A little background: I recently (well, two years ago now) became a huge fan of Scarlett Thomas. So far, I've read five of her novels (The End of Mr. Y, Bright Young Things, and Our Tragic Universe being my favorites); I'm planning on reading her three crime novels, which she doesn't seem to be very proud of, soon. I'm also a writer. I've finished two novels and am working on my third now. (None published, because I don't think they're good enough to be seen by other people yet.) When she announced that she had a new book coming out, I was hoping for a new novel, but a book about writing also sounded interesting. What aspiring writer wouldn't want some tips from their favorite novelist? Well, let's just say that her fiction is a lot more interesting than her non-fiction. The first part of this book, "Theory," was only mildly interesting. In fact, it mostly felt like I was reading a textbook on creative writing. The chapters in this part talk about Plato, Aristotle, tragedy, Russian fairy tales, and Thomas' idea of eight basic plots. I don't particularly care what either Plato or Aristotle have to say about fiction writing, but their chapters were a joy to read when compared to the chapter on Russian fairy tales. This chapter talks about Vladimir Propp's work in identifying 31 "functions" in Russian fairy tales, like: the villain is defeated, the hero returns, and the hero is married and ascends the throne. If you're interested in more, Thomas provides a list of all 31 functions Propp identified. Not only was this chapter utterly dull, Thomas failed to convince me that this had anything to do with fiction writing, especially if one is interested in writing novels.
Part two of the book, "Practice," is where things finally get interesting. The first chapter in this section, on how to have ideas, was a complete delight, especially after the dry tone from the first part. Here, Thomas finally talks about her ways of writing and plotting, with examples from her own work. Other topics covered in this part: styles of narration, characterization, writing a good sentence, and beginning to write a novel. The only chapter in this part that I found painful to read was the one about characterization. It's interesting at first, as Thomas explores how method acting as developed by Stanislavski can be useful not just to actors, but fiction writers as well. But then this chapter goes on and on and on, which I found strange since I thought that one of the things her last novel (Our Tragic Universe) lacked was believable characters. I really liked the chapter on writing a good sentence until she felt the need to show examples from the work of Nicola Barker, who I think is a terrible writer. I tried reading her novel Clear, based on Thomas' recommendation, and absolutely hated it. I'm still kind of pissed about the time I spent reading the first 55 pages of that novel and the six bucks I spent on it. If Thomas had just used an example and left it at that, that would be fine with me. I'd say in my head "I think that's terrible writing" and move on, but Thomas keeps talking about Barker's work, trying to convince the reader that even though it's breaking all the rules she teaches in Monkeys with Typewriters, that it's still good writing. And then she shares this gem: "I tried teaching Nicola Barker novels, only for my students - who had all been trained to fear the adverb - to declare them 'overwritten' and 'annoying'." I've never been trained to fear adverbs and I'd say those are accurate words to describe Barker's writing. Frankly, this section of the chapter made me think that Thomas was trying to convince herself more than anyone else of how good Barker's writing was. I'm guessing they're friends or something. Thankfully, she also shares examples from some good writing, like The Bell Jar and The God of Small Things. The last chapter, on beginning to write a novel, was another favorite. Here Thomas shares her thoughts on when to write and when not to. I can't say I agreed with all of it, but it was interesting none-the-less to see how another novelist went about it. One thing that I found especially useful and will incorporate into my own writing is the practice of focusing on one scene at a time.
Who would I recommend this book to? I think fans of Scarlett Thomas who are also aspiring writers (especially of literary fiction), but haven't really thought about or done much writing, would find it the most useful. For those of us who've been around the block awhile, there's probably not much new here. I know I won't be coming back to this book often, if ever. I did find Thomas' insistence on authenticity and originality very admirable, even though I disagreed with her assessment of genre fiction. So why four stars? If I just considered my thoughts on this book and its usefulness to me, I'd give it three stars. I gave it an extra star because I do realize that I might not be the ideal audience for this work. And the second part (this book is quite lengthy, clocking in at 480 pages) really saved it for me. I just wished she'd have focused more on talking about her own novels throughout.
Overall, Monkeys with Typewriters has some interesting and useful ideas about writing, as well as a lot of info that I could've done without. If you're looking to be inspired to write, this is probably not the right book for you. If, however, you want to learn about writing throughout the ages and one novelist's ideas about writing a novel, then you could do a lot worse. Either way, I know what I'm looking forward to the most after reading this book: Scarlett Thomas' next novel.
- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Soft Skull Pr (14 February 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1593766653
- ISBN-13: 978-1593766658
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.2 x 22.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 567 g
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