Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler and what they teach us about judging your own work

One of the mentors I try to emulate is Lois Takahashi, without whom I would not have succeeded in getting my PhD at UCLA. Lois is one of those immensely gifted mentors who never misled you, but she was always, always on your side, trying to help you. It is an uncommonly generous thing to do, as PhD students can take up a great deal of time.

Of the many brilliant things she said to me (one of many brilliant things): “We are never the best judges of our own work.” It made sense at the time, and it’s one of those bits of advice you get that you never forget, and it makes more and more sense as time goes on. The review process makes a lot more sense when you look at it that way, combined with a gladiatorial commitment to getting your stuff out there.

For fun I have been reading Michael Dirda’s, On Conan Doyle, a lovely book that discusses Conan Doyle’s entire corpus. Neil Gaiman’s blurb says it so well: “Imagine having an unbelievably well-read friend, who likes the same stuff that you do but is able to articulate why he loves it so much better than you can.” Spot on. It’s been a delightful read.

But, sure enough, Dirda reports that Conan Doyle’s favorite novel of his own was the deservedly obscure The White Company, a tedious book that I gave up on years ago. Like many of his Victorian contemporaries, he believed that that moral instruction could build society for the better–a necessity for the republic. In The White Company, his intention is good, but he doesn’t have Joseph Conrad’s gifts that allow for the making of A Heart of Darkness. His Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, Conan Doyle thought, were mere pastimes.

They are nothing of the sort. Many crime novels have a strong moral core of wrongdoing and justice, obviously, but in Holmes and Watson both you can see the embodiment of the Victorian virtues of manliness (Watson–service to country, loyalty, physical dynamism) and modern Enlightenment thought (Holmes–rationality, scientific observation, deductive reasoning). In A Scandal in Bohemia–which Dirda rightly calls a masterpiece–Holmes shows us, like Dickens, the corruption of the aristocracy in the thoughtless, self-deceiving privilege demonstrated by the King of Bohemia in believing the magnificent Irene Adler is beneath him.

It’s apparent that Conan Doyle was such an essential story-teller at his core that his sense of moral order and decency came through even when he thought he was simply entertaining. Intention perhaps matters less than just doing the work; your essential vision shows through in the work.

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2 responses to “Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler and what they teach us about judging your own work

  1. “Essential vision”….
    What a turn of phrase! I completely agree with you; very few author’s can judge correctly which of their works will most strongly resonate with readers.
    But you sound skeptical that moral instruction can actually build society for the better. I would argue that it can and does, and that one of the essential functions of a writer is to pass on and strengthen the moral fabric of society.
    What are your actual thoughts on the subject? I think I’ve taken a minor point in your post and turned it into a major theme.

  2. Of course I believe in the moral power of fiction! John Gardner has a quite nice book on it. I do think that authors, however, when they try to “be” something they are not, or adopt a voice they aren’t good with, tend not to be very successful. In this case, Conan Doyle is no Joseph Conrad. But Conrad was no Conan Doyle. Both made contributions to the moral fabric of society.