Feb 10 2009 5:55pm

On the Fannish Phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes, or, My Fandom is Crazier Than Your Fandom

Sherlock Holmes: the myth, the legend, the actual 19th century archetype. There’s something about the Great Detective that drives a certain kind of person batty with desire. They want to write fan fiction pastiches. They write long treatises on theories about various oddities in the Canon that were the result of Doyle being a bit loose with his research and his memory.  They sometimes worship odd characters in the Canon, like Professor Moriarty, sort of in the way some Harry Potter fans are fond of Draco (and I’m sure that Doyle would go “WTF?” as much as Rowling did).

Really, it would seem as though the Sherlock Holmes fandom were filled with mostly 16-year-old girls and/or a lot of women, considering the amount of slashing that occurs.

But no. Many Sherlock Holmes pastiches are written by men.

Especially the slashing.

Now, you may argue that this isn’t a direct proof of craziness. After all, there are plenty of boys and men who write Harry Potter fan fiction, or Stargate fan fiction, or Star Trek and Star Wars for that matter with all their tie-in novels and stories. And with Sherlock Holmes in the public domain, well, it’s like a ton of tie-in novels from sources all over, some good, some mediocre, some that make you want to dump bleach into your brain. Not at all unlike tie-in novels in that regard.

And yet I challenge you with one thing to persuade you of the crazy inherent in the Holmes fandom.

There are many who like to pretend that Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson were real. Seriously. It’s called “The Game.” It’s fun, it’s a bit like a comics convention complete with costumes that lasts forever, except it’s in your head.  It’s also the brain space where many of the essays are written, in all seriousness, with a closeness and sort of belief that isn’t present in many other fandoms, who, even at their most pedantic and fervent, seem to always remember that they’re talking about fictional characters and hold them at a distance.

Yes, there are fringes in every fandom who believe, truly believe, that the characters are real (witness the women who consider themselves married to Snape on the astral plane), but as far as I know, Sherlock Holmes has the honor of presiding over one of the very, very few fandoms where this kind of game is encouraged in a mainstream, though not real-life delusional, fashion.  (And I say “few” because I don’t know all the fandoms out there, and conceivably there are at least a few others with the same sort of “Game” out there, just like the other side of the universe possibly has Earths where anything might have happened, like tornadoes that rain candy canes.)

This trait, though, seems to be slowly ebbing from the pool as new Sherlockians/Holmesians1 are introduced to the fandom, usually through the luscious neuroticism that was Jeremey Brett’s portrayal in the Granada television series and films. They treat the fandom as a more normal affair. Probably because there are so many other fandoms out there these days that the normality just seeps in.

And as for professional writers, the cause is totally lost. Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, was not immune. Isaac Asimov was not immune. Not even Neil Gaiman is immune. Not even Warren Ellis is immune. Mind you, though, no matter how much they mix Holmes and Watson in a stew of science fiction, fricassee them with (alternate) historical fiction, or mince them into Lovecraftian saucisse minuet, their stories tend to be sane, and some extremely good, even award-winning (such as Gaiman’s subtle and sublime “A Study in Emerald”).

So what goes into a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche? Well, hmmm, that sounds like a good topic for a future Sherlock Holmes post (which may not be my direct next post). At least, I’d do it after a post about what doesn’t go into a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Because that one is way more fun.

And by the by, before people go off the handle: yes, I like Sherlock Holmes, and yes, I like the fandom, and yes, I’m guilty as charged of Sherlock Holmes fanfic.2  In my fondness of my fellow fanmates I’m ribbing a little, plus there’s a point when you stare at The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes3 and conclude that, yes, your fandom has a tad of crazy in it.

1 Ah yes. That’s one of the religious wars. Akin to “Trekkie” and “Trekker,” but somewhat Victorianishly refined.
2 On Twitter. It’s a bit on the horrible side. I’ll let you find out where that one is, not that that task is very hard.
3 Purchasable from time to time through Amazon.com and other fine booksellers.

Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
"it’s a bit like a comics convention complete with costumes that lasts forever, except it’s in your head"

That is both scary and totally true.

