It’s Not Yours

Yesterday I read this article in which Martin Freeman, who played John Watson in Sherlock, rants a bit about alternate readings of the text. Namely, he insists that there’s nothing gay in Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, it was never played that way.

My initial gut reaction was, “Wow, that’s a really strong and seemingly homophobic reaction.” But what I think really bothered me about it was the suggestion that the however many viewers who read the text differently had somehow done it wrong.

The moment a book or film or television series meets the public, it no longer belongs to the creator(s). Not the writer, not the actors, not the director, etc. It becomes the property of those who engage with the text. They get to read it and interpret it however they want. It may not be what you intended, and some interpretations may be a stretch, but there is no right and wrong.

One of the first things they taught us in Radio-Television-Film courses at uni was “encoding” and “decoding.” This is the fundamental of all communication, from speaking to writing to filming. You say something, or write something, or perform an action, and the listener/reader/viewer takes that information and decodes its meaning. Some messages are fairly simple. There are only so many ways my son can interpret, “Clean your room.” But if I want to be really clear, I might break it down into: “Put all the clothes on the floor in the laundry basket and make your bed.” Otherwise, his idea of “clean” and mine might not be the same.

When dealing with books or film or television, however, the author of the text is not there to explain the work as the reader or viewer engages with it. Nor would we want them to be. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie with someone explaining everything as things happen. Part of the joy of reading and watching shows is extrapolating information for ourselves. Our brains like having to work.

Look at all the fan theories for various shows, the online communities. People love taking things apart, breaking things down. And the choices they make for that process—the lines along which they break things, the metrics they use—are going to be wide ranging and, at the same time, very personal.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that a queer reading of Sherlock is par for the course. There is a grand history of queer readings of all kinds of things, and to stomp your foot and say, “No!” is childish and naïve.

When I’ve been asked about—or sometimes told—things that appear in my books and stories, I don’t say, “You’re wrong.” (Well, maybe if they have a detail or fact incorrect.) I say something like, “That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way.” Or, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind at the time, but I see where you might read it that way.” There’s room for everyone and their ideas, after all, and I’m just flattered they’ve taken the time to think that much about it.

Thing is, I know I can’t control how people will receive my work. I know that, once they’re holding that book, it’s no longer mine. It’s theirs, and they will interpret it however they want, in whatever ways work for them. To throw a little tantrum over it would be unprofessional to say the least and smacks of dictatorship at the worst.

The only way to make sure people read your text the way you want them to is to never write or film it at all.

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M

Writer/Screenwriter

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