Thursday News: On Sherlock Holmes, subtlety, happiness, and wisdom teeth
Sherlock Holmes, Pro and Con – An interesting essay by Terry Teachout that actually reads more like a paen to deep thoughts in literature than a meditation on the positives and negatives of Sherlock Holmes. Teachout discusses the persistent popularity of the Holmes character, including the longevity of the original stories, despite the myriad adaptations and variations by other writers. One of the insights that may be particularly relevant to the ongoing discussions about the ‘literary value’ of genre fiction, though, is the question of character growth that Teachout raises, and it struck me, reading this section of his essay, that there is nothing in genre that prohibits the dynamic growth of characters; in fact, I think many of us would argue that in successful Romance narratives, particularly, substantive growth is highly desirable if not essential.
This points to another source of Holmes’s perennial appeal, which is that he is, in common with most other fictional detectives of the 19th and early-20th centuries, a fundamentally reassuring presence, one whose phenomenal crime-solving abilities remind us that the encroaching disorder of the world around us need not be irresistible. Small wonder, then, that the Holmes stories were so successfully filmed in Hollywood during World War II, with Basil Rathbone’s Holmes transformed into a hunter of Nazi spies. . . .
Anyone who returns to the Holmes stories in adulthood after having put them aside for half a lifetime, as I recently did in writing this essay, will be forcibly struck by this weakness [the superficiality of Holmes’s character]. For the Holmes and Watson of A Study in Scarlet, it turns out, are already fully developed as personalities. While we learn a certain number of new things about them in the tales that follow, they do not grow, nor does their relationship alter in any significant way. Similarly, they remain fixed in time and thus never grapple with the complicating problems of modernity (except in “His Last Bow,” a 1917 story that shows us Holmes and Watson on the eve of World War I). – Commentary Magazine
Against Subtlety – Like many offerings from Slate, this essay by Forrest Wickman is kind of a mixed bag. But it’s also a relevant companion piece to the article on Holmes, in part because Wickman’s contemplation of “subtlety” is a rehearsal of many of the arguments for and against commercial and/or genre fiction. I don’t agree with a number of his points (I think his celebration of art that persuades people through obvious pleasures needs a lot more nuance, for example), and I think he has a tendency to ignore both the value and the inevitability of interpretation (which is not the same thing as ‘working to find meaning’) on the part of readers/viewers. But his points about the way we just assume that subtlety ‘makes you smarter,’ as he puts it, are also worth thinking more about. Going back to the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 thinking, for example, perhaps it’s not so much about doing ‘intellectual work’ while reading, but about the kind of thought processes we employ, which may or may not be better exercised with more “complex” entertainment.
The idea that to be on the nose is undesirable seems to have its origins in comedy (you can see it jump from the writers’ room to the screen in meta moments of Desperate Housewives and Family Guy), which brings us to one of subtlety’s more defensible defenses: Being unsubtle can be a little like explaining the joke. According to this line of thought, to be unsubtle is bad because you deny the joy of realization. It’s true that there’s pleasure in discovering something for yourself, but we should ask ourselves whether that’s more important than communicating clearly, or delivering that joy to larger audiences. Too often this defense is a form of self-flattery: This is made plain when we complain that something “talks down to us” or “insults our intelligence,” as if the point of a book or TV show is to stroke your ego.
Others argue that doing interpretive work, having to search for meaning, is good not because it’s pleasurable, but because it exercises your brain, like a muscle, making it strong. This is the “no pain, no gain” theory of forcing audiences to dig deeper for hidden meaning. But here’s the thing: It’s still just a theory. Studies have tried again and again to prove it—both for literary fiction and, more recently, for prestige television—but when it comes down to it, there’s no real evidence that more subtle entertainment makes you smarter. – Slate
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Unexpected Secret to Finding Happiness – Okay, I admit it: I’m one of those people who thinks that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love reads like a rich, white woman’s extended spa vacation. Yes, I know that even well-known writers who get big advances can have truly sucky life circumstances and be deeply, legitimately miserable. So why am I linking to this interview on happiness? Because Romance is supposed to be all about happiness (the HEA!), but I’m not sure how much we really talk about women’s happiness in the Romance genre outside a relationship (most often with a man). And there’s still reticence around women cultivating happiness in ways that are self-serving (e.g. that don’t involve, say, raising children). Which is kind of interesting, given the fact that the genre is so strongly attached to the idea of a ‘happily ever after.’ Sure, it’s a shared happiness, but women can be fulfilled by more than one thing at a time, just like men. Yet we still so often think about women’s happiness as “selfish.”
Is happiness narcissistic?
“The greatest community service you can offer the world is to become one less miserable person, whatever that takes. I’d rather be around a happy narcissist than a miserable one. I know this, having been depressed. When you’re depressed, you spend 100 percent of your time thinking about yourself. A happy person, by comparison, thinks about herself only 97 percent of the time. They actually have something left over to give.” – Allure Magazine
Canada Man Proposes to Girlfriend With Engagement Ring Made From His Wisdom Tooth – Speaking of shared happiness, here’s a story I meant to post yesterday and then forgot (it’s possible I subconsciously blocked it from my mind). Carlee Leifkes and Lucas Unger decided that they wanted to celebrate their engagement in a way that reflected their belief in marriage as a “two-way street.” It’s unclear whether Unger had the tooth voluntarily removed specifically for the ring, which seems almost Victorian in its sentimental use of human material. Kind of surprising, then, that they’re doing the cliché Vegas wedding with an Elvis impersonator officiating.
“Diamonds are overrated,” Leifkes told ABC News today. “We’re a very non-traditional couple, and we like to have fun. The tooth symbolizes the weird, quirky, odd couple we are. Every tooth is different, and the tooth also shows what my husband’s willing to go through for me. Lucas literally grew this and went through pain when he got it removed, and all that went into my wedding ring.” – ABC News