Traditional transformations and transmedial affirmations: Blurring the boundaries of Sherlockian fan practices

Ashley D. Polasek

De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—The modes of discourse employed by fans of Sherlock Holmes represent both affirmational and transformational impulses. As the fan community has grown and diversified, tensions have arisen between Sherlockians who prefer to utilize traditional frameworks dating back to the early practices of the Baker Street Irregulars in the 1930s and '40s and those who operate primarily in virtual spaces and utilize 21st-century digital platforms as frameworks for their discourse. Because the demographics of affirmational fans tend to align with those of fans preferring traditional frameworks, and conversely, the demographics of transformational fans tend to align with those of fans preferring transmedial frameworks, the styles of engagement often become conflated with the impulses driving the discourse itself. By first examining these tensions and then utilizing case studies that illustrate the four combinations of frameworks and modes of discourse—traditional-affirmational, transmedial-affirmational, traditional-transformational, and transmedial-transformational—I seek to complicate the boundaries that appear to divide the larger Sherlock Holmes fan community. I will demonstrate that the twin fannish impulses to affirm the text and transform it have operated not at odds but in parallel throughout the history of the fandom.

[0.2] Keywords—Affirmational; Baker Street Irregulars; Fan community; Sherlock; Sherlock Holmes; Transformational

Polasek, Ashley D. 2017. "Traditional Transformations and Transmedial Affirmations: Blurring the Boundaries of Sherlockian Fan Practices." In "Sherlock Holmes Fandom, Sherlockiana, and the Great Game," edited by Betsy Rosenblatt and Roberta Pearson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 23.

1. Introduction

[1.1] As I have argued elsewhere, fans' primary mode of engagement with the BBC's Sherlock (2010–) is transformational (Polasek 2012). According to obsession_inc, who coined the term in a 2009 Dreamwidth post, this mode is characterized by "laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans' own purposes…It tends to spin outward into nutty chaos at the least provocation, and while there are majority opinions vs. minority opinions, it's largely a democracy of taste; everyone has their own shot at declaring what the source material means, and at radically re-interpreting it." Fans who incline toward transformational engagement draw their pleasure from bending and stretching the text beyond the boundaries established by the original author. Demographically, transformational fans appear to skew young and female, and they are active primarily in virtual spaces. They stand in contrast to the affirmational fans of Sherlock Holmes, represented by those who "play the Grand Game" (note 1) and who appear to skew older and male. I argue that these fans operate as what Henry Jenkins terms "gatekeepers" for the Holmes franchise (2006, 224); they apply continuous pressure on the ever-evolving Holmes character to keep it within certain boundaries consistent with the rules of their discourse. While I briefly acknowledged that "the Game certainly offers Sherlockians an outlet for transformative engagement" (Polasek 2012, 44), I primarily worked to reinforce the link between the affirmational mode of fan discourse and the traditional print pastiche and pseudoscholarship that dominated the pre-Internet Sherlock Holmes fan communities.

[1.2] While this distinction stands up in its essentials—it is useful in helping us understand some of the complex dynamics that drive different Sherlockian fan communities—I would now like to complicate these boundaries. I will explore not what distinguishes traditional Sherlock Holmes fan engagement from contemporary transmedial discourse, but rather how these communities interact and overlap, with the aim of establishing that much of what appears transgressive from the perspective of the Game is actually merely a continuation of some of the Game's own trends and an application of some of its own drives. I also investigate how the larger fan community perceives the differences that appear to divide it, and how, in particular, these differences may be misunderstood when they are considered to be primarily the result of a divide between affirmational and transformational fan engagement.

[1.3] There are four terms, then, that are germane to this analysis: "traditional," "transmedial," "affirmational," and "transformational." The latter two refer to modes of fan discourse, as noted above. I will use them to describe the processes at work when fans engage with texts of Sherlock Holmes. The former two, "traditional" and "transmedial," reflect the frameworks for expressing various modes of discourse. In simple terms, "affirmational" and "transformational" describe modes of engaging with the narrative text—that is, how one relates to the stories as stories—while "traditional" and "transmedial" describe the frameworks through which one might engage the text as a product, including how one interacts with others with reference to that product.