You're right about it all. There's an element of nutjobbery among Holmes fans that even the geekiest of Trekkie/ers would find bewildering.

So...lemme ask..you..Robert Downey Jr.? Do you have the same fear of a potentially horrible adaptation that I feel? Not so much because of Mr. Jr. but Guy Richie.
Arachne Jericho
2. arachnejericho
@jasonhenninger #1

I've always held that the Sherlock Holmes fandom is so crazy because it's had, like, over 100 years to build up its craziness. 50 years from now, I bet we can go look at any modern fandom to see how far down the path it's gotten.

Of course, by that time the Holmes fandom may well be at the, shall we say, event horizon of crazy.

(It's funny, because while there are, say, Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights fandoms, complete with their own fan fiction, they have never gotten anywhere near the Holmes fandom.)

I think the new movie is gonna be a hilarious disaster, indeed, the new textbook definition of hilarible. It actually may even kill the next generation of fandom. On the other hand, it satisfies a certain part of the fandom that has always viewed Jeremy Brett with severe disfavor as "not manly enough" and maybe even, in some little corner, "too queer" (in both senses).

I'm not even getting Daredevil vibes here. I'm getting Van Helsing vibes.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger

Anyone wants to talk shit about Jeremy Brett, they best stay the hell away from me, or I'll smack 'em with a framed Sydney Paget print. Hard.
Arachne Jericho
4. arachnejericho
@jasonhenninger #3

I'll hold them down for ya.

Ah, Jeremy Brett, poor man.
Jason Henninger
5. jasonhenninger
He was the best of the best, and even the Watsons were great. Both of them!
6. ScarletSherlock
This is quite an interesting discussion. I do not believe that Sherlock Holmes "fandom" (even associating the word "fandom" with Holmesians is a bit off to me; considering that Holmesiana has been around well over 100 years, and there are certain behaviors associated with "fandom" that are definitely not in evidence with Sherlock Holmes fans)is any crazier than other fandoms. Have you delved into 'Twilight,' or even the tv show 'Supernatural?' Those people are CRAZY. Dressing up in deerstalkers and acting out the "Canon" is certainly not as strange as a fandom in which young girls are crushed when they go to an event featuring the star of a film, or when they sew replicas of a main character's desecrated womb.

Although many PASTICHES are written by men, in my experience the majority of FANFICTION is written by women. It's especially true that most slash is written by women, as well.

I hardly think that playing "the Game," not to mention the years of Holmesian scholarship and research, makes for that crazy a fandom--go to an average sci-fi convention and you'll see a thousand times as many fans dressed up as characters, and I am sure that lots of them enjoy playing a similar "game." There is a legion of real Stormtroopers who have full costumes, regiments and everything. You can't tell me that Star Trek fans don't have some kind of role-playing. Hell, I've seen Shakespeare plays translated into Klingon, not to mention the legions of people who study and learn Tolkien's elvish--of which there are TWO distinct languages. I am quite irritated with a lot of the narrow-mindedness of some Holmesians (I don't understand the vehement hatred for the Ritchie project, considering we haven't even seen it yet, and that Holmes movies have seen far, far worse), nor the blind worship of Jeremy Brett. You may have to hold me down for the previous commenter, but he certainly isn't the be-all, end-all Holmes performance (and I don't know if there ever will be one, though Clive Merrison comes close), and the Granada series, though it got a whole lot right from the canon, had its glaringly obvious (and bad) flaws, especially toward the end of its run.

In addition, most people who play "the Game" are entirely aware that they are playing it. There's a bit of tongue-in-cheek winking about it, even at serious Holmes conventions/symposiums. The writers you mention above are certainly playing a wink-wink, nudge-nudge game. The devotion of some Holmes fans can be disturbing, but the same can be said of many other fandoms. This has been going on since the stories were written; the Prince of Wales wore a black arm band when Holmes was "killed," and it was only public outcry that made Doyle bring him back. The very longevity of Holmes, the timelessness, is the appeal, and it will certainly outlast most of the recent fandoms which have become popular.
Wesley Osam
7. Wesley
ScarletSherlock, #6: Although many PASTICHES are written by men, in my experience the majority of FANFICTION is written by women.

