Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic

This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as fanfic writers call him) was still writing. Anne Jamison, an English and fan-culture scholar, has described the output of the Sherlock fandom over the past century as essentially transformative works. This includes not just unpublished fanfic but also myriad films, novels, and TV programs, because they all transform the canonical ACD stories, in form and content, with a fan’s devotion to “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about.”2

The genealogy of fanfic for BBC’s Sherlock is particularly rich for my interest in transformative fiction, because it’s a nesting doll of referentiality. BBC Sherlock fic riffs on Moffat and Gatiss’s twenty-first century reincarnation of Sherlock, which itself riffs on ACD’s Victorian Sherlock and the many twentieth-century reincarnations which the program’s creators have declared canonized.3 Fic writer A.J. Hall, as Jamison points out, can make reference to BBC’s Sherlock, ACD’s Sherlock, and a 1950’s “fan-authored pastiche” Sherlock all in one fic4 — yet no one would mistake that fic for any of its source texts.

This is the difference between “canon” and what fans call “headcanon.” Canon is the Ur-text, a status to which fan writers make no claim of aspiring. There is a certain playful value attached to incorporating elements from canon (Sherlock’s affinity for bees shows up in many fics, as well as the TV program), but these nods exist within “headcanon” — a fan’s personal parallel world(s). “Headcanon” exists alongside “canon,” depending upon the source for basic inspiration (usually its characters) but freely recreating the source in a conscious departure from it.

Fans use these parallel worlds to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation. There is no conclusive literary evidence that ACD conceived of his Sherlock and John as “homosexual”; their relationship presents as a romantic friendship, although those were going out of fashion when he was writing. Likewise, despite queerbaiting, Moffat insists that his Sherlock is not gay, let alone ace. In fanfic, however, literally any interpretation goes.

Myriad fanfic categorizing tags allow readers to find what version of Sherlock’s sexuality appeals to them: gay “Johnlock” and asexual!Sherlock/bisexual!John cover some of the more popular ones, in addition to “OT3s” (One True Threesomes) and a plethora of kinks (the usual varieties, along with furries, fauns, and male pregnancy). While these labels can flatten the contours of the actual uniquely queer praxis within individual works (in the same way that LGBT labels can elide sexual and gender complexities), word-of-mouth reviews of the ways in which a writer imagines two characters negotiating an unprecedented relationship reminds me to keep an open mind about my expectations when see a fic’s tags.

Although authors and readers both have pet theories about what Sherlock’s sexuality “really” is, the fan writer’s explicit self-distancing from “canon” means that a plurality of “headcanons” co-exist on the periphery of the source text. My friend can ship gay Johnlock, I can ship bisexual!John/straight!Mary/asexual!Sherlock, and fanfic satisfies both our preferences without (much) argument between us.

In this way, we might think of historical LGBT icons as personal role models without needing or intending to make claims about their “canonical” sexuality. In my parallel narrative, Joan of Arc is patron of trans* rights and John Henry Newman is patron of asexuality. Neither of these is true in historical reality, and I would never write an essay to “prove” it, but that’s my “headcanon,” and (if I may abuse a neologism) — I’m shipping it!

Next week: a coda in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week


Notes

  1. Apologies for the Reichenfeels.
  2. Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas: BenBella, 2013), 17.
  3. Ibid. 11.
  4. Ibid. 9.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

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2 comments

  1. As an old guy brought up on genre fiction, I never quite saw the whole need for shipping. Lois Lane & Superman were in forever limbo relationship, unless you looked a Earth 2. 😀

    Adding a romance to certain genre characters, from my ancient point of view, can unbalance mythic/psychological power that the character & their exploits exude. There are character who it works for and others that just don’t ring true. They can be re-interpreted, as you point out, but it is very challenging to make it work successfully.

    I can also see how a plethora of hetero-characters over the multiple decades has produced a lack of role models, the same way a lack of racial, ethnic and gender diversity lean large parts of the audience culturally disenfranchised. Hopefully future developments in building a wider more diverse cultural mythos through genre narratives will create a better balance.

    BTW: Are you familiar with the Wold Newton Universe ? It is a meta-fictional interpretation of a wide selection of fictional characters, starting with Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and the Shadow. The conceit is that they were all real and all connected ( Why do they all share common physical features and similar attributes ? – all heroes have grey eyes). Some writers/biographers have extended this to include various other characters from Victorian Literature & Pulp Literature.

    Like

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