An infinite number of writing tips: A review of Monkeys with Typewriters

Reviewed in this essay: Monkeys with Typewriters, Scarlett Thomas, Canongate, 2012

Those who can, write; those who can’t, write how-to-write manuals. Of the thousands of fiction and screenwriting how-to books out there, far too few are by published or produced writers. In fact, this former wannabe screenwriter can’t think of a single one. Until now.

Scarlett Thomas, the novelist of ideas (PopCo, The End of Mr. Y, Our Tragic Universe) who is one of the most ambitious writers in the United Kingdom today—and a writing teacher at the University of Kent—has just published a distillation of her course lectures with the characteristically quirky title Monkeys with Typewriters, and it’s the best book I’ve seen of its kind.

The first part of the book, “Theory,” is surprisingly old school. It covers the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Poetics, Vladimir Propp’s analysis of Russian folk tales, Nietzsche on tragedy, Shklovsky on defamiliarization, and Toronto’s own Northrop Frye, concluding with a discussion of the Eight Basic Plots. This is academic, even dry, material but it is fundamental and rarely, if ever, covered with this degree of seriousness. It’s also leavened by Thomas’s choice of examples: using Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to illustrate Aristotle’s rules is both inventive and instructive.

The book would be deadly if Thomas presented these principles as recipes that any story must follow. I would be very surprised to learn that David Mitchell, say, ran his ideas through the mill of Propp’s 31 basic functions before he started Cloud Atlas. But I read it instead as teaching that one has to learn basic plot structures in order to find plausible ways for one’s characters to think and act. Character is expressed in action, so plot comes first.

The second section, “Practice,” is the heart of the book. Every writing manual has its own method for creating stories. Because Thomas is adamant that our best material comes from ourselves (refreshingly, writing about people you know is “limiting, embarrassing and also, of course, morally dubious”), hers is the “matrix,” which draws out the writer’s own data and with which she generates several illustrative plots.

Thomas is sometimes brilliant on technical matters; she has the best explanation of “free indirect style” (the third-person style that dips into and out of the characters’ consciousnesses) I have seen. Her deconstruction of her tossed-off example of bad writing is, as they say, worth the price of the book. But what I like best is her attitude: moral seriousness without preachiness (remarkable in such an admirer of Tolstoy), rising to eloquence on the need to write with compassion (she is also an admirer of Chekhov).

As with all books of its kind, there’s much to argue with in Monkeys with Typewriters, but it has taught me a lot. It may even have taught me how to write fiction—so if ever you see a story under my name, you know who to blame.