’t have unlimited time. This is one of the recurring themes of Monkeys with Typewriters: that writing is more than a technical exercise, even if you can see some of its workings.

It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have chosen to read this book had the publisher not sent me a copy on spec, because I’ve no ambitions to write fiction. But Thomas has such a distinctive style of writing fiction that I was intrigued to see what she had to say. It turns out that Monkeys with Typewriters is interesting for readers as well as aspiring writers. Thomas is less concerned with telling her readers ‘how to write’ as encouraging to think more deeply about how what they read and write works.

The first half of the book is devoted to ‘Theory’, and especially to examining the mechanics of plots. Thomas goes from Plato, through Aristotle and Nietzsche, to Northrop Frye and Christopher Booker, examining (and sometimes criticising) the different ways plots have been analysed and classified. There’s plenty of food for thought here, even for a non-writer – I like Thomas’s distinction between story (the chronological events that happen) and plot (how those events are arranged by the writer), which I hadn’t thought of in the way before. It’s also fascinating to see the connections Thomas makes, such as when she highlights the similar basic narrative arcs of Toy Story, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and an episode of Supernanny. Underneath it all is an enthusiasm for writers to find and do their own thing; after presenting her idea of ‘the eight basic plots’, Thomas invites her readers to devise their own taxonomy.

After ‘Theory’ comes ‘Practice’. Some of the material in this section (such as the chapters on having ideas and the practicalities of writing) is inevitably going to be of more specialised interest – but, even then, it’s not unengaging. The rest will surely get any reader thinking anew about characterisation, narration, and how sentences work. Thomas is an excellent guide through her examples, drawing on classic and contemporary texts alike (from Anna Karenina and Middlemarch to The God of Small Things and number9dream). For her, it’s not about one size fitting all, but about whatever works in context. And this section might well cause you to add one or two books to your to-read list; it only took Thomas to quote one short sentence (‘The lawn was white with doctors’) to convince me I ought to read The Bell Jar.

Whether you want to write or not, Monkeys with Typewriters is the kind of book that renews your enthusiasm for reading in general, a book that believes – and encourages its readers to believe – that great fiction matters. Thomas ends her book with a checklist of key questions for writers. The last one is: ‘If the only copy of my novel was stranded on the top of a mountain, would I go up to rescue it?’ Perhaps the key message of Monkeys with Typewriters is that the only fiction worth writing – and reading – is the sort for which you would head up that mountain. And I’d say a book which argues that is one worth reading.

4 Comments

  1. I must, of course, read the book in full but I would on the face of it just say this on the matter of climbing that mountain: I have met few writers who would have the belief and confidence in their own work to think it so important that they would make that climb. Most writers it seems to me, are their own hardest critics and many would be grateful to see their work as high up a mountain as possible – unless of course someone read it, reviewed it and liked it – only then would they believe in it – in fact, they’d probably send up search parties and rescue helicopters!

  2. I’m intrigued by the range of her examples and the rather unique sounding perspective she has on the landscape of fiction, another book about books for the wishlist I think. 🙂

  3. I’m a big fan of Scarlett Thomas’ work so will definitely be checking this one out!

  4. I’m also going to be buying this book. I’ve read most of Scarlett Thomas’ books – I think I enjoyed PopCo the most – so it will be interesting to get a better understanding of her approach to reading and writing.

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