Can a Bunch of Typing Monkeys Write a Best-Seller?

It’s been said that if a million monkeys typed for a million years, they’d eventually whap out the complete works of William Shakespeare. During a recent bout of writer’s block, I decided to test this theory in a somewhat scaled-down form.

Instead of a million chimpanzees, I bought a dozen rhesus monkeys and set them up in my garage. I didn’t need them to write a Shakespeare play. Nobody reads Shakespeare anymore. My plan was to train twelve of these little fellows to type for a few months in the hope that they’d come up with a John Grisham thriller or something by Danielle Steele. You know, the kind of book people pick up at the airport or grocery store—something marketable and easy to read.

To get the experiment started, I set up a dozen workstations, with a standard Dell computer at each desk. Each monkey was assigned a computer, and I gave each one his or her own password. Next, I taught them how to log on to Google docs, since I can’t afford twelve licenses for Microsoft Word, and showed them how to set up a collaborative document, which would record the output of their massive monkey mind-meld.

Immediately, there were problems. Two of the younger monkeys insisted I buy them iPads, and claimed they couldn’t work in such an oppressively structured environment. They wanted to roam around the backyard, where, they claimed, inspiration was more likely to strike.

All the other monkeys except for one were completely stumped by the whole password thing, and got so angry that they started smashing their keyboards and screens. Maybe equipment damage wasn’t an issue when the million-monkey theorem was first proposed. But nowadays, a dozen monkeys with insufficient tech support can cause thousands of dollars in damage in less than ten minutes.

Since I declined the monkey-mayhem protection policy at Best Buy, I had to drain my savings to buy a new set of computers. When the replacement computers arrived, I did the smart thing and unlocked them so all the monkeys had to do was bang on the keys for eight hours a day.

Turns out monkeys are lazy, though, and get bored of poking at computer keys after about five minutes. They also do not like to sit still. None of them would stay in their seats. Before noon on the first day there were monkeys swinging from the ceiling and hopping from desk to desk, screeching and howling and making as much noise as they possibly could. The neighbors complained. The police issued me a warning. Still, there was little I could do to round up my renegade monkeys and keep them on task.

I tried everything to regain their cooperation and trust—more frequent bathroom breaks, an unlimited supply of bananas, backyard privileges for the most productive monkeys—but nothing worked. The bottom line was that they didn’t care about the project, and no matter how many inspirational speeches I gave, I couldn’t make them care.

Finally, after a couple of weeks, I gave up. Everything they wrote was crap, anyway. The smartest one produced a few good sentences, but he was obviously borrowing stylistic flourishes from James Joyce’s Ulysses, and got offended when I asked him to dumb his work down. “Remember, we’re aiming for a mass-market best-seller here, not great literature,” was all I said, and he started throwing his feces at me. Honestly, if you’re skin is that thin, I told him, you should find another line of work.

Since the experiment was a total failure, I sold eleven of the monkeys to a guy who was starting a fake-news website. He took six of the computers too; the rest I recycled. I kept the smartest monkey as a pet because I felt sorry for him. He clearly has some talent, but his writing is far too experimental and highbrow—not the kind of thing anyone would ever publish. I knew he’d starve out in the real world, so now I feed him in exchange for help on my website and some light editing.

He still throws things at me occasionally, but hey, he’s a monkey. And it’s not like I pay him. The one concession I made, at his request, was to call him an “intern,” rather than “my main monkey.” It was better for his resume, he argued, then he picked a bug out of my hair and ate it.

Perhaps the experiment would have worked better if I had more monkeys, but I don’t see how. Whoever came up with the so-called “million-monkey theorem” obviously had no experience with real monkeys. I wish he had, though, because it would have saved me a lot of money and trouble. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s scientists who publish without doing enough research beforehand.