Sherlock’s World (2018): Ann K. McClellan


Fan Fiction and the Reimagining of BBC’s Sherlock

In December 2013 at the BFI, Caitlin Moran persuaded the unwilling Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch to read from an explicit homoerotic fanfic based on their characters in the BBC’s Sherlock series. The internet condemnation was swift. Fans felt that Moran had betrayed the unspoken rules: that fanfiction is written by fans for fans and that it’s shared in a safe space. The author of the fic in question, who hadn’t been consulted, was humiliated and mortified that two of her idols had been made to read her story out as a joke, and that her work had been singled out by Moran as an example of the embarrassing extremes of Sherlock fandom. Obviously it was an ill-judged move on Moran’s part and I feel deeply for the poor fan whose heartfelt writing was held up for a cheap laugh. But this episode only came about because Sherlock has created such a broad, lively and vocal fandom – especially extraordinary given there are only twelve episodes in the four seasons to date (plus a special). This scholarly study, to be published in October, delves into Sherlock fandom and forms an introduction to fan culture more generally.

I’m interested in fandom, although I don’t really have the energy to get that engaged with any of the usual suspects. (I’m in a fandom of one, focusing on Baroque operas based on ancient Persian history.) But I do go to London’s Film & Comic Con every year, to admire the cosplay and to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere that you get from a place where everyone feels safe and accepted, and people have often gone to fantastic lengths for their cosplay. My visits are almost purely for the pleasure of people-watching. Back in the day, I did read the odd bit of Lord of the Rings slash fanfiction when I was in Sixth Form (Aragorn/Legolas, since you ask), and I actually wrote a couple of pieces of non-slash short fanfic myself (based respectively on The Iliad and Amadeus, because I was a pretentious little thing); so I know vaguely whereof McClellan speaks. But what her book has done is broadened my understanding: there’s an incredibly wide range of tropes and themes within Sherlock fanfiction (and fanfiction in general).

I was fascinated to see fan culture being treated with the same scientific rigour as any other academic subject (this book is part of the Fan Studies series published by the University of Iowa Press), although Sherlock’s World doesn’t always display a corresponding editorial rigour, but we’ll come to that in a moment. First, let’s buckle our seatbelts and take a ride through the history of Sherlock Holmes fan culture, because it’s actually rather fascinating stuff. The remarkable thing is that it goes back an awfully long way. The first Sherlock Holmes ‘fanfiction’ was written in the 1890s, after Arthur Conan Doyle had killed off Holmes in his Strand series of stories. Forlorn admirers were invited to submit their own stories about Holmes to the journal Tit-Bits, which also published quizzes and votes about the great detective. It was precisely this outpouring of popular devotion which eventually persuaded Conan Doyle to bring Holmes back from the dead and to kick off a new series of adventures. Fan societies existed from the earliest days and now there are more than 700 Sherlock Holmes associations all over the world, not to mention the journals publishing ‘Great Game’ scholarship based on Holmes and his ‘life’.

This isn’t some small-scale niche fandom. The BBC’s Sherlock fandom has grown out of something extraordinarily passionate and lively, although McClellan notes that it’s the first Holmes sub-fandom (as opposed to that focused on Elementary, or the Rathbone films, or the Robert Downey Jr films) that has a predominantly female membership. And this may affect the way that fans express their interest – because Sherlock generates more fanfiction than any other facet of the Holmes canon. McClellan devotes much of a chapter to describing the history of fanfiction and exploring its demographic – mainly a case of women writing for women, with a heavy focus on slash pairings (same-sex characters, usually male, placed in romantic relationships). The rest of her book looks at specific kinds of Sherlock fanfiction, to explore how fans repurpose the BBC ‘canon’ in different and sometimes extremely creative ways.

As this is an academic book, I’ll just run through the contents of each chapter for greater clarity. Chapter 1 looks at how the BBC themselves branched out beyond the core TV series by using ‘transmedia’ such as official blogs and apps, which gave the impression that the characters had an existence beyond the show. Chapter 2 focuses on the way that fans have role-played as the characters on various social media platforms and the challenges that this can present. Chapter 3 has the rather wonderful title ‘Queering Sherlock’s World: Slash, Fanfiction, and (Non)Compliance in World Building’ and addresses one of the main components of Sherlock fanfiction, namely the conviction that the BBC’s Sherlock and John are actually (or should be) in a romantic relationship.

