by Ka Bradley
The best thing about BBC’s Sherlock and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes films are the mad spurt of fanfiction they have inspired.
Alright, that was probably an exaggeration. Undoubtedly there are merits aplenty to go through before we hit ‘panting teenagers with access to a keyboard’. But the fanfiction is frequently amusing (occasionally unintentionally), sometimes well-written and an illuminating glimpse into the psyche of the authors, who are overwhelmingly young and female.
‘Slash’ fanfiction, usually referred to simply as slash, takes its name from the abbreviation used in the short blurbs on the enormous pastiche-hosting website fanfiction.net. A story in which Sherlock Holmes and John Watson do the dirty in occasionally inaccurate but usually well-meant anatomical detail, or even just kiss chastely, will be listed as SH / JW, or Sherlock / John. Although the slash symbol can be used to describe fictional heterosexual relationships, it is generally accepted that ‘slash’ means gay.
Holmes/Watson queer pastiches hold a special fascination for a certain contingent of Holmseians. In 1971, the celebrated erotic and avant garde publisher Olympia Press published The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, anonymous but purportedly penned by J. Watson, as part of the Traveller’s Companion series. Literary pornography as the Traveller’s Companions were, the book contained some stunning passages:
Further questions were forced to wait, for Holmes was not to be denied any longer… Finally, however, he did satisfy one point of confusion by straddling my chest and forcing the full length of his powerful, eager penis down my throat. Holding it in me at its maximum penetration, he stared down into my eyes until I slowly began to panic… At length, when I was on the verge of unconsciousness, he withdrew enough to let me pull in a lungful of air. “That was how your murder was done,” he told me, “and a most ironic, fittingly proper death it was, too.”
The unnervingly vivid and frequent sex scenes hide a sad love story. The narrator frequently uses the word ‘love’, but the charming period misspelling of ‘bollicks’ and the various ‘lances’ and ‘bolts’ being put into orifices tend to obscure its use. Two further (family-friendly) books, both published in 1988, pick up on this theme: Russell A. Brown’s ‘slash if you squint’ novel Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Friend of Oscar Wilde (which begins, tellingly, ‘Queer people sought help from Sherlock Holmes, but the queerest of all arrived one morning in the spring of 1895’) and Rohase Piercy’s extraordinarily sensitive and well-written work about unrequited love, My Dearest Holmes.
The authors of these books, however, are all men. Piercy’s work, published by the Gay Men’s Press, and the Traveller’s Companion novel both had a clear, queer audience in mind. Who are the fanfiction authors – straight young females – writing for? And why?
A recurring theme in the fanfictions is the struggle for love. In some works, the mores of society forbid the tender caresses the detective and the doctor would so like to bestow on one another. In others, particularly those referencing the BBC TV series and not the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, a strong identification with heternormative behaviour and social identity restrict the characters’ actions, usually John Watson – Holmes’ professed asexuality comes in very useful here. Regardless of the parental rating of the content, heavy emphasis is placed on the depth of the relationship between the two. These aren’t all coy short stories about waking up one morning and realising the great love of your life was just in the next room, herp derp. Some of them are frankly pornographic, and the better-written ones touch on the perversions wrought on desire when it is resisted or hidden. In one, Holmes is forced to resort to male prostitutes impersonating Watson to find relief; in another, Watson develops a sideline in writing hyperbole-blown anonymous erotica to vent his feelings. They usually get into trouble and they usually end up in bed.
Fanfictions are written for amusement and titillation – they are aimed at an audience of the likeminded. They bear a sliver of comparison to lesbian pornography made for straight men, in their perceived lack of threat to the viewer and, in some cases, their erroneous understanding of how gay sex works, but the comparison dries up fairly quickly. It’s nothing to do with that tired old fallacy that men are more ‘visually stimulated’ than women (the fan art pretty much conclusively puts that one to rest). It has more to do with the emotional investment pumped into each piece, which is entirely absent from mainstream internet porn. Fanfiction exists because the writer has engaged with the characters in a significant way. Coming away from their telly pictures or their book words, they find points of psychological identification and use the characters to explore sexual and emotional identity in enjoyably implausible scenarios.
Interestingly, for the large part, the mass-produced teen fanfictions don’t address the position of women in these make-believe worlds. The sexuality of young women, caught in a tug of war between censorists, post-feminists, traditionalists and letches, is generally heavily simplified and poured into these stories as simple lust, with a chaser of unconditional companionship. No need to struggle with body issues, look at the size of that cock! Even better, there’s two of them! Gender roles are void as well – John and Sherlock can take it in turns to exhibit masculine or feminine attributes without requiring complex engagement with predetermined societal values. In fact, the celebrated exclusivity of that friendship often results in a hearthside society of two, allowing for complete redefinition.
There’s an element of heterosexual gluttony too, of course – some fictions deliberately infantilise their protagonists, and have endlessly repeated jokes about jam and jumpers and humorous misspellings, until the characters are more like kittens with catchphrases than people. Entire blogs are devoted to screenshots of facial expressions that look like Benedict Cumberbatch is yelling, “HAY GURL HAAAAY.” Sometimes fanfiction is just a way of telling the internet that you want to see two famous people kissing. The internet offers you that space of expression, and the support of an online community.
Just stop coming up with theories about how Gatiss and Moffat’s Sherlock resurrected himself. We all know Dr Who rescued him.