In December 1893, select citizens of London gathered together in their grief, donning black armbands in a state of respectful mourning (Brown); for, in the eyes of these Londoners, the world had lost a great man. His name was Sherlock Holmes. To this select group—known by anything from “Sherlockians” to the “Sher-flock”—Conan Doyle’s deductive detective existed as more than a mere fictional creation, but as a pseudo-god and, even more than that, a lifestyle. A new, still-enduring subculture had emerged: the fandom.
Before, however, the specificities of the “fandom” as a subculture may be examined, it is vital to (a) define the very nature of a subculture, and (b) analyze what it was and still is about Sherlock Holmes, as a character and creation, that inspired such a subculture to come into existence.
At the most basic level, a subculture is a microcosmic group of people that differentiates themselves from the macrocosmic culture to which they belong (Nanda 62). A “minority style” (Riesman 155), subcultures are not only interpreted as being in accordance with subversive values, but often as a pure subversion to dominant hegemonic ideologies—colloquially referred to as “normalcy” (Hebdige). As a result, subcultures, according to Dick Hebdige, bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity (108). In order to establish this identity, members of a subculture will signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, including anything from fashion, gestures, and specific jargon—what Hebdige refers to as “argot” (109).
Within that framework, a fandom is a subculture of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest; its center of focus or interest can be narrowly defined, often focusing upon something such as an individual celebrity, real and, as in the case of Holmes, imagined. The very word, its usage traced by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary to as early as the turn of the 20th century, and its inception is traced back to the fans of Conan Doyle’s literary detective not only by their holding public demonstrations of mourning after Holmes was “killed” off in 1893, but also by their creation some of the first fan-fiction in as early as 1887 (Brown).
Fan-fiction refers to stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator and are almost never professionally published. Because of this, fan-fiction is defined by being both related to its subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe (Schulz). However, the importance of fan-fiction within the fandom subculture is not only the creative expression, but that it stems from the individual’s devotion to its fandom’s focus; a veritable labor of love. Despite the implied good intentions of such fan-related works, like most subcultures, these works are met with a degree of negativity and degradation from accepted society. Lev Grossman, writing for Time in 2011 described fan-fiction as:
“… what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound[sic] consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”
While modern society embraces the notion of ars artia gratis (“art for art’s sake”), it could very likely be the perceived lack of originality within fan-fiction which leads to its existence outside the dominant hegemonic ideology, especially in relation to art and treatment of someone’s creative work. While within United States law fan-fiction is protected as a derivative work (The Copyright Act of 1976), it is not necessarily guaranteed societal acceptance. Prominent fiction authors such as Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin are strongly opposed to the idea of fan-fiction, believing it to be not only a form of copyright infringement, but also a “bad exercise for aspiring writers” (Martin). Therefore, fan-fiction and, by extension, the fandom subculture from which it stems, appears to disrupt the hegemony that has been
As for Holmes, the early Sherlockians wanted to, potentially literally, enter the world Conan Doyle had created by puppeteering his characters and designing their own mysteries for Holmes to solve. Thus, they wrote stories. These initial “fan-fics” appeared within 10 years of the first Holmes 1887 novella, A Study in Scarlet—though, back then, Sherlockians did not use the phrase fan-fiction, instead calling these stories parodies and pastiches (Brown).
Thus, the next logical inquiry to address is: why Sherlock Holmes? What is it about the fictional resident of 221B Baker Street that has inspired such a long-lasting, devoted following? Simply put: Holmes is a hero for the eccentrics—those who exist on the fringes of the hegemonic norms. Despite the fact that he is a famous consulting detective and utilized frequently by law enforcement, Holmes is not associated officially with any form or police. Within the novels, Holmes is described as “bohemian” in habits and lifestyle; an eccentric, with no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order. For example, in The Musgrave Ritual, Holmes is described as such:
“Although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind … [he] keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece … He had a horror of destroying documents…. Thus month after month his papers accumulated, until every corner of the room was stacked with bundles of manuscript which were on no account to be burned, and which could not be put away save by their owner” (Doyle 354-55).
Holmes is a loner on the fringes of society, yet he does not strive to make himself a part of the hegemonic norm. He keeps his flat in a state of chaos, with papers and artifacts strewn about his office; has erratic eating habits, even going so far as to starve himself during moments of particularly intense intellectual and mental activity (Doyle, “Norwood Builder”); habitually smokes a pipe at levels that create a “poisonous atmosphere” of tobacco smoke (Doyle, Baskervilles); willingly bends the truth and laws (e.g., lying to the police, concealing evidence or breaking into houses) on behalf of clients; and, what is described as his “only vice” (Dalby, 75) occasionally uses addictive drugs, particularly cocaine. Despite the fact that Holmes is engaged with the hegemonic norm, upholding “law and order” by solving cases and righting wrongs, on the level of the individual, he is very much a member of the fringe, indulging in habits which would not, to a Victorian society, been considered acceptable. In other words, Holmes is the champion of the subculture, therefore, an ideal character for whom a subculture—a ‘fandom’—would develop.
Continuing in that vein, fan-fiction had the perfect environment for development due to Conan Doyle’s lack of continuity within the Holmes stories. Media scholar Henry Jenkins explains the correlation between this “transmedia” storytelling and fan fiction:
“The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia[sic] texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which cannot be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered in the commercially produced material.”
Thus fan-fiction and the culture of the Sherlockians as a fandom lives on—fanfiction.net currently lists a collection of over three thousand Sherlock Holmes stories written by members of the detective’s fandom.
Christopher Morley, founder of the “The Baker Street Irregulars”—a 75-year-old society within the fandom that playfully regards Holmes and Watson as more than fiction—wrote in his 1930 forward to The Complete Sherlock Holmes, “Endless delicious minutiae to consider!…The whole Sherlock Holmes saga is a triumphant illustration of art’s supremacy over life.”
Brown, Scott. “Sherlock Holmes, Obsessed Nerds, and Fan Fiction.” April 20, 2009. <http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/17-05/pl_brown>
Dalby, J.T. “Sherlock Holmes’s Cocaine Habit.” Irish Journey of Psychological Medicine. 8th Edition, 1991: 73-4.
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”, Strand Magazine, 1893.
–. The Hound of the Baskervilles & The Valley of Fear. Ware, England: Wordsworth, 1999. Available at < http://sirconandoyle.com/the-hound-of-the-baskervilles/>
—.The Original Illustrated ‘Strand’ Sherlock Holmes (1989 ed.). Ware, England: Wordsworth, 1989. pp. 354–355
Grossman, Lev. “The Boy Who Lived Forever.” TIME. July 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081784-1,00.html>
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1981. qtd. in Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Wesleyan University Press, 1996. pp.106-112
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication). New York: Routledge, 1992
Morley, Christopher. “Foreword.” The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1930. qtd. in Brown, Scott. “Sherlock Holmes, Obsessed Nerds, and Fan Fiction.” April 20, 2009. <http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/17-05/pl_brown>
Nanda, Serena (1994). Cultural Anthropology (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning. p. 62.
Riesman, David (1950). “Listening to Popular Music”, American Quarterly, 2, p. 359-71. qtd. in Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music, p. 155. Philadelphia: Open University Press
Schulz, Nancy. “Fan Fiction – Literature.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2013-03-28.
“Story Archive: Sherlock Holmes” < http://www.fanfiction.net/book/#>
The Copyright Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541 (1976)