Chapter 4 takes us into more unusual territory by looking at gender-swap fiction, in which either Sherlock or John are written as female or trans characters. Chapter 5 offers even more unlikely scenarios, in which the characters are translated to alternate universes – here we meet Sherlocks who are elite tennis players, baseball players, leading Hollywood actors (maybe not so great a push on that one) or women in Second World War London. Yet, as in all other kinds of fanfic, the key rule is that characters must remain ‘canon’: to write their protagonists behaving OOC (out of character) is the greatest crime a fan author can commit. And finally Chapter 6 deals with one of the most fraught and controversial kinds of fanfiction (even among fans themselves): RPF or ‘real person fic’, in which fans write fiction not about Sherlock and John, but about Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. As you can see, it’s a hefty series of discussions.

I found much to enjoy here: I only scratched the surface of fanfiction in my own limited experience back at school, and I was amazed at some of the more esoteric forms it takes. I don’t really understand the point of the alternate universe settings, and I feel very uncomfortable about the whole question of RPF. Unlike McClellan, I absolutely don’t agree that historical fiction or biopic is essentially RPF. I think there’s a massive difference between a story about someone who’s dead (like Shakespeare’s Richard III, which she claims as early RPF) and a modern celebrity who has the right to some kind of privacy, surely. But like McClellan, I don’t buy one fan’s distinction between ‘bad’ self-insert RPF fanfiction (e.g. where the fan writes a story about her passionate romance with Benedict Cumberbatch) and ‘good’ ordinary RPF fanfiction.

Let’s explore that question a bit further. The fan argues that self-insert fic is ‘no longer completely fiction’ because the fan’s self has intruded on the world of the story. However, she claims that ordinary RPF fanfiction is completely fictional (like the one where Cumberbatch is in a relationship with Tom Hiddleston – yep, I saw that coming). But what’s the difference? Cumberbatch and Hiddleston are as real as you, me or Fan X. I don’t see the distinction. Then there’s another problem: Sherlock fanart is so heavily based on the actors themselves that it might as well be RPF. I was interested to read an extract from an interview with Amanda Abbington (who plays Mary Watson and is Martin Freeman’s former partner), in which she expresses concern about her children Googling Freeman (their dad) only to find explicit art of him entwined with Benedict Cumberbatch. Apparently Abbington was subjected to a torrent of abuse from fans for her comment – but it’s a fair question. Where is the line drawn? McClellan doesn’t actually deal that much with fanart, but it feels like a hugely problematic area.

So yes, there are a lot of interesting little nuggets, but there are also issues. The book is too long. With the best will in the world, Sherlock fanfiction can’t sustain a book of this length and there is consequently a lot of repetition. For example, we’re told several times about the fact that Sherlock Holmes’s famous meerschaum and deerstalker weren’t original to the Conan Doyle stories and that they were added by illustrators or actors further down the line. Each time this fact is presented as if new. And we’re told twice in as many paragraphs about the BBC’s Sherlock edition of Cluedo. There’s also too much explanation about things that really don’t need explaining, like the paragraph deconstructing what the tagline ‘Immerse yourself in the world of Sherlock Holmes’ might lead a fan to expect (predictably, immersion in the world of Sherlock). If this book is supposed to be for an academic audience, as the digressions into various sociological and philosophical theories suggest, then the reader has to be given credit for a certain amount of intuitive ability.

On the other hand, I should stress that despite being academic, there’s lots of quite fun writing here, such as McClellan’s careful deconstruction of several key Sherlock fanfics (I was especially amused by Method Act, a fanfic in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock somehow manage to swap realities and find themselves trying to blend into the other’s life). She’s consistently sensitive and thoughtful about fanfiction and this isn’t the place to come if you want a more Moranesque point-and-laugh attitude to fan culture. If you’re interested in the sociology of fandom, or if you simply want to find out a bit more about how fans seize on their favourite show, then this is well worth a read. But it could have been considerably shorter, tighter and pithier.

I shall leave you with my overriding thought on finishing this book. Pity Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, God bless them both, who have to deal with their real and imagined selves being put in all manner of situations. It’s highly significant that neither of them are active on social media.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

2 thoughts on “Sherlock’s World (2018): Ann K. McClellan

  1. elainethomp says:

    I kind of see the thinking in calling historical fiction Real Person Fanfic. But I draw the line at putting living real people in fanfictions, for much the reasons you list.

    In historical fiction, as in fanfictions the writer is working with events and documents/records of some sort and putting more narrative in. The careful writer doesn’t contradict anything in the records in both forms.

    I’ve read some fanfictions; some were better than others. Don’t like the gender-bending, sexual interest swapping varieties. Judging from my sample they can’t stay in character. If they’d have been interested in that way, or female instead of male, or whatever, the original would have been different. Or the writers haven’t managed to make the character consistent with the original while having this one thing changed.

    I have liked some that take things that probably happened or were mentioned but not spelled out and flesh them out. I consider Arthurian tales fanfictions, BTW.

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