A Note on Influences and Credentials

I encountered the joke again at Boskone: “What’s the golden age of science fiction? Age 12.” (Peter Graham said it originally, according to at least some internet sources.) Nothing you read as an adult can ever be quite so wondrous as the thing that grabbed your imagination first. How true.

“I was reading Sherlock Holmes when you guys were reading Tolkien” is how I explained my emotional attachment to the Sherlock Holmes universe when chatting with a friend not too long ago, and I realized as I heard the words come out of my mouth that I might have stumbled upon something important there. I didn’t get into any kind of SF until high school, and even then it was pretty much limited to Star Trek and the Arthurian legend. I didn’t read Tolkien until college. I didn’t see Star Wars until college either. (Tolkien and Star Wars were simply not things you would have found lying around my house when I was a kid. My parents are not spec fic sorts of people.)

They’re not mystery sorts of people either, actually, though they were quite awesome about indulging my addiction. I discovered Sherlock Holmes through school, when my fifth-grade Language Arts class read The Case of the Baker Street Irregular. It’s a genuinely good Sherlock Holmes pastiche pitched at the YA level, told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy—well-paced adventure and interesting mystery, if I remember correctly, or at least I thought so then. I liked it enough to go looking for more of the same in the local library, but they had none of the other books in the series.

I filled my arms with other books instead, and was heading to check them out when my father called to me from a different display—one over on the adult side— “Heather? Here, this one’s about Sherlock Holmes.” He had found The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the most archetypal Holmes story of them all. From the time I huddled in the hollow on Dartmoor with Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade, watching the fog creep up and waiting for the hound to burst out of it, I was hooked. The next time my parents took me to the library, I checked out everything else it had by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Why did it grab me so strongly? Well, that’s really the question, isn’t it, and I’m honestly not sure. Perhaps because the language was pitched to adults rather than kids, and I was just old enough to be able to make the stretch? Perhaps because it was so very different from what I’d been reading up until that point—historical fiction, YA, small stories, nice stories, Alcott and Montgomery and Streatfield, the kinds of books librarians tend to hand little girls—Narnia and Oz as well, to be fair, but not a lot of other fantasy fiction, certainly no hard SF, and I think the point is no adventure fiction. I went hunting criminals with Holmes and Watson through all the dark streets of London, and it was scary and dangerous and blood-pounding and like nothing I was used to doing while reading a book—I mean, people got shot sometimes in Sherlock Holmes stories, and some of them died—not many and not main characters, admittedly, but death was possible. The stakes were high and the ammo was live, and the triumphs were consequently so much more satisfying than anything I’d ever read before.

Maybe it was only that I was young enough not to recognize the tropes as tropes—or more accurately, that I was young enough to be coming across them for the first time, and so they bowled me over. Ballet Shoes and Anne of Green Gables are well-told stories, but they didn’t really cover battles of wits or courage under fire, you know? John Watson was the first hero’s companion I’d ever encountered. Irene Adler was the first monstrous woman. By the time I read Tolkien, I knew how such stories were told; by the time I saw Star Wars, I could identify all its archetypes; but when I waited on the moor for the hound, there was no part of my brain capable of analysis. I was just there, caught by the suspense, unable to predict the outcome, without enough experience to recognize the shape of the curve.

The simple truth, I think, is that Doyle’s universe left such a lasting mark on my imagination because I was at just the right age to imprint on something. If I’d been a more typical young geek, it would have been Tolkien. Or McCaffrey or Lackey or Bradley or Kay or Star Trek or Star Wars or something involving dice, I suppose. So it’s one of those “more depends on this than on the value” things, where the meaning is not intrinsic (though I do, for the record, still really enjoy Doyle’s use of language and pacing) but relative and reminiscent. The Holmesverse one of my touchstones not because of what it is, but because of how important it was to me once.

And also because of the wonderful places it led. Because of Doyle, I read Sayers, and then Tennyson and Milton and a number of other things trying to understand what my favorite characters were quoting. I took a Brit lit survey course, and then a British history survey course, and then courses on Celtic Mythology and the British Enlightenment and the drama of medieval England and Shakespearean theory and the history of the British novel. And a number of classes focused on the interaction between a society’s history and its literature, billed as intros to American, British, Russian, and Asian studies. I wound up with Christina Crosby’s mind-blowing Victorian Gothic seminar, which paired fiction and nonfiction readings every week—so I can state with certainty that there’s nothing quite like reading Marx and Dracula at the same time, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dr. Freud. My undergraduate thesis covered female monsters and monstrous women in the Victorian novel, focusing specifically on The Mill on the Floss, Jane Eyre, Dracula, and H. Rider Haggard’s She. (I thought about including Hound, which does have a couple of monstrous women, but there were better examples to be had elsewhere.)

So when I get up on a soapbox about Victorian popular fiction, particularly women in Victorian popular fiction, it is because I do actually know what I’m talking about. 🙂 It would not be inaccurate to say I was a huge fan of steampunk—or at least gaslight—long before the recent steampunk resurgence; and that I hold both a sentimental attachment to many examples of said popular fiction and no illusions whatsoever about the world that produced them. Marx and Dracula in the same week, remember.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s important. It was bound to come up sooner or later. Why am I telling you this now? Because it occurs to me that the story I want to relate / argument I want to make next is best appreciated with this laid out as background. Argument forthcoming in tomorrow’s post.

Comments (3)

JohnMarch 2nd, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I have nothing intelligent to say, just something you should see: http://gocomics.typepad.com/tomthedancingbugblog/2010/07/why-the-last-airbender-will-be-considered-a-classic-in-30-years.html

HeatherMarch 9th, 2011 at 8:00 pm


1) Okay, picture > thousand words. 🙂

2) I’m sorry it took so long for this to appear and for me to respond! Your comment got lost in my spam filter. 🙁

Molly E. AlbanoJune 1st, 2011 at 3:04 pm

“when my father called to me from a different display—one over on the adult side— ‘Heather? Here, this one’s about Sherlock Holmes.’” This line reminded of something I feel passionately about. It is tangentially related to your point, but I will leave it in a comment nonetheless because it’s a social ill I feel you’re remedying. 🙂

Maybe one of the reasons Sherlock Holmes grabbed you is because of the mental challenge. It didn’t write down to you or even to you, it wrote up to you. That is what I think is so wrong with much of today’s literature allegedly aimed at YA. It’s too EASY!! It doesn’t challenge them. With challenge comes mental expansion. I do not mean today’s YA author has to write in extreme Shakespeare. But, please, let’s end the patronizing! Young Adults form their speech skills in part through what they read. The spend their days with the noses in the Twilight series, if they read at all. We see the results in the “real world,” and they consist of the lack of ability to put a sentence together.

It was Doyle’s mental challenge that shaped you into an amazing author. You learned how to speak properly and articulately at exact age of the audience you seek to reach. Your writing that I’ve read, aimed at young adults, hits the mark. It’s challenging enough for mental expansion (usually through societal questions) yet not so challenging on its face as to scare them off. It won’t be until they’re deep into the book that they’ll realize they’re being challenged. By that point, they will be hooked! 🙂

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