“Life is infinitely stranger,” Sherlock Holmes once insisted to Watson, “than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outrè results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”
It’s an ironic proposition from an imaginary character. Watson would challenge Holmes on the merits, but he couldn’t entirely say what we might be thinking: If life is really that much more extraordinary than fiction, why would there be such a market for the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? The thing is, Holmes isn’t speaking as a consumer of fiction; he’s speaking as a detective. He’s saying that life is inherently more complex, and complexly connected, than anything we could ever make up.
That much seems undeniably true. Yet it’s an idea profoundly at odds with a dominant spirit in mainstream media today. While the world breaks and shifts and reconnects around us in infinitely strange ways, news analysis and opinion increasingly give us narratives, valorize storytelling, and offer certainties to win our trust with in a time of inescapable uncertainty—journalism for consumers, not for detectives.