So, once upon a few years ago, in the wake of watching and falling in love with the 2009 Downey/Law Holmes adaptation, I answered a prompt on the shkinkmeme. The prompt requested a modern-day version of Holmes and Watson as graduate students, and the fic I wrote is 45,000 words long and called History, Repeating Itself. For those of you who have read it, thank you—writing is one of those things you get better at by doing it, and I have written QUITE A BIT since I posted that story, and like to think I’ve improved since then. For those of you who haven’t read it, allow me to give you a quick summary, detailing the pertinent facts in regard to the story I am ABOUT to tell: John Watson, American, based on Jude Law’s Watson and thus described as looking like Jude Law’s Watson (multiple mustache jokes included) comes back from his tour as a US military medic, injured, to go to medical school. He is introduced to Sherlock Holmes, American, based on Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes and thus described as looking like Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes, whose parents are the kind of twisted people who name their children after literary characters. Holmes is a PhD student who turns out to be involved in some pretty dangerous shit; he’s also a pothead, more than a bit on the impulsive side, and gay, as is Watson. The two of them move in together—in America!—and, through an assortment of increasingly ridiculous shenanigans, fall in love.
Now! When I say I wrote this a few years ago, let me be clear on what I mean: while I was in the process of posting this story as a WIP on the shkinkmeme, the BBC announced that they would be producing a modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation set in London. When I finished the story, the show that would turn out to be Sherlock had not yet aired. To repeat: History, Repeating Itself, which is unquestionably a ridiculous story about ridiculous (American) dudes falling ridiculously in love with each other, was completed before Sherlock existed. Which only adds to the bizarre hilarity of what happens next.
So, okay. I finish this story on the kinkmeme, I repost it in chaptered form to my livejournal, and a year or two later, in (*checks*) April of 2011, I archive it on my Ao3 page in one of my many, ongoing, and failed attempts at getting all my fanfiction in one place. And what I would like to share with you today, dear readers, are some of the reactions I have gotten to this little tale in the years since I originally wrote it, concluding with a recent response that has prompted me to write this essay in the first place. LET US BEGIN.
Reaction The First: HOW DARE YOU WRITE THESE CHARACTERS AS AMERICANS/YOU SPIT UPON THE FINE LEGACY AND HISTORY OF THE BRAND/ACD WRITHES IN HIS GRAVE/WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS WHY
I got this one a lot when I first started posting the story, mostly in angry PMs via livejournal. I never answered any of them honestly, because I felt kind of bad about my reasons at the time. I no longer feel that way—I have grown as a person, I am less inclined towards guilt than I used to be, and life’s too short—so let me answer this question honestly NOW. I wrote John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, Ridiculous Graduate Students, as Americans for two reasons. The first reason is that I am American, and I thought it would be easier for me. The second reason is that I knew I was going to write Holmes as a stoner, and cringed away from the thought of having to research British slang for weed when I was already well-versed in the American equivalents. That’s it. Ease and weed slang. It seemed like reason enough.
Now, there are plenty of homages to the original ACD canon in this story—up to and including the fact that it’s told in Watson’s first-person POV, and written as though he is writing it out after the fact—but in the years since I got these comments, I have never stopped being amused by them. This story features Sherlock Holmes standing on top of a table in a gay bar pouring water over himself while belting out Pour Some Sugar On Me; this story features Lestrade as a frat boy who is perpetually losing to Watson at cards; this story features Mycroft Holmes setting John Watson up to room with his brother as a prank, because the literary allusion will piss Holmes off. On the (long) list of things about this story that might make Arthur Conan Doyle revolve in his grave, the fact that people still care about Sherlock Holmes is probably at the top of the list, and the fact that they are Americans this time through is probably at the bottom. There are just SO MANY OTHER THINGS I imagine he’d hate about this story more (the fact that Holmes IS NOT A DETECTIVE AT ALL, for example).
Reaction The Second: WOW I CAN TOTALLY SEE BENEDICT AND MARTIN ACTING THIS, THIS IS SUCH AN INTERESTING RE-IMAGINING OF BBC SHERLOCK!
These didn’t start until I posted the story on Ao3; the first time I got one, I actually went to my page to make sure that the fandom tags were, indeed, ‘Sherlock Holmes (2009)’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes & Related Fandoms’ (the all-purpose Sherlock Holmes tag on Ao3, since there are SO MANY DIFFERENT ITERATIONS OF THE HOLMES CANON HOLY BALLS). After the second one, I reread the story despite my more typical tendency to never read things I have written ever again ever once they’re done, just to confirm that I had not somehow, accidentally, in writing a story based on RDJ & Jude, somehow described Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The third time, I decided to stop worrying about it.
