Please, please, please journalists: stop asking celebrities about fan fiction. Photo: Getty
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Why it doesn’t matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of Sherlock fan fiction

Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert the mainstream perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in their own way. It’s not for the benefit of middle-aged men with a vast audience and little understanding of the form.

Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch has a thing for interstellar bondage. It must be his favorite kink. Why else would he, when talking about Star Trek on Top Gear last summer, jump to his favorite John/Sherlock fic trope the second Jeremy Clarkson made a well-worn Kirk/Spock innuendo? “If I talk about a relationship between two men in a drama, they’re immediately ‘at it’,” Cumberbatch said, sounding, well, kind of annoyed. “The world wide inter-lie will just basically go splat. There’s a load of fan fiction which has me and John Watson floating in space on a bed handcuffed to one another . . . not just with handcuffs, either.”

Then just this week, in an interview with Out editor-in-chief of Aaron Hicklin (ostensibly to promote The Imitation Game and discuss the legacy of Alan Turing), he goes there again. Complaining about how women express apparently misguided sexual interest in his depiction of Sherlock, Cumberbatch can’t help but bring up his favorite trope. “Because, you know, they either want to make John [Watson] into a sort of cute little toy, or me into a cute toy, or we’re fucking in space on a bed, chained together.”

He continues describing scenes from erotic Sherlock fic, something on which he must be an expert. I’ll quote the paragraph in full, because Hicklin’s influence - from his writing about Cumberbatch’s “rabid fan base” to the way you see him leading the actor through the conversation - comes across loud and clear:

Cumberbatch is referring to the rapacious slash fiction community that has turned his chilly, acerbic, and distinctly asexual Sherlock into a lustful cock monster. “It’s always, like, one of them is tired, one comes back from work, the other is horny, a lump appears in his trousers, and then they’re at it,” he says. “It’s usually me getting it – I’m biting Watson’s dog tags.” Perhaps, I suggest, making Holmes and Watson gay is a way to remove other women from the picture. “Yes, yes,” he replies enthusiastically. “I think it’s about burgeoning sexuality in adolescence, because you don’t necessarily know how to operate that. And I think it’s a way of neutralising the threat, so this person is sort of removed from them as somebody who could break their heart.”

While I love the idea that Cumberbatch always shows up for the Johnlock/handcuffs/bed in space kink meme, I think the context of these quotes puts a pretty quick damper on that joke. There is at least one story I know of in the Sherlock fandom that matches this broad description. I’m guessing Cumberbatch was shown it, possibly against his will, because after all people think it’s super funny to show actors erotic fanfic and fan art! – and I think it’s not an insane leap to suggest he hasn’t been shown much else, or sought any of it on his own. He does refer to the internet as the “world wide inter-lie”; I’m assuming he doesn’t choose to spend much time there.

These comments have, as you might imagine, caused a bit of a firestorm in some corners of fandom, and I think they warrant a response. They raise old questions that have been turned over in fan communities for years but have been largely ignored by the mainstream media: questions of how (mostly) female desires and (mostly) female fan practices are unduly misunderstood and mocked, with fanworks at the heart. Does it matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of Sherlock fanfic? Not particularly. I – and many others – would make the case that it’s not for him. (And someone should gently explain to him that despite the fact that he always refers to himself instead of Sherlock in these exchanges, he is not actually the character that he plays, no matter how hard he wishes it.) But does it matter that two middle-aged men with very large platforms were sitting at a table pathologising teenage girls’ sexuality – and making a whole load of potentially harmful assumptions about a topic they know literally nothing about? Absolutely.

I’ll pause here for a moment to step back and define a few terms, because I’m aware that not everyone reading this column has, like me, been knee-deep in slash fic for years. Fan fiction, of course, is when writers use source material – a show, a book, even a real-life celebrity persona – as some sort of basis to write original fiction. It’s hugely popular, though it’s only recently been thrust into a mainstream spotlight. In the form we know now, it’s been around for decades; the practice of remixing and playing with influences has been around for…basically all of literature. (For a great introduction to the topic, I always recommend Anne Jamison’s Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World.) When two (or more) characters are depicted in a relationship or entering into one, that’s a pairing; the act of shipping, rooting for one particular pairing whether it’s happening in the source material or not, often expresses itself in fic. Slash refers to a gay pairing, almost always male/male – female/female is most often called femslash. Female/male is “het” or sometimes, in annoyingly heteronormative fashion, “gen”, which is short for “general”.

