Morons with Typewriters [A Review]

Good writing is an art. When we look at it, sentence by sentence, we should feel joy. We should feel the thrill of being the person who by reading it makes it mean something.

-Scarlett Thomas, Monkeys with Typewriters (the missing commas are her fault).

Oh boy.

I’d like, first, to list my apprehensions about giving my thoughts on this book. It is not often I have an attack of conscience, but here I am:
1) To Scarlett Thomas – I’m sure you’ve improved in the 5 years after this book has been published. I hope you’re a competent writer now. Also, I don’t doubt you’re a kindhearted person.
2) I, on the other hand, am not a kindhearted person. But I will, to the best of my abilities, try to keep this review honest, because this book concerns me greatly.
Other than this… on with the review. Tally-ho.

MwT

Even this book’s cover is wrong. Look at the monkey’s tail, it’s cut off on the left of the typewriter. Oh, we’re off to a great start.

If you have read this book, or are in the process of reading it, you fit into one of two camps. Either: you picked this book up because you wanted to learn how to write. Or: you go to a specific university in which this book is forced upon you harshly. I’m in the latter category.

I harbour a great amount of animosity towards this… “work”. This is in part because of the reason why I have to read it, but mostly because of its content. Therefore, I will be focusing on the content of this book rather than my own experiences with it, because the content is universal. The experience is mine only.

If you’ve read my recent post On Writers you’ll know what I feel about how-to-write books. However, with most how-to-write books, (I mentioned Stephen King’s On Writing, plus one I picked up called How Not to Write a Novel) I am content to simply ignore them. I will let them vanish from my peripheral vision because they are not offensive, particularly. I disagree with their content, for the most part, but they are not harmful to the aspiring writist.

Monkeys with Typewriters, however, is. It’s harmful. Harmful in that it teaches the wrong things. I am a great believer in the theory that writing cannot be taught. As with any skill, it must be developed over 1000 hours of practice. Only then will someone be confident and competent enough to do it properly.

Let’s just start from the beginning.

Thomas does, admittedly, do some things right. She dumbs down Aristotle and Plato for the people whose only reading experience has been the Mr. Men series, plus rehashes ideas that do inspire some new thought. But that is where the list of good things ends.

My concerns first began when I was reading the chapter “Tragedy and the Complex Plot.” Apparently, Thomas doesn’t know what the word ‘concise’ means, as repetition of her words pops up time and time again. One minute she’ll be explaining how “Sebastian [in Cruel Intentions] really loves Annette,” despite wanting “to sleep with Kathryn,” then, four pages later, saying “Sebastian intends to betray Annette in order to sleep with Kathryn… he finds out he is in love with Annette.” Wow thanks! I didn’t know Sebastian loved Annette, I forgot after page 80! Thanks for reminding me on page 84! Man. Memory like a sieve, am I right?

Don’t tell me what I already know! Good lord, maybe Stephen King was right, maybe we should all aim for minimalism in our work! Urgh, Scarlett Thomas is making me consider Stephen King… I feel a little ill.

“But what harm can repetition do?” Hm, is that the question you’re asking? Look – a book isn’t a fucking song. We don’t have differing verses and one chorus. We have ≈50,000 words to make a story. Don’t waste them saying what you already said.

However, perhaps we should consider confiscating those 50,000 words from Scarlett Thomas, because she clearly doesn’t know what to do with them. In the chapterHow to have Ideas,” she demonstrates the concept of a fiction matrix.

Here, I will pause, because I want to explain what a matrix is. Basically, it’s a chart with a bunch of questions in it that you answer as yourself (as opposed to as a character, or a writer). With this matrix, you are supposed to be able to use it to come up with a plot. It isn’t a bad concept by any means, but I maintain it will only be useful for amateur or inexperienced writers.

Here are some of the headings in Thomas’ suggestion matrix: Character names, 4 locations you know well, Skills/knowledge you have, What do you worry about? and What are your current obsessions?

If we fill in these columns, the only column unlikely to be related to us is the Character names column. All the other columns relate to the writer in some way. This is an issue because there is only so much of your life you can put into a book. As Thomas herself says, “And then the autobiographical material ran out.” Not only this, but if you simply use skills/knowledge that you have, and places that you’ve been, unless you know how to put an aeroplane back together, have experience with shapeshifting, know what the emotional timeline of attempting an assassination is, and have been to places like the Arctic, perhaps the Mariana Trench, or even an alien city, you will be writing something boring.

