Explicit: Sherlock Holmes Fanfiction and Readerly Desire
Fanfiction is the largest literary genre about which there is virtually no scholarship. In an attempt to remedy this lack, my thesis project theorizes Sherlock Holmes fanfiction as an expression of readerly desire. Desire, in this case, connotes the sexual and the intellectual, the imaginative and the appropriative: ultimately, it is the urge, on the part of the reader, to get closer to the world and ideas of the source text. I argue that, in fanfiction, this project of proximity is executed through an examination of characters and their relationships using popular psychological and literary beliefs about selfhood and interiority as rooted in childhood and conceptualized as topographical space.
After a brief overview of the history of the Sherlock Holmes stories, their fans, and fan writing, I discuss adaptations, focusing on the popular BBC television show Sherlock, which caused a burst of creativity in the genre of Sherlock Holmes fanfiction by drawing attention to a romantic subtext between the two main characters.
I then discuss three fics (as individual works of fanfiction are called) that are exemplary of the genre. In Nature and Nurture by earlgreytea68, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson raise a baby together, bringing up the topic of Sherlock’s troubled childhood. Ultimately, John finds an explanation for Sherlock’s eccentricities through the lens of childhood neglect. Nature and Nurture demonstrates how fic writers explore characterization through an idea of selfhood, popularized by Freud and developmental psychology, that finds an explanation for adult behaviors in childhood experience.
The next fic, The Progress of Sherlock Holmes by Ivy Blossom, offers a study in perspective. While most Sherlock Holmes fanfiction is told in the third-person through John Watson, this story is told entirely in first-person from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes. The alternate absence and presence of personal pronouns demonstrates the way that fic writers engage Sherlock’s humanity as defined by emotional capacity. These grammatical shifts, along with the tight first-person perspective, make a subtle argument about the potential for a canonical romantic attraction between Sherlock and John within the BBC adaptation itself.
The third fic, “An April’s Journey” by Katie Forsythe, is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle canon. In the fic, Holmes’ brief canonical illness is explained to be cocaine withdrawal. I focus on the historical complications of writing about drug use in the nineteenth century from a late twentieth century perspective; I also discuss the structural similarities between fanfiction and the adventure story to advocate for an understanding of what Jacqueline Lichtenberg calls the “intimate adventure,” or the exploration of a character’s self as an unknown land.
Drawing on René Girard and Eve Sedgwick’s ideas of triangulated desire, Michael Saler’s discussion of readerly enchantment, Henry Jenkins’ writing on fandom and Janice Radway’s work on romance novels, this thesis demonstrates the rich possibilities for critical attention that exist in the genre of fanfiction.