This brings up an interesting question: what's the difference between a pastiche, and fan fiction?
Jason Henninger
8. jasonhenninger

What I feel for the Ritchie film isn't blind hatred so much as feeling that, based on his earlier films, he won't pull it off. My fondness for Brett isn't blind either. I've seen several versions of Holmes, as you obviously have as well, and I feel that he brings more to the character than any other actor has. (I agree though that the story lines got a little wonky at times.)

By the way, what do you see as the difference between fanfiction and pastiche? One seems to me to be a more polite name for the other. In reality, are they any different?
9. ScarletSherlock
@8: I am optimistic about the Ritchie film, not because of Ritchie himself, but because of Robert Downey, Jr. He has proven himself to be a talented actor and quite the chameleon. Also, having seen pictures of Jude Law, he looks like he stepped right out of Arthur Conan Doyle's canon. So even if the film is a total mess (and I am fully open to it being so! I'm just being an optimist) I am sure that I will enjoy at least some aspects of the performances, if not necessarily the plot.

As for Brett, I certainly understand that he is your favorite Holmes, and that's great. He is pretty wonderful. For me, my ultimate Holmes is sort of a mix between Clive Merrison and Peter Cushing. It's great that everybody sort of has "their" Holmes, and I definitely wasn't talking specifically about you. There are some internet sites where the love of Brett is kind of disturbing. People are doing things such as seances to speak to his dead spirit, traveling to his former home and speaking to the owners, etc. Of course this happens with many, many celebrities, but some of the people who are his fans have not read the original Holmes canon nor seen any other performances: they have only seen the Granada series and filter their Holmes experience through it. I don't like blanket statements like "Jeremy Brett IS Sherlock Holmes"--he certainly was not Sherlock Holmes; he was Jeremy Brett, but there are some people who don't know the difference.

@7 & 8: I'm sorry, I should have been more clear. I would consider a "pastiche" a legitimately published work (such as 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution' or 'The New Adventures' radio series by Bert Coules) and a fanfiction as something that is done usually on the internet (but not necessarily), not for profit.
Arachne Jericho
10. arachnejericho
@ScarletSherlock #6

I think you missed the part about the gentle ribbing.

You bet I know about the Twilight fandom. Now that is crazy, but I think, still not as cracked as some aspects of Holmes fandom. For one thing, Holmes is far more widespread, and while Twilight's insanity is repetitive at best (with occasional highlights like someone felting Bella's womb complete with Renesmee inside), there's much more variety exhibited in the Holmes multi-dimensional fan continuum.

Plus I did say that the Game wasn't played as a delusion any more than comic con cosplay is a delusion. But as you say, the Sherlock Holmes scholarship debates can go a bit far at times. (We turn to the annotated volumes of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, for a partial showcase.)

There's nothing wrong with being part of a fandom that's cracked in the corners, since it's inevitable that you get people proposing that the real reason Holmes disappeared at Reichenbach was so that he could get jiggy with it with Moriarty, who happens to be a vampire (and that explains everything), and someone writing a long treatise (Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, which was a pleasant read) about how Holmes was a woman (to say nothing of Rex Stout's "Watson was a Woman" tongue-in-cheek essay).

And the Holmes fandom, as I said in an earlier comment, has been around for 100 years; Doyle got a flood of upset fan letters when he killed off Holmes, apart from the black armbands and the general mourning. I do think that Sherlock Holmes was the first fandom, even though Pride and Prejudice goes back farther, with a certain level of devotion.

As for pastiche versus fan fiction... there isn't really a difference. The only "difference" I can think of is pastiche being published and fan fiction not, but in the case of Sherlock Holmes in the public domain, this surface difference may as well not exist.
Arachne Jericho
11. arachnejericho
@ScarletSherlock #9 -

Ah, for pastiche versus fan fiction, I see the published versus not aspect was the difference you were pointing out.
12. ScarletSherlock

I definitely think you have written a very worthwhile and intriguing essay, here. I wasn't offended by what you said and didn't mean to imply it, so sorry if I did.

