When talking to young people about writing, I try to get them to think about their audience. To whom is their primary responsibility? To themselves? Their readers? The publication they're writing for? The subjects they're writing about?
How do they balance these often competing interests?
I maintain that the order is 1) readers; 2) yourself; 3) publication and, 4) subject. If you put yourself first, riffing on whatever your private fascination happens to be with little regard for its effect on those reading, that's a recipe for boredom.
If you put the publication first you're a hack (I believe good writing IS putting your publication first, though your boss might not realize it at the moment).
And if you write for your subject, you're a whore, pleasing one person while the rest can go hang.
Thus you have to expect to take heat from one of the parties lower down the pecking order, particularly subjects, who chronically feel ill-used, no matter how delicately treated.
When I wrote a piece about an opera soprano last week, I thought I had hit a sweet spot where all involved would be pleased. I hadn't. The Lyric complained, quite forcefully, and I had to remind them that I didn't write it for them. I am writing for readers who, truth be told, care little for the opera, less for Wagner, and have to be led to the subject via something they do care about, like fitness. There was no deceit—I explained to the singer exactly what I had in mind. But she obviously didn't quite believe me until she saw it in print, which was a shame.
That happens a lot.
Regular reader Tom Evans mentioned the column below as an instance where those written about felt ill-used, though he wasn't sure why. I'm reprinting it so you can try to find what the problem is. I have a hunch. This group finds Sherlock Holmes and his world a font of fascination, while my column views them with a certain awe for feeling that way. I didn't share their passion, and that offended them. I didn't do it to slight them, but because a) I'm not a particular Holmes fan and b) I was writing for readers who, mostly, were not in thrall with Arthur Conan Doyle.
That's the price you pay for being written about and for writing. As Marge Piercy's great poem about the writing profession, "For the young who want to," ends: "You have to like it better than being loved."
First, the toasts.
We all rise, holding our glasses high, and Dr. Franklin Saksena rhymes:
She used to sing at La Scala
And met the king at a gala
She threatened to send their picture to the king's future wife
Which was bound to cause a lot of strife
During the pantomime ball,
Sherlock Holmes found the pictures in the wall
But Irene Adler outwitted them all
He finishes—after a few more stanzas—with "To Irene Adler!"
At which the dozen men assembled in a pine-paneled party room at Mirabell, a North Side German restaurant, hoist their glasses to the villainess and exclaim "Hear hear!" Then more toasts.
Welcome to the March meeting of Hugo's Companions, a group devoted to that great detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick, Dr. Watson. There are about 280 such groups nationwide, 25 or so in Illinois.
"What we have here is one of the most vibrant Sherlockian communities in the country," said Donald J. Terras, past president of Hugo's. "No other city I know of in the world has as many Sherlockian groups as we do here in Chicago."
The Sherlockians regard the Canon—their reverent term for the 56 short stories and four novels about Holmes and Watson written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—with deep affection.
"We're all pretty much enamored with that time period—a simpler, less complicated time," explained Bill Sawisch, current president of Hugo's Companions. "Holmes and Watson represent what was good in the world at the time. 'It is always 1895' is something people say quite a bit in these groups."
They are called "scion" groups since they descend from the original Sherlockian club, the Baker Street Irregulars, founded in 1934 in New York City by journalist Christopher Morley. The oldest Chicago group, The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic)— the "(sic)" is part of the name—was begun in 1943 by Chicago Tribune book columnist Vincent Starrett. Hugo's Companions formed in 1949. There are more.
Why so many? Why don't Conan Doyle fans all form together into one society with a band of chapters speckling Chicago?
"That's a very good question," said Sawisch, who is also president of the STUD Sherlockian Society ("STUD" being short for "A Study in Scarlet") and, rather than answering, launches into a protracted digression, an occupational hazard when talking to Sherlockians: "Everything started with the Hounds, Hugo's being the next group, then the Criterion Bar Association. That group started because of Hugo's Companions, with the wives meeting..."
The participation of women, while settled in modern society, is still an issue here where, remember, "It is always 1895."
"In some ways it's still controversial," said Margaret Smedegaard, who along with three other wives of Sherlockians founded the Criterion Bar in 1972. "The Baker Street Irregulars started admitting women about 10 years ago, and that helped. There is a recognition that women are just as capable in the Sherlockian world."
Just as capable . . . of drinking beer?
"As intellectual, as knowledgeable," she said. "Many of them have written articles."
After dinner, announcements and a quiz, during which members show an alarming command of the minutia of the story "The Six Napoleons," Tom Evans rises for the evening's entertainment, a talk on "The Real Dr. Watson."
"There will be no need to take notes in order to pass the test," jokes Evans, reassuring us he will hand out copies of his speech afterward, which he does.
"I was going to begin by saying the several influences bearing on preparation of these remarks amounted to a 'synergy of serendipity,' but my Webster's unabridged dictionary tells me that isn't quite right, so I will call it instead a 'confluence of coincidences'..." begins Evans, explaining that his talk came out of a request that he toast "this most familiar inhabitant of our Sherlockian world."
They do recognize the fictional aspect of the tales, if grudgingly.
"Whether Inspector John H. Watson M.D. is or is not real can be a matter of conjecture," says Evans, whose talk addresses three questions: "Just who was he, what was he really like and, for those eccentrics among you who might hold to the bizarre notion that both Holmes and Watson were fictional characters, what real person might have inspired his creation."
Twenty-nine minutes later, his talk concludes.
Young people, for reasons mysterious, are not racing to join Sherlockian groups, and the membership ages.
"We've lost a number of great people over the years," says Evans. "I don't know how much of a future any of us have."
The evenings concludes, as tradition dictates, with a reading of a poem by Vincent Starrett called "221B" the Baker Street address where Holmes and Watson live in the stories and, to some, live to this day:
"Here dwell together still two men of note/Who never lived and so can never die," Sawisch begins. "How very near they seem yet how remote/That age before the world went all awry."
The poem, thick with yellow fog and splashing hansom cabs, concludes:
"Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always 1895."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 20, 2011