He Read/She Read: Thoughts on Media Analysis and Sherlock Holmes

At a recent meeting with my writer’s group, we somehow got onto the topic of BBC’s Sherlock (we’re a distractible lot). The guy who runs the group—I’ll call him Steve—is a fan of the show and 100% loves the idea of Sherlock Holmes being a dickish “high-functioning sociopath” who cares only for the cases, not for the people around him.

If you’ve visited my Sherlock Holmes blog lately (or ever), you’ll know that I disagree with this interpretation. Nay, I actively loathe it. I much prefer to think of Sherlock Holmes’s more unusual behaviors as the result of autism, not assholery. I’ve certainly never seen evidence that he is anything but a decent if socially awkward person, either in the adaptations or the original stories.

I politely rebutted Steve’s ideas, pointing out that Holmes was less of a jerk in canon. I then listed moments where he showed concern for others; for example, Holmes flipping out after Watson is shot in The Three Garridebs, and Holmes playing violin to help Watson sleep in The Sign of the Four. But even that did not persuade Steve. He theorized that Holmes only worried in those cases because Watson is useful to him, and an incapacitated Watson is a useless Watson.

The conversation drifted to other topics after that. Just as well—we clearly weren’t going to see eye to eye on this. But it did get me thinking about how two people can read the exact same book and come away with different, even incompatible conclusions. I’m sure this has led to a lot of internet wars. But to me, it’s really quite interesting.

As another example, I interpret Holmes as asexual. Others swear up and down that he’s gay. Still others insist he’s in love with Irene Adler, who so famously outsmarted him in A Scandal in Bohemia. And who knows what was going through Arthur Conan Doyle’s head as he wrote his most famous stories?

(Well, he was probably thinking about all the sweet, sweet money he was making, but anyway.)

Every single one of us, no matter how disparate our opinions, can point to passages in the canon that “indisputably” prove our point of view. Sometimes they’re the exact same passages! The only difference is that we have filtered them through past experience (perhaps you saw Guy Ritchie’s version of the Holmes/Adler relationship before reading the books) or sheer stubbornness (I want an asexual Holmes; therefore, I am going to actively look for evidence to support my view). Amazing how personal preferences and expectations all combine to color our readings, isn’t it?

No matter what fandom you’re in, there will always be fans who ship pairings you don’t or interpret That Critical Scene in a completely different way. And the nice thing about media analysis is that, unlike math, there are no right or wrong answers. So unless someone is mean about it (“Sherlock Holmes can’t be queer, that’s stupid”), fighting about such things seems pointless. Debate, sure, but not fight. Why shouldn’t people get to enjoy stories about an absolute tosser of a detective if that makes them happy?

So if that’s the Sherlock Holmes Steve likes, he can have him. That sounds flippant, but I mean it sincerely. And anyway, it’s much more important that Steve and I have fun at the writer’s group than it is for us to agree on everything. After all, if we saw the world the exact same way, how could we possibly offer any meaningful advice on each other’s writing? Isn’t it better for us to disagree on the little things if it helps us improve on the big things?

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