Now, I personally do not think anything about the characterizations in this story line up in any way to the characterizations on the BBC’s Sherlock, largely because they are not even remotely based on the BBC’s Sherlock (which I can be sure of, since, again, Sherlock did not exist at the time this story was written). I personally cannot see any version of Cumberbatch’s Holmes, just to pick one of a DOZEN examples, driving Watson to the grocery store in his bright-green Mystery Mobile-style van, chattering happily away about starfruit, waxing rhapsodic about his feelings towards Rocky Road ice cream, and then trying to buy hamburgers with olives and bleu cheese in them. I am equally unable to conceptualize any version of Freeman’s Watson panicking about who can be trusted with the Wii during exam week, or spitting off a balcony onto a hotel manager’s head, or forgetting himself in a gay club and growling things in Holmes’ ear about his preferences for topping (seriously, this is a ridiculous story). Those characterizations of them do not work for me! But characterization is different for everyone, and who am I to say that they might not work for someone else? Indeed, I am sure there are many people who would say that they cannot see RDJ’s Holmes and Jude’s Watson doing these things either, to which I say: ay-yup, totally valid, who can blame you.
However. This story’s Watson is repeatedly described as being taller than Holmes; this story’s Watson is repeatedly described as having a mustache. The first description of this story’s Holmes reads: “You have to understand—the guy was pretty hilarious. Hair standing up all over the place, flushed nearly purple and pissed off, using that red pen like he thought it was a fucking sword; he’s not that big a man, and the entire effect made me think of Albert Einstein on meth.” Which, granted, if you have not seen RDJ’s Holmes, is not a particularly clear description—there is no question that there are all kinds of things wrong with this story, up to and including the fact that I was even worse than I am now at physical character descriptions. But! As a fan of BBC Sherlock myself, if I see a Holmes described as being a small dude who looks sort of like Einstein on meth, I’m not thinking of Cumberbutt. And if I see a Watson described as tall and mustachioed, Martin Freeman is not who comes to mind.
And yet, I have gotten dozens of comments and messages like this. Like. Dozens. From people who want to compliment me on how interesting this take on BBC Sherlock is. From people who, despite the characters descriptions, and the story’s tagging, and, oh, right, red-headed (Rachel McAdams-based) Irene Adler’s significant role, and exclusively-Ritchieverse-character Clarkie’s significant role, and any number of other references and nods to the RDJ/Jude film. Which I have always found…interesting, in terms of what it says about what people see vs. what’s actually there.
Which brings me, actually, to my next point:
Response The Third: BUT WHY ARE THERE SO MANY AMERICANISMS IN THIS FIC, WHY DIDN’T YOU GET A BRITPICKER
Because apparently it does not matter how many times you state that you are writing an American version of these characters, that these characters are in the United States, that one of these characters served in the US armed forces, that one of these characters works for an American intelligence organization (the Federal Bureau of Investigation). Literally the entire fic is Americanisms, because literally the entire fic is about Americans and set in America, but since it’s Holmes, I have obviously been lax in my Brit-picking. Since it’s Holmes, it doesn’t matter where the text says they are—they are, obviously, in England.
Now, there is no question, AT ALL, that the predominate cultural and geographical history of Sherlock Holmes is tied up with both Britain and England specifically. You could even argue that it’s tied up inextricably with both Britain and England specifically; I wouldn’t fight you on it. I SINCERELY DOUBT there will ever be a time when people say, “Oh, Sherlock Holmes, you mean that American detective guy?” because, like, no. Sherlock Holmes is a British literary icon, and the overwhelming majority of adaptations of the original canon present him as such. No question. No arguments. Fisticuffs not required. There is also no question that my silly little fanfiction novella featuring in the ridiculousness mentioned above is not, in any way, even vaguely attempting to challenge that status quo. This is not me going, “Oh my god, but my Sherlock Holmes is American, THAT MEANS YOU SHOULD ASSUME ALL SHERLOCK HOLMESES ARE AMERICAN.” This isn’t even me going, “Hey, my Sherlock Holmes is American, and that means you should hang up your assorted feelings about Sherlock Holmes as you know him until you’re done reading,” because, honestly, fuck that. Read however you want to read. Take away whatever you want to take away. Death of the author works in every direction.
However! Again, I find this interesting in terms of what people see vs. what’s actually there. While I’ve got no problem if folks want to read this story and imagine it’s their favorite iteration of Sherlock Holmes in the setting in which they most enjoy him, there is a huge difference between doing that and ignoring the actual stated setting of the story to the point that you feel it necessary to message me and inform me I need Brit-picking. And that huge difference is mostly that, in doing the first thing, you are taking your own feelings and applying them to your experience in reading my story; in doing the second thing, you are taking your own feelings and applying them to my story, and to me, rather than to your own experience. And y’all don’t have any control over anybody’s reading experience, or viewing experience, or Holmes experience, except your own. You just don’t. That is just Not How It Works.