I guess I have been around so many fandoms that I feel the Sherlock Holmes folks are relatively tame. At least we haven't got, to my knowledge, rampant incest stories amongst the slashers, as they do in 'Supernatural' (of course, I don't go looking for it, and I'm sure someone has made Sherlock/Mycroft--*shudder*). I am to the point where Holmes/Moriarty slash doesn't make me bat an eye. I don't want to read it, but I suppose I understand its appeal. Slash and very strange alternate universe stories are prevalent in every fandom, so I guess I've become numb to the whole thing.
Arachne Jericho
13. arachnejericho
@ScarletSherlock #12

Very true about the numbing effect of being in a familiar fandom. I'm pretty tangential to most fandoms, and tend to sit and grin most of the time, although I have been known to get more fiery when I was a wee lass in college. The patterns of more modern fandoms are familiar in many ways to each other, even the ones that hit Fandom Wank all the time; and I see them in Holmesian/Sherlockian circles.

Probably the intensity is turned down, but the contrast is turned up. And it's so much more interesting in the corners of Holmes fans; oftentimes when one points to the crazy bits of Twilight or Supernatural or Star Wars, they tend to froth at the mouth. Similar corners for Holmes don't froth, but the cracked theories are much more imaginative.

Don't go looking for Sherlock/Mycroft. You will be happier (than me for instance).
Wesley Osam
14. Wesley
ScarletSherlock, #9: I would consider a "pastiche" a legitimately published work (such as 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution' or 'The New Adventures' radio series by Bert Coules) and a fanfiction as something that is done usually on the internet (but not necessarily), not for profit.

I still think of the former as a polite term for the latter, especially as the line between the two can blur. For instance, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a Penguin anthology edited by Richard Lancelyn Green, contains several stories originally self-published or unpublished, which were eventually published professionally.

Outside of Holmes fandom, I've heard that Paul Cornell's first novel--Timewyrm: Revelation, a professionally published Doctor Who tie-in--started life as a story in a fanzine. And how do we classify Steven Brust's My Own Kind of Freedom, which I understand was originally a professional proposal for a potential series of Firefly tie-in books?
Jason Henninger
15. jasonhenninger

Pardon me for taking your criticism of Brett fanatics personally. I guess that things getting a little intense in the comments (mine included) shows that, as Arachnejericho indicated, we Holmes enthousiasts take our opinions pretty seriously. Too much so, perhaps.

I'm right there with you in terms of Downey and Law. They're both great actors. And it isn't that Ritchie's movies all suck. He's done some fun work. I just don't have much faith in his ability to create the subtlety and atmosphere the Holmes stories deserve. We'll see, eh? I'd be happy to be wrong.

Oh, and the idea of a Sherlock/Mycroft story will surely give me nightmares.
Arachne Jericho
16. arachnejericho
@jasonhenninger #15

Re-interpretation is always risky, and I've seen both good and bad revisitings. The more radical the re-interpretation, the more risky. You can have a superstar cast and a brilliant director and *still* end up on the rocks.

Of course, that's true for any movie, but for some reason it's more poignant/hilarious/saddening/all-three-at-once when it happens to things we love so much.
17. Raycun
"Ooh, you should stay away from the inmates in Ward B. They use the ORANGE crayons, and do their synchronised screaming on Tuesdays!"
Andrew Mason
18. AnotherAndrew
Fannfiction vs Pastiche: I take 'pastiche' to be a narrower term, in that it doesn't just mean a story which draws characters and settings from an existing published work, but one written as an imitation of that work. Holmes pastiches are detective stories in the manner of the original; a story which was just an exploration of the love between Holmes and Watson, say, without a detective element, would be fanfic but not a pastiche.

I agree that the question whether it's professionally published is secondary, and can often depend on extraneous matters like whether it's in the public domain and whether permissions can be got.