“I used to be a waitress, and I’ve been to Inverness, Detroit and London.” Wow. Who cares. Who fucking cares. I want to read about something I’ve not experienced before, so don’t talk to me of waitressing, travelling for four hours in a car, or how difficult it is to find the right aisle in an unknown supermarket. I do not care. At all.

The matrix might work if you’re a starting writer. But if you’re experienced enough, never use one. If you have been writing successfully without one until now, don’t use one. It’ll make your story boring.

Speaking of boring stories, let’s return to what I was talking about before I explained matrices: Thomas’ demonstration. She does demonstrate two matrices in her appendix, but the one I remember most is… well. She quotes an extract from her book that contains a matrix.

In theory… no, wait, even in theory this is a stupid idea. “Look at me! I can do a matrix!” is all I hear when I look upon the abomination of the extract. It’s from PopCo, her book about a toyshop or something, which received lukewarm reviews. Essentially, in this extract, her character Alice describes a matrix which is “on the desk in front of [her].” After an image of the abhorrent thing, Thomas then explains the matrix.

Yes. Thomas explains the matrix, not Alice. Technically, Alice is still the one speaking, since the book is in first-person. However, it is painful to read, because, at this point, Alice ceases to exist. Poof. Her character is gone. Instead, Thomas barges in to explain what a matrix is and how to do one, destroying not only her character but any enjoyment or immersion a reader may have had.

How do I know this? Well, she says, “But with this thing called ‘Random Juxtaposition’ (an idea of Edward de Bono’s, of course), well, you can have many good ideas.” Who the fuck is Edward de Bono? I Googled him just now, he’s apparently the father of Lateral thinking. But… does this mean Alice knows who Edward de Bono is? No, it doesn’t. Thomas knows who Edward de Bono is “of course.” Alice doesn’t exist in this paragraph, because Thomas had to explain what her wonderful matrix is!

How can I make this clear to anyone reading this article…

DO NOT DO THIS.

Don’t. I really mean it, do not do this. You have no idea how much this pissed me off. I’m sitting here, reading a book for university (university of all places!) and it’s demonstrating the wrong way to write a book! Never demonstrate you know how to do something in a novel. Never. I did it once, seven years ago, after I’d learned the order brackets go in. I was so pleased with myself I put it into my novel at once! Ohoh, how clever they will think I am. I don’t care if I sacrifice character for my own little chance to show my knowledge!

No.

Stop it. Take it out of the book. Please. I’ll fucking get my scissors and cut this page out if I have to; when I return this book at the end of the year, I don’t want the next poor sap buying it to succumb to this sort of demonstration.

Whenever I’m asked to read a chapter of this book now, I smirk with derision. I try to skim through the chapter so I don’t get lost in the next seminar, but the idea of reading it turns my stomach. I don’t want to read this idiot’s words. She doesn’t know what she’s fucking talking about, at all. The matrix thing was my limit.

I won’t read another page (I will though, for my seminar [but I won’t read it properly {I’ll skim it at most <end me please>}]).

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2 thoughts on “Morons with Typewriters [A Review]

  1. “[This review] is BS,” says a friend of mine. This friend did not realise it was I who indeed wrote this. “It’s a guy who, from what I gather has not been published through any outlet apart from his own, is just slagging off a writer who’s writing an ‘intentionally’ dumbed down how-to-write book.”

    This does make me want to say one last thing, a little post-script: if you like the book, read the damn thing, I don’t care. Enjoy it if you like. I don’t make the rules. Just don’t be surprised if you end up with a “dumbed down” story.

    As a post-post-script though, I of course value the honesty. Reflecting on Writers in my last post really made me think of how true it is that “the only say is the reader’s say”. This was my friend’s say on my article, which was my say on the book. If he says “BS” then it’s “BS” to him. I cannot defend myself against his opinion. I wouldn’t want to – he was my reader.

    But he also said I was funny. So cheers!

    -L.S.

    Like

  2. I really enjoyed your review and laughed out loud at the bit where you said that you would cut the offending page out if you had to. Great review and it shows just how far you have come as a writer. Your review is not BS but the MWT book certainly sounds like it deserves this honourary title. Keep up the great reviews. What’s next?

    Like

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