Which brings me very neatly to the point I have been getting to this whole time:
The Comment I Received The Other Day: This story is an appropriate use of the American Sherlock trope, and Elementary could stand to learn a thing or two.
NOW. Okay. I don’t want to appear ungrateful, because I am, of course, FOREVER grateful for every comment I receive on every story, and for the fact that people read my fics at all, let alone take the time to comment on them. I really am! I really, really am. But this… well. Ngl, this kind of pissed me off.
First of all, I happen to be one of those people who loves Elementary. I do not want them to learn anything from a piece of fanfic I wrote a few years ago, both because there is not anything in that piece of fanfic I think they could learn from and because I do not want them to change. I love Liu’s take-no-shit Watson and I love Miller’s self-aware Holmes; I love the dynamic between them; I love the way they’re growing to trust each other slowly, at a pace that rings true; I love everything. A lot. If anything, my fic could stand to learn from Elementary, since I wrote a story about the same two white dudes who have been done to death literally hundreds (literally. hundreds.) of times, and Elementary is a story about one of my favorite literary duos of all time re-imagined in a progressive and transformative way.
Secondly: um, no. This story is not an appropriate use of the American Sherlock trope because the American Sherlock trope did not exist at the time of writing. Sherlock did not exist at the time of writing!! Elementary did not exist at the time of writing!! There was no “American Sherlock trope,” unless you’re talking about that one Youtube video where they’re “Holmes and What-son” and actually I don’t think those dudes are American either. Like. This is a story I set in America for reasons of laziness and weed slang, not for the sake of making a point. About anything. And certainly not to make the point that, months before Sherlock aired on the BBC and years before CBS announced Liu’s casting and sparked all kinds of frankly embarrassing fandom wank, I thought that it was okay to set a Holmes adaptation in America but only if both Holmes and Watson were homoerotically tense white guys. I could not have been making that point, because the shows that point revolves around did not exist when I wrote the story. And I could not have been making that point because I disagree with it with every fibre of my being. Every. Last. One.
And the thing is, guys, I’m not writing this essay to Make A Point, or Push My Views, or Be A Social Justice Warrior, or whatever it is folks are calling it while they mutter under their breath this week. You’d know it if I was—I, shockingly enough, have an even preachier meta setting than this one (I know, I can’t believe it either). This is just the story of how I learned that people take what they want to take from their Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and that, faced with an adaptation that does not meet their own criteria, they will sometimes willfully ignore what is actually there to a really staggering degree. The sort of staggering degree that would, for example, make someone message the author of an American AU Ritcheverse Holmes fic to demand they treat their non-pictured British English with more care. The sort of staggering degree that would make someone assume a fic written years ago, about different iterations of these characters, was intended as a snub to a show that has only just come on the air.
I don’t care if you don’t like Elementary; seriously, I don’t. I don’t care if you think Moffat is the second coming of Arthur Conan Doyle, and I don’t care if you think Liu’s Watson is going to cause Big Ben to crack in half in stunned betrayal, and I don’t care if you think Miller’s Holmes pales in comparison to Cucumbernuts. Like, for real. I don’t care. I’d happen to disagree with you on all counts, but you’re gonna feel how you’re gonna feel and so am I, the end. But I think it’s worth noting that, in a provable, experienced way, there is the tendency amongst the disciples of this long and storied canon to put on blinders and see what they want to see instead of what’s actually there. And I’m not saying it’s just, you know, the people on the internet today—this has inarguably been going on since the days of ACD himself, given how he, uh, tried to kill Holmes and failed due to his old-school fanbase refusing to just accept it and allow him to move on with his life (seriously, Arthur Conan Doyle’s is a tragic tale). I watched wank go down over the announcement and production of Sherlock; I know wank went down over the announcement and production of the 2009 movie; I’m sure there was plenty of Ye Olde Wanke back in the day. There is nothing new under the sun. People care about these characters, and invest themselves in these characters, and associate these characters with the years they’ve spent caring about and investing themselves in them. They just do.
But putting on blinders makes you miss stuff. That’s what blinders do. That is what they are for. And while I certainly don’t mean that people are missing anything in reading my story with blinders on—because, seriously, it’s so ridic, there’s not much to miss—I do think those blinders could prove prohibitive down the line, in reactions to other media, and in general. So I thought I’d mention it! And now I’m done, thank you and goodnight <3