[1.4] The traditional frameworks for Sherlockian discourse are face-to-face meetings and print publications that have generally undergone some form of editorial review. Transmedial frameworks use primarily digital platforms and virtual spaces to allow cross-platform, largely unmediated fan discourse. It is important to note the connotations of the term "traditional": it is the framework that is long-standing, orthodox, and concerned with ritual and habit. I do not mean to imply that the traditional framework is "normal" or "correct," and thus that the transmedial framework is "abnormal" or "incorrect." They are equally legitimate. Because traditional frameworks have historically been preferred by older and male fans, while transmedial frameworks are dominated by younger and female fans, the frameworks are often conflated with the modes of discourse: traditional is conflated with affirmational and transmedial is conflated with transformational. In this article, I hope to clarify all four of these labels and demonstrate why it is important to distinguish between them. Doing so will enable us to explore links and overlaps between the frameworks and the modes of discourse, and will help show that transformational fan discourse is not new, nor is it contingent on transmediality. In order to recognize the value of exploring these links, however, it is first important to acknowledge the tension that exists between factions of the larger Sherlock Holmes fan community.

[1.5] I will first demonstrate that this tension is misunderstood as dividing the community along the perceived boundary between affirmational and transformational fan discourse; in fact, it is at least equally due to the divide between traditional and transmedial engagement. This is a component of my larger argument that both traditional and transmedial platforms have a history of enabling both modes of discourse. Relocating this tension not only helps us understand how the fan community operates, both as a whole and as competing factions, it also reminds us to distinguish between modes of discourse and frameworks for those discourses.

2. "The right way": Of traditional and transmedial tensions

[2.1] In 1934, author and journalist Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), which would eventually become the world's most exclusive Sherlock Holmes society. The Grand Game predates the BSI; its precepts are generally considered to have been unofficially established by Ronald Knox in a lecture he gave in 1911. However, the Irregulars function as a bastion for affirmational fan discourse, and set the rules of the Game. The BSI's associated publication, the Baker Street Journal (BSJ), was founded in 1946, and while not every article in the BSJ is in the style of the Game, thousands of articles utilizing this mode of discourse have appeared in its pages over the last seven decades. This affirmational discourse is primarily expressed through articles that attempt to fill in the gaps in the narratives without challenging the "facts" as established by Conan Doyle. Because the BSJ is a print journal that publishes only five issues a year (four quarterly issues containing a variety of articles and a themed Christmas annual), is generated through traditional means (articles are submitted to—or solicited by—an editor who controls the journal's content), and considers traditional Sherlockians such as members of the BSI and associated scion societies its primary readership, it is undoubtedly a traditional platform. And because it has published so much material in the style of the Game, it is an archive of affirmational Sherlockian fan discourse. Untangling the mode of discourse from the framework is difficult, and it is not always clear whether criticisms leveled against the BSJ by the transmedial segment of the fan community are aimed at its content or its format.

[2.2] In recent years the BSJ, under the guidance of its current editor, Steven Rothman, has striven to be more aware and inclusive of Sherlockians who do not operate within the traditional framework. In particular, it has sought more young female voices from the transmedial community to balance its generally older and male contributors. It has also welcomed articles on topics that the affirmational fan community sees as transgressive. For instance, Christopher Redmond's "Intimate Converse in Baker Street," published in the winter 2014 issue, responds to the question "Were Holmes and Watson secretly gay lovers?" by analyzing instances in the canon (Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories) that might support such a reading. Following this, Redmond explores the history of examining romance between Holmes and Watson, from Larry Townsend's 1971 The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which Redmond argues is the first explicit argument in print for reading Holmes and Watson as lovers, through to the virtual explosion of slash fan fiction in recent years.

[2.3] His article, operating liminally by considering a topic generally rooted in transformational discourse in a primarily affirmational style and in a venue that serves a primarily affirmational readership, represents one method for challenging the boundary between these modes of discourse. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, neither transformational nor affirmational fans responded entirely positively to this blurring of modes of engagement. Some affirmationally grounded readers were confused and even slightly offended by what they perceived as an attempt to normalize a radical reading of the characters. Meanwhile, members of the community of Sherlockians who support and promote transformational gay readings of the characters found Redmond's treatment of the subject "offensive" in its simplification of the impetus behind explicit slash fiction and its ultimate revalidation of heteronormative readings (Chap 2016).

[2.4] While it may at first seem that it was Redmond's entry into transformational discourse that prompted these different negative reactions—annoyance either that he attempted it at all, or that he failed to take it far enough—they may be due more to the tension between the expectations of discourse in the traditional framework and the boundaries set by that framework. In this instance, the discourse frustrated both fans who operate primarily in traditional frameworks and those who operate primarily in transmedial ones. The former considered Redmond's work inappropriate for their highly policed platform. The latter, accustomed to a much larger and freer arena, reacted against the limitations of the traditional framework, which they felt enabled a reductionist argument about an expansive and culturally important subject.

