:: Article

A study in Scarlett

By Max Dunbar.

Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories, Scarlett Thomas, Canongate 2012

Scarlett Thomas seems like the last writer in the world who should write a creative writing handbook. The main criticism of first drafts by aspirant writers is that they are full of ‘too many characters, too many ideas’ – well, Thomas’s books are full of ideas, a bewildering array of concepts, schema, interactivity and alternate universes. Before beginning her novel PopCo, Thomas wrote a list of everything she was currently interested in, including ‘Cellular automata’, ‘The Voynich Manuscript’, ‘World War Two’ and ‘Pirates’. She followed that with The End of Mr Y, a lengthy fable involving quantum physics, deconstructionism and time travel, and her last book, Our Tragic Universe, was another massive glockenspiel of esoteric reference and mind-blowing theory.

So Thomas’ creative writing book, Monkeys with Typewriters, is a lot more rambling and digressive than a creative writing handbook would normally be. The classic beginning writer’s text, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, is around 105 pages. Stephen King’s On Writing comes in at 384, and King regrets in the text that even after all these years he still cannot be as concise as he would like to be. Scarlett Thomas has clocked up 480 pages by the time Monkeys with Typewriters finally comes screeching to a halt: complete with appendices, exercises, matrices, and fifty pages of endnotes.

Our Tragic Universe, with its complex metafictional themes of Omega Point theory, the Beast of Dartmoor and the storyless story, seems like a mess. I picked it up a couple of years ago and became frustrated with the book because the main character, Meg, seemed so hopeless, a roadblocked literary novelist living in a leaking house with a cruel and depressive boyfriend. Frustrated in a good way because Meg Carpenter and her awful life were so well realised: you just wanted to shout ‘For God’s sake! Snap out of this.’ Meg’s curiosity and her search for truth propel the story and bring in Thomas’s ideas. The book becomes compulsive. I read it again, and thought of writing something on it, but it seemed impossible to explain: might as well try to summarise Proust. The themes are complex, but there is a coherence – Nick Royle put it well, noting the sense of ‘eddies of intense activity in a slowly flowing river.’ Thomas’ fiction works because she has big ideas but also has her feet on the ground. There is a solid knowledge of human nature, and she writes with discipline. As a young writer Thomas was inspired by Martin Amis, but ‘It turns out I am a naturally a more minimalist writer who admires, but just can’t do, all that expansive stuff.’ But there is more than strict minimalism to her prose – there’s a constant feeling of slipping from one world into the next.

Thomas is at heart a practical writer and what she understands is that stories are everywhere. There is a scene in Our Tragic Universe where Meg teaches a creative writing workshop and makes the class watch game shows and TV adverts, pointing out the story structure for each one. Thomas doesn’t share the literary world’s dismissal of popular culture. She understands that you can learn something from everything. A Gok Wan style makeover show is the basic rags to riches tale. Other reality shows follow a benign version of the ‘stranger comes to town’ mythos – Supernanny or the Secret Millionaire walk into dysfunctional communities, sort out everyone’s problems and leave everything happy and resolved. Human beings are natural storytellers – pans narrans – and consciously or not, we create narratives wherever we go. The Ancient Greek philosophies that founded Western civilisation were written as fictions (in an endnote, Thomas theorises that Plato’s Republic was intended as satire) Voltaire’s Candide is written in novel form and most of our religious texts can be read as fictions. We look for stories everywhere. As Thomas points out, ‘bus driver wins the Booker’ will get more attention than ‘UEA graduate wins Booker’, even though the latter scenario is far more likely. Endemol producers imposed central storylines upon the Big Brother house probably not for ratings purposes, but because it’s what human beings are wired up to do.

So Monkeys with Typewriters combines high literature with sitcoms, detective series, and performance art. How to translate this cluttered range of reference into practical instruction for people who want to write fiction? Thomas teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and here she gets on to the basics of narration, characterisation, ideas and prose. I have my differences with the academic model of creative writing, mainly because it seems full of people who don’t read for pleasure, believe great novels can be produced by committee or workshop and don’t seem to get the point that writing is fun, it’s a physical buzz – that’s why we do it. Thomas herself admits that many group assessments of a student’s work are unreliable and that consensus advice can send you seriously astray.

One thing I did get from the workshop model was the importance of being able to cut and refine prose. Orwell’s rule one, ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’, should be etched into every writer’s heart. Thomas has a brilliant exercise called ‘The Bank of Words’ where concrete nouns and verbs are free, but cliches, abstract nouns and adverbs cost money: the object is to get through five hundred words without breaking your £100 budget. But Thomas then runs into a new problem: many of the best and most successful writers are very verbose. As she says: ‘How could I live with this weird situation where it was OK for Nicola Barker, Martin Amis and Arundhati Roy for my adverbs, but not all right for my students?’ This is never really resolved. All I can say is that expansive sentences are often made out of carefully cut components and you need to learn the rules before you can break them.

No amount of money or education can guarantee talent and Thomas argues that the writer’s job is not to provide big answers. She quotes Chekhov’s letter to a publisher friend:

You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist. Not a single problem is solved in Anna Karenina or Eugene Onegin, but they satisfy you completely only because all the problems in them are formulated correctly.

Thomas’s creative handbook will maybe not make you into a twenty first century Chekhov, but it is as full of wit, wonder and correctly formulated questions as her fantastic fiction.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 10th, 2013.