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Literature as Reality and Reality as Literature

Dawn's picture

The stories read and generated from literature, and the stories understood as pertaining to one’s perception of reality are separate ideas in one’s mind the majority of the time. There have been discussions in class about the blurring of the line between these stories: losing oneself in a novel, or imagining elements of a story in a book coming to life. However, even though the line may be crossed, it is still there. We are well aware of our ability to be lost in a novel – we know what is “actually happening” and that what is imagined is not real. It can also be jarring when one recognizes moments when the mind cannot just take off and “escape” reality by reading a book. This was a common observation regarding the style of Richard Powers’ Generosity. However, the convergence (or not) of reality and the world created by literature that has been discussed has been entirely contained in the reader’s perception of a text. Reality and the literary world have been woven together in the creation of texts themselves.

            Nicholas Meyer wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes pastiches, in 1974. This happened to be a time of heightened popularity for these pastiches. Meyer faced a challenge – how would he make his new story stand out amidst the widespread proliferation of similar texts? A pastiche definitively imitates the style of another piece of literature, so many of the new Sherlock Holmes stories that were published in the early seventies were similar to each other as well as earlier works. Many writers who tried their hands at writing a Sherlock Holmes detective story tried to imitate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s process of deduction that he ascribed to Holmes as well as the formulaic writing style. Meyer took this a step further and decided to “authenticate” his Holmes adaptation by bringing a fictional character to life and allowing his “authorial presence” to do that work.

            In the forward to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Meyer claims to have discovered an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson. He even addresses concerns surrounding his book’s origin, recognizing the sheer number of pastiches generated in the couple of years prior to its publication. Meyer claims to understand the idea that “the appearance of one more supposedly authentic chronicle may automatically arouse bored hostility in the breasts of serious students of the Canon.” Meyers anticipates the question many readers would pose toward a new story in the same vein as so many others before it. Where did this one come from and why now? Watson becomes his answer.

            The idea for this particular opening to the text evolved out of a way of reading the canon called “playing the game” which was very popular in Sherlockian fan societies at the time. They continue to produce a few papers on that technique. However, its use in framing Meyers’ story has helped to produce a new perception of reality for some people who have picked up the book for the first time without knowing the history of the game, Sherlockian literary culture or even much about Sherlock Holmes as a character. Some people have come to believe that Watson is a real person.

            I have found out first hand that this is a known story that is shared by a segment of the population. During the summer I work at Gillette Castle State Park in Hadlyme, CT. I give tours of the house on the property, which is the retirement home of William Gillette, the first actor to play Sherlock Holmes in a popular stage production. Most tourists who come to the castle know nothing about Gillette, but have heard of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and have read some random texts here and there, including Meyers’ book. A man once explained to me that he had never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but a friend had recommended the Seven-Per-Cent Solution. He had enjoyed the book, and wanted to come here and see the place where Sherlock Holmes had lived. He specifically asked to see Watson’s room. This man had a different story than mine when it came to the reality of the existence of the characters. I did not think of it that way then, but now I find it fascinating, that based on his perspective, his story had bent my perceptions of what was real and what had been produced by literature. Since I was the tour guide, I was only given the opportunity to tell him my story before he left my section of the museum, but it would have been fascinating to have a more in depth conversation with this man.

            Meyers blurs the lines between reality and literature with his presentation of a second character in the Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The premise behind this pastiche calls into question the plot line regarding Holmes’ arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Meyers (or Watson) suggests that Moriarty only exists in Holmes’ mind. He has been produced by Holmes’ drug use, especially his reliance on cocaine. Watson, worried about Holmes, convinces him to meet with a psychologist – Sigmund Freud. Just about everyone I know has heard the name, Sigmund Freud. Whether or not they know exactly who he is, they know that he is a real person. However, at some point in the future, he may not be as commonly studied as he is now. If that were to become reality, people reading the Seven-Per-Cent Solution may have a story in which they understand Freud as a fictional character.


Jonze, Spike, Dir. Adaptation. Perf. Cage, Nicholas. Columbia Pictures: 2002.

Meyers, Nicholas. Seven-Per-Cent Solution. New York: Penguin Group 1974.