Despite the popular media narrative, tons of fanfic is not erotic. Different people want different things from their stories, and plenty of fanworks don’t even focus on relationships. Take Sherlock, for instance; of the 63,000-plus stories on Archive of our Own (AO3), the (arguably) de-facto fic-hosting archive these days, about half are labeled “Sherlock Holmes/John Watson”. Other pairings, from John/Mary on down to characters who have never even spoken to each other onscreen (hey, it’s Sherlock: we’re working with nine total episodes that are like 85 per cent Holmes and Watson only) have a few thousand results – and many of the others are just stories where they solve crimes and have domestics and do all the other things they do on the show. (For that matter, plenty of Johnlock stories are just like that, too, but they take the implicit romance as depicted in the show and make it explicit, sometimes with sex – and sometimes without it.)

I bring these numbers up for context – not to suggest that there aren’t erotic stories being written. There are. Huge numbers of women write and read erotica, original and fanfic alike. Erotic fan fiction functions similarly to any other type of fan fiction: the pleasures of the medium – the sorts of games the fic author plays with the source material – are all there, plus there’s sex. But it’s the sex bit, the female-authored sex bit, that always seems to rankle, particularly with television or film fandoms, when there are actors’ faces attached to the characters. And people get particularly riled up when it comes to slash (male/male, I mean – two ladies is cool!!), anger at the very suggestion that a character might be gay and engaging in gay sex. If someone objects to these characters being appropriated in fic, you wonder if they’d be as upset to see good guys turned into vicious killers as they often are to see good guys getting it on with other good guys.

When I say these are largely female-authored texts, it’s not an exaggeration: the majority of fanfic writers are female or non-male (which isn’t to say male authors aren’t welcome, though I can’t speak to anyone’s specific experience). In a recent self-reported survey of more than 10,000 AO3 users, more people identified as genderqueer than male. We can speculate all we want about why this is the case; I’ve heard many theories over the years. Women like to fill in the gaps, or women like to spend more time with character development. My preferred explanation is the idea that the vast majority of what we watch is from the male perspective – authored, directed, and filmed by men, and mostly straight white men at that. Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert that perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in her own way. The genderqueer stat doesn’t surprise me at all, nor does the one that says just 38 per cent of respondents identify as straight. It often feels as if there isn’t much space for difference in the dominant cultural narratives; in fandom, by design, there’s space for all.

And what of slash in particular, of the propensity of many female fans to focus on relationships between two men? On that front, explanations get even more varied. For some, it’s as simple as shooting back, “Well, straight men watch two women, right?” For others, it’s not so cut-and-dried. I’ve seen the idea that women want to explore love and sex without the constrictions of traditional gender roles in heterosexual relationships. Or the idea that there are far more male characters on our screens – and, for that matter, vastly more complex ones: these are often the characters people want to spend time with, to prod at in one fic scenario or another. Or it’s queering those mainstream narratives – in a world laden with queer subtext and not a whole lot of queer text, fic has the power to correct that. Or maybe even the idea that ties into some of what Cumberbatch guesses at “enthusiastically”: for young fans (or older ones), it can be a supportive space to explore sexuality. (As far as “neutralising the threat” of “somebody who could break their heart,” though, a swing and a miss there. Because that’s not the least bit patronising, particularly to his youngest fans.)

I’d put money on the idea that Benedict Cumberbatch and the editors of Out are unaware of most, if not all of this. That’s completely fine. As I said – it’s not for them. (Ironically enough, if they’d been aware that so many fans writing fic are queer, a far more nuanced and sensitive discussion of fanfic could be awesome in Out, one of the US’s pre-eminent LGBT magazines.) But if you don’t know about something, and your interview subject sure as hell doesn’t know about something, why are you asking about it? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but these comments, on their own or taken in the context of the whole article, serve to do little more than gawk at Cumberbatch’s female fans and their funny ways, and, in turn, to belittle them.