[2.5] This division between traditionalists and nontraditionalists is further illustrated by a recent heated debate surrounding a genderqueer Sherlockian's public break with the BSJ. Sherlockian Basil Chap, who uses the pseudonym "Ghostbees" online, was an illustrator for the BSJ for over three years. "I wanted to be more visible as a non-binary artist and open about things that matter to me," Chap explains, and therefore asked Steven Rothman, the journal's editor, for a revised contributor's note that would include both the adjective "genderqueer" and the nongendered singular pronoun "they," which Chap (2016) prefers. In an effort to be accepting of the growing LGBTQ+ Sherlockian community without confusing the traditionalists with singular "they," Rothman offered them a compromise wording that retained "genderqueer" but eliminated the need for a pronoun of any kind (Rothman, pers. comm., February 24, 2016). Interpreting this as an offensive "refus[al] to use my correct pronouns," Chap severed ties with the BSJ, posting a seven-sentence summary of their reasons on their Tumblr page, which soon had nearly 600 notes (note 2) and spawned pointed responses across Twitter and Facebook as well. To further complicate the issue, Rothman was not trying to police his traditional platform for the sake of traditional readers; rather, he wanted to avoid introducing a complicated topic—the definition of "genderqueer" and the use of nongendered pronouns—into a space that would not allow for consciousness-raising conversation. Though he elected not to make a public statement to avoid fanning the flames of the controversy, his aim—to "challenge them, yes! But not confuse"—was clear from personal correspondence (Rothman, pers. comm., February 24, 2016). As with Redmond's article, neither side was satisfied, and the divide between traditional and transmedial Sherlockians grew wider as a consequence.

[2.6] The issue of uncloseted queer representation in Sherlockian fandom is large and complex; my purpose in pointing to this specific clash is less to address it than to acknowledge the distinct sides of the debate. Those who favored traditional frameworks for fan discourse lined up in support of the BSJ. On the other side, those who primarily functioned within the transmedial fan community reacted with anger and an impulse to further distinguish themselves from traditional Sherlockiana. This is certainly not the first controversy that has divided the larger Sherlock Holmes fan community along the boundary between traditional fan engagement and largely transmedial fan engagement, which is perceived to be more transgressive. What is notable is that this specific conflict was not related to interpretations or manipulations of the text, as the debate surrounding Chris Redmond's BSJ article was. Many responses to the controversy not only addressed the immediate issue of Chap's contributor's note, but also defended or attacked the BSJ's privileged position as a framework for fan discourse. It is therefore an even starker illustration of the argument that the traditional/transmedial axis is as fundamental to the divides in the larger fan community as the affirmational/transformational axis.

[2.7] When Henry Jenkins described "fan critics" in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, he acknowledged these layers as roughly analogous to structures of academic criticism:

[2.8] While the demand for novel readings allows for different meanings to be attached to a given artwork, there are conventional ways of producing interpretations shared by most, if not all, scholars. A certain common ground, a set of shared assumptions, interpretive and rhetorical strategies, inferential moves, semantic fields and metaphors, must exist as preconditions for meaningful debate over specific interpretations. (1992, 89)

[2.9] In order for fans to judge the quality and legitimacy of an interpretation, it must be presented within a mutually agreeable framework, according to Jenkins. In this 1992 volume, he is describing the systems and functions of fandom within the context of what we would now call affirmational engagement, in which fans are "responsive to…expectations about what narratives are 'appropriate' for fannish interest, [and] what interpretations are 'legitimate,'" and in which "an individual's socialization into fandom often requires learning 'the right way' to read as a fan, learning how to employ and comprehend the community's particular interpretive conventions" (88, 89).

[2.10] The moments of tension between traditional Sherlockian communities and the transmedial Sherlockian fandom seem to center on readings of Sherlock Holmes that traditional fans perceive as radical or transgressive, and these moments therefore appear to result from differences in how affirmational and transformational discourses operate with respect to the text. I contend that it is not the transmedial fans' interpretations but rather their operation beyond the traditional framework, which represents many decades of established conventions of interpretation, that sits at the heart of this tension. It is a reaction not to transformational discourse but to transmediality that is at the heart of the divide. In fact, the traditional Sherlockian framework of the Game has legitimized many interpretations that attempt to "[twist the source] to the fans' own purposes" and thus meet obsession_inc's definition of transformational discourse. By exploring a few such interpretations and the impulses behind them, I hope to draw useful parallels between traditional Sherlockian frameworks for discourse and the transmedial Sherlock Holmes fandom, and to challenge the assumption that the traditional Sherlockian framework always goes hand in hand with affirmational discourse, while transmedial engagement is by definition transformational.