Interestingly, there was a story found among Doyle's papers after his death, which was at first thought to be an unpublished Holmes story by him, but turned out to be a pastiche which an admirer had sent him. It's published now, but I don't think it was written for publication.
Arachne Jericho
19. arachnejericho
@AnotherAndrew #18 -

Re: pastiches are "proper" detective stories and fanfiction are "anything else but"

I don't know about that; there's plenty of stuff that sits on fanfiction servers and yet do follow the detective story rule because it's Holmes; and there's plenty of stuff that are both a detective story and a love/relationship story all at once. I'm thinking of the Laurie R. King novels (I don't like 'em, but they float some people's boats) and something called My Dearest Holmes (which is actually written well and features two mysteries, one in each part).

The Holmes fiction that doesn't feature a mystery, even a minor one, is uncommon, and for the ones that exist, they're usually also extremely short.

Where would we file something like Sub Rosa, which could arguably fall into pastiche territory due to its visually accurate nature? (The story is told in historically-accurate photoshopped telegrams. No mystery apart from "where the hell did Holmes go?")

And of course there are things like "The Veiled Lodger", a story written by Doyle and part of the original canon, which is... definitely a tiny mystery with a large crime at its center.

If we go with the "no mystery" rule for pastiche versus fan fiction, we end up with a lot of pastiches.
20. Nick Mamatas
A few years ago an acquaintance of mine was involved in a business dealing that required contact with several leading Sherlockians.

One of the people he got in touch with he knew only as, say, "Tom from Baltimore" (not the real name or city, but that's the general idea). When my friend asked Tom for his surname and address so that he could send over some materials, Tom said that if my friend were serious about his Holmes-related product knowing Tom's first name and city of residence would be MORE THAN ENOUGH for my friend to deduce Tom's identity and send him the material.
Arachne Jericho
21. arachnejericho
@AnotherAndrew #18 (once more) -

Now that I think about it some more, I think you're right about defines a pastiche as opposed to "everything else". But I still think of it as fan fiction; I don't think of fan fiction as being a separate sub-section of classifying Stuff Not Done By the Original Creator(s), but as the class itself. And pastiches are a subset of that.

@Nick Mamatas #20 -

Wow. Just wow. I never thought that sort of thing would happen, but then again, why not? Ah, the calmness that sits on the other side of the waterfall of obsession.
Andrew Mason
22. AnotherAndrew
Arachnejericho@21: I agree - I was thinking of fanfiction as the larger class of which pastiche is a part, not as 'everything else'. It's interesting to know that almost all Holmes fanfiction has a pastiche element, but I think the distinction is still worth holding on to with regard to the fanfic world more generally - there is some which tries to be like the original, and other stuff which takes the characters in completely new directions.
23. JeffR23
Actually, fanfiction and pastiche are intersecting sets; your classic Venn Diagram thing. It's quite possible to write a Holmes pastiche in which a completely different (and original-to-the-author) set of characters take the key roles, but which is still told in a conspicuously Doylean manner, after all.
Chris Meadows
24. Robotech_Master
The whole thing about "the Game" reminds me partly of PJF's Wold Newton family tree (which I'm sure was pretty much inspired by the Game, come to think of it), and partly of the epistolary roleplaying game De Profundis in which players were encourage to pretend that the world of Lovecraft was real and write their letters accordingly.
Arachne Jericho
25. arachnejericho
@JeffR23 #23 -

Some would still classify "different characters, same universe" as fan fiction; but I don't think so in most cases and agree with you. A classic example is that of Solar Pons and Dr. Parker, for instance, whose stories read almost exactly like those in the Holmes canon, with the exception that the Great Brooding Detective is apparently on mood stabilization drugs.

@Robotech_Master #24 -

Hah, yes, thanks for the reminder---the Wold Newton family tree framework is made of awesome crackedness.

(Here's a Who's Who for the interested. Holmes apparently got some action in this particular vision. You'll also find Dracula, Nero Wolfe, Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy Fitzwilliams of Pride and Prejudice fame, Tarzan, and Peter Parker. Yes. Spiderman. Really.)

I've never heard of De Profundis, but that sounds extremely interesting.

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