Sherlock fans are used to it. Its creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, are pleasantly supportive of fanworks – they’re creating their own Sherlock Holmes fanfic, after all, so they know the power and the appeal of a good adaptation or reworking. But the biggest offence of all was at the BFI last December, at the premiere of “The Empty Hearse”, when Caitlin Moran demanded that Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman read some Johnlock fanfic she’d found on the internet. I was there that afternoon, so I got to witness that utter train wreck of a misstep first-hand: Moran forced the story on the actors despite their protests and the obvious discomfort of literally everyone in the theatre. There were no diplomatic attempts at discussing the purpose of fan fiction, as Cumberbatch did with Out. She offered up the story to mock it, and mock the idea of writing it, pure and simple. I’ve argued about the incident since, with people who’ve said that if the author didn’t want the story thrust into scrutiny, she shouldn’t have put it online. That’s all well and good, but it’s shameful to utterly disregard the enormous imbalance of power in this situation: a famous journalist and the famous creators of a popular television show, all on a stage mocking an anonymous woman’s story – one she wrote for fun rather than for money, for a given community rather than the general public – strikes me as incredibly cruel.

Fan fiction, fan art, the way female fans celebrate what they love: this stuff isn’t a secret anymore – and it shouldn’t be a punch line anymore, either. It’s a big messy world full of amateur writing and unedited work, but it’s also got of some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, published or otherwise. You don’t have to participate in it to afford it even a modicum of respect. I’ll be the first to volunteer if you ever want to learn. But if you’re not interested in that, politely decline to answer. It’s easy to blame the celebrity, dragged into answering these questions. But really, the fault lies with the media. Please, please, please journalists: stop asking celebrities about fan fiction. Unless you’re having an in-depth conversation about fictional constructions of the actors’ personae (like the very one you’ll be presenting in your piece?), it serves no purpose. Non-fans likely don’t get it; fans think you look like a bully – because you are.

There are rare exceptions to this rule, and the very best of them might be Orlando Jones, an American actor currently on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. Jones has been extraordinarily enthusiastic about learning about fan practices and joining fandom from the creator side, the bit that’s often an unwilling participant in the exchange. He, too, was quoted this week on his feelings about slash. They stand in such stark contrast to Cumberbatch’s that I’d like to quote them in full:

I like the slash, and I think I like it because I feel there are so many people who are under-represented – or not represented at all – in mainstream Hollywood entertainment. I really enjoy the fan fiction that embraces character and themes that showcase those people – their love, their desires, their passions. I think that’s really cool – and I hope the show as it continues embraces that more, because that’s an opportunity to tell stories that other people might not be familiar with. I mean, there’s slash of me and Ichabod…that’s like, ‘What?!’ and then I read it and it was really well-written. I get it – it’s another way to go but it’s no less valid than what we’re doing and it’s certainly interesting, so I really get a kick out of that. To read fan fiction and to see fan art and to watch other people’s artistry paint different colours on top of what we’re doing... how can you be mad at that? That's just completely awesome!

Why does any of this matter? Why would I like us to celebrate Jones’s words, and denounce the Cumberbatch interview? They’re just actors, after all; people paid to recite someone else’s words. But what they themselves say can matter a great deal: celebrities – and some journalists, for that matter – have the platforms, the cultural capital, the power, that a fan, even a collective fandom, lacks: one side has money and authority, while the other side has shared enthusiasm and a lot of beautiful fan art. Fandom as community, as a deeply supportive space for women and girls, can honestly make a life-changing difference for a person hovering on the margins. Misunderstandings and ignorance like what I saw this week threaten an already delicate balance. When I initially read the Cumberbatch interview I bristled at the suggestion that fanfic is all teenage girls – the stats show that’s not remotely true. But then, I bristled on behalf of teenage girls. Fandom can be so important in your most formative years – and then it can continue to form you, far beyond that. There’s nothing “rabid” about a community built on shared love.

Despite all this, fandom endures. In what was surely the most delightful turnaround after the initial surge of anger, Sherlock fans lifted one particular phrase from the Out interview and decided to make it their own. Suddenly “lustful cock monster” was everywhere on my Tumblr dashboard: inserted into dialogue from the show, incorporated into fan art, claimed as an identity. One well-known fan artist, Fox Estacado, went to work quickly to get the phrase on a t-shirt: they’re available for preorder now, and a percentage of the sales will go to the Organization for Transformative Works, the nonprofit that runs AO3. I suppose it’s a testament to the positive power of fandom: when life gives you lemons, try to turn it into a great meme.

 

***

 

Now listen to a discussion about Benedict Cumberbatch and fandom on the New Statesman's pop culture podcast:

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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