If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may have found me banging on about my girl crush on Scarlett Thomas. I had a brief wobble over Our Tragic Universe but, after reading Monkeys with Typewriters, I am fully back on board with declaring her a genius. I started reading towards the tail end of October and 37 pages in (when I learned that The Matrix is a retelling of Plato’s Cave) I decided that I couldn’t even think of attempting NaNoWriMo without finishing the book.
If you’re a writing enthusiast, reading enthusiast or have a crush on Scarlett Thomas, then I recommend you read it too.
Though by night Thomas is a pretty clever author who writes really interesting books, by day she is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent University and I have to say, her teaching experience really comes across in the text. Not only does she pitch her tone really well for the novice writer- engaging, encouraging and constructive, but she includes a lot of practical advice that I hadn’t read in any other books which profess to help you write better. And I have to say, I’ve read quite extensively in this area- from text books for Open University writing courses to books aimed at a general readership in the trade market, I have dipped into a lot of books attempting to inhabit this niche. I can honestly say, to use a £50 pound cliché (you’ll have to read the book) that Thomas’ blows them out of the water.
Where most books will focus on picking a subject and target readership or describing a banana in a truly novel way, Thomas’ book gets down to the nitty gritty of why some plots work and some plots just don’t. Though the latter half of the book does examine sentence level writing, characterisation and the writing process, the first half of the book is entirely devoted to narrative- exploring structure, cause and effect, basic plots and narrative styles showing how well constructive stories get the reader’s attention and poorly constructed stories lose both their interest and sympathy. What I especially liked about this was how clearly this was explained and how carefully it was illustrated through the examples chosen. I never felt that I was being patronised, Thomas’ tone may be friendly, but the book is well grounded in grown up land with references to Aristotle, Chekhov, Propp and Stanislavski. I found the discussion of Stanislavski’s system especially interesting, as I’ve always thought that his methods were only really of relevance in theatre studies and the dramatic arts, but really it makes total sense that understanding what he says about finding the emotional truth would equally apply to a writer… It all sounds very simple, but that’s the genius of this book. It helps you understand and makes you see where you haven’t exactly been going wrong, but haven’t excelled yourself either.
I’ve been reading sections aloud to my friends and family for a while now. I also impressed my colleagues when we were talking about Plato’s Cave and I was able to explain how The Matrix is basically the same story.
If you do want to read an alternative view, I follow The Guardian on Twitter, and a pretty wanky review from Leo Benedictus (no, I hadn’t heard of him either)popped up in my twitter feed shortly before I started the book. In it, the reviewer questions who the book is for (well, novice writers… anyone wanting to improve their writing or starting writing for the first time with little formal training…)and questions what he’ll get from it. But as he is a published author (I sometimes wonder if super snipey reviews are there to promote one’s own work rather than discuss that of others…) I hardly think he’s the target market. Either way, I think he’s totally missed the point.
I would have recommended this to my A-level students when teaching, and I wish I had read it when I was doing my OU course. It is certainly something that I will continue to refer to whenever I dabble with writing again.