Essay: Hagiography, the Mary Sue, and Sherlock Holmes

MARY SUE NOVELS ARE MUCH MALIGNED IN
literary circles and among the intelligentsia. It is also the first idea a non-writer has for a story. Because of a very unique psychological blind-spot called self-bias, it is natural for us to believe in the quality of our uniqueness and the intensely interesting aspects of our lives. Because of this, it’s hard to convey our memories with the emotion intended because that emotion is unique to us. Our importance in regards to our own story is profound and without doubt…

When I was more a (more) unknown writer, I understand how it feels to need validation. And because of this, to advertise ourselves, we create a fictionalized, externalized self through which we attempt to show our worth. The trope is best described as a semibiographical, thinly veiled origins story for the author. The narration is the proxy through which we attempt to show our merit as a writer and as a person.

This isn’t limited to first-timers, though it is more common for a first time writer to write a Mary Sue than it is for an established author (ask me how I know.) For example, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is a good Mary Sue, but the author, the titular David Copperfield, is not the same writer as Charles Dickens. If anything, I think Uriah Heep reveals more about the author than the author’s author.

This technique can work if the person attempting the Mary Sue is skilled and / or witty; but if the intention is to make the most sock-sniffing faux pas of an autohagiography, why then should it be fiction? If your life is interesting enough, no embellishment should be necessary. If you don’t deserve a genuine biography, making a slightly fictionalized account of yourself where you, by proxy, become what you wish to be instead of what you are, you are attempting an exercise akin to a chef trying to fake the quality of a meal. William S. Burroughs said it best in The Western Lands:

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”

The more obvious the intent to blur the recognition of a by-proxy facsimile makes more embarrassing the entire situation. And, considering you’ve admitted to yourself no achievement worth an actual autobiography, choosing to enhance your good characteristics and be a cool guy by proxy, to be cared for by proxy, makes this a sad, sad state of affairs. If you want a biography, do something to change the world. Invent a working system of government—you’ll get a Mary Sue for you that.

Growing up I was a big fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.  I even got a tourist map of London (though the names were changed) to try to follow Holmes and Watson around in their adventures. When I first started thinking about it as an adult, I started to think that, since Watson was a disabled war vet, he created Holmes to somehow live an exciting life as an important, intelligent and useful man. Or perhaps he created Holmes as an imaginary friend, to escape the monotony of a slow mind and unfulfilled life. There is evidence to support this.

First, within the framework of the story, there is a surprising lack Holmes in newspapers despite his brilliant career—as for his reluctance for validation, it does not make sense for the character as described by his biographer The Sherlock Holmes as described by Watson had few weaknesses; yet, time after time. he is prone to vanity and showmanship. A man so moved by vanity would naturally take credit for his deeds. Yet, when not on the scene or talking to witnesses, Sherlock dislodges himself from the scene entirely, like a moth roused from sleep by the hint of a greater fire. Watson dramatized the stories by making Holmes artist and magician; in Hounds of the Baskerville, Sherlock was absent for most of the novel. As events begin to move along at Baskerville Hall, Holmes is found camping on the moors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a good author of fiction, but he is much greater at bringing together lots of disparate strings together in each dazzling denouement.

In between these cases, Holmes is described as abstracted, detached. aloof. The sole motivation seems to be to perform these pieces of drama at the behest of his friend, Watson. At the end of The Sign of Four, the denouement is usurped by the wonderful story of the main antagonist, the one-legged Andaman islander Johnathon Small. The ending is brief but telling:

“The division seems rather fair,” says Watson. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets

the credit, pray what remains for you?”

“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there is cocaine.”      And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

Watson was the narrator in all but a few stories (I can think of two in which Holmes narrates himself, The Blanched Soldier and The Lions Mane (both from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes; there are two that come to mind written in the third-person omnipotent perspective, The Dying Detective (in the collection published as His Last Bow) and The Mazarin Stone (also from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes; Watson narrates most stories exclusively in his first-person present indicative perspective.

In the second half of A Study in Scarlet, the first book to feature the world famous detective, the story is told in a third person to give the murderer, Jefferson Hope, a back-story. The same thing takes place in the second half of Valley of Fear, when the tale of the man (whose supposed murder kicks the story into motion) takes place in Utah.

Watson, in Valley of Fear, describes Scotland Yard’s MacDonald as a protégé to Holmes thusly: ‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, while genius instantly recognizes talent.’

Consider who is more likely to exist: a man capable of riddling out your job by the calluses on your hands, where you live by the unique stains on your boots, and where you sat in a carriage because of the direction of the splash, or a retired military man playing his own little game of literary cops and robbers, imagining himself as Sherlock Holmes, a man of genius, wit, and skill. Watson’s injury isn’t consistent from the first story to the second: in the first, he says:

“I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.”

In the first chapter of The Sign of Four, Holmes manages to upset his dull companion by his accuracy in regards to the character of Watson’s brother. In that scene, it becomes a leg wound that, ‘aches with the change of weather.’

Watson’s greatness and his weakness was projected onto Holmes. After his death in The Final Problem, published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, he is assumed to have died in combat with Moriarty, having fallen into the Reichenbauch Falls. However, in The Adventure of the Empty House, from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Watson tells of his comings and goings in Sherlock’s absence, but interestingly omitted from Watson’s account of life without his famous friend is his wife Mary, whom he met in The Sign of Four. And how does he find Sherlock Holmes again? Holmes, disguised as an old man, bumps into Watson, carrying a pile of books. And from that disguise, Sherlock Holmes reappears.

To imbue your fiction with aspects of your life in a relatable way is different in a very important way than the proper Mary Sue. To have a character with your mother’s manners or your father’s name is natural. The reason the Mary Sue is so frowned upon is because it negates the problem of imagination at the same time fictionalizing. The best thing about writing fiction is the fantasy. When you understand what makes the best art so great, it has a dual and positive effect: you have the motivation to acquire the skill to create, and the sensibility and identification with the material to know what you’ve created

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