3. Fan identification and mapping self-identity

[3.1] In her chapter "Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies, and Sherlockians" in the 2007 collection Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Roberta Pearson considers the distinction between fans and mere enthusiasts—those who enjoy a hobby but do not rise to the level of "fan." She paraphrases William Uricchio in suggesting that "non-fans…engage in aesthetic reflection or are temporarily moved by cultural texts but that fans…incorporate the cultural texts as part of their self-identity, often going on to build social networks on the basis of shared fandoms," and agrees that "centrality to identity and social networks handily distinguish [her own] fandoms from [her] enthusiasms" (Pearson 2007, 102). Certainly, the label of "Sherlock Holmes fan" or "Sherlockian" informs an individual's identity, as any association with fandom does; the greater one's emotional investment in the product and the social networks around it, the greater the proportion of one's identity that is informed by the investment (note 3).

[3.2] This process is self-perpetuating; Michael Saler (2012) notes in his extensive consideration of virtual world building as it relates to Sherlock Holmes that "individuals began to spend a great deal of time residing in imaginary worlds, heightening their emotional investment in them by participating in collective exercises of world building. In so doing, they…[used] references from the original text to reconcile its contradictions, fill in gaps, extrapolate possibilities, and imagine prequels and sequels" (25). He describes, in essence, the Game, which takes advantage of what he calls "the absence effect"—the conspicuously incomplete nature of the Holmes canon, which frequently references tantalizing "unpublished events that gave the world additional depth and mystery" (33). As he explains, this process both expands the available material related to Holmes through extrapolation, and demands minute familiarity with the Sherlock Holmes canon; such familiarity breeds emotional investment, which, in turn, sends the fan back to reengage with the expanded virtual literary world and expand it further. This cycle, Saler suggests, may lead the fan to seek "a more immersive and prolonged experience…through societies, fanzines, and websites in which the world is continuously elaborated by a community…enabling individuals to dwell in it communally and relate it to actual life" (27).

[3.3] Though their works are related, Pearson and Saler are actually defining inverse relationships between fannish participation and self-identity: Pearson argues that "fan" is a label utilized by individuals to build and understand their own identities, while Saler describes the reflection of participatory culture outward onto reality. This link to identity operates in both directions. In one direction is the individual's identification with the text and its associated fan products and networks. This identification might manifest in labeling oneself a Sherlockian and participating in events, discussions, and relationships derived from mutual interest in the text. It takes the text as a starting point and incorporates it and its associated fan practices into one's definition of self. In the other direction, the fan will manipulate and interpret the text to reflect their own interests, outlook, historical-cultural context, and perceptions of reality. This impulse might manifest in, for example, a gay fan writing fan fiction in which Holmes and Watson are lovers. It takes the fan's personal identity as the starting point and reimagines the text to reflect the self. Both impulses are essential to the definition of a "fan." Arguably, the distinction between these two impetuses to fannish engagement should be central to the distinction between affirmational and transformational fan practices, with the former reflecting the affirmational impulse, and the latter reflecting the transformational impulse.

[3.4] If we accept this distinction, we find that both the affirmational and transformational impulses are soundly woven through traditional Sherlockian publications dating back at least to the beginnings of the Baker Street Irregulars, as well as through contemporary transmedial fan discourse. What follows is a series of case studies juxtaposing an example from each of the four intersections of traditional and transmedial frameworks with affirmational and transformational modes of discourse to illustrate that the tensions between the factions of Sherlockian fan communities ignore some of their fundamental similarities. In choosing traditional Sherlockian material I have deliberately drawn on the early years of the Baker Street Irregulars, the first generation of organized Sherlockian publication, in order to highlight the early appearance of both affirmational and transformational discourse in the fan community. Because the transmedial fan community is so disparate, my case studies from this arena have been selected, as far as possible, to reflect large trends, to avoid the danger of drawing conclusions on the basis of idiosyncratic data.

4. "We are Sherlockians": The impulse of affirmation

[4.1] In 1944, Baker Street Irregular Edgar W. Smith published a collection titled Profile by Gaslight: An Irregular Reader about the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Its success, according to the noted Sherlockian, BSI historian, and former BSJ editor Phillip A. Shreffler, "demonstrated that there was a substantial readership to whom the well-executed Sherlockian game truly mattered" (1999, 390). In considering the origins and early years of the BSJ, Shreffler quotes Smith:

[4.2] When the possibility of publishing a journal of Sherlockiana was first discussed, back in 1945, there was much argument as to how often, and with what number of pages, such a periodical might be made to appear. Quite a few desirable items had been crowded out of Profile by Gaslight, when it came out in 1944, and these, it was felt, could form a nucleus around which an irregular annual, or even semi-annual, could safely be built. (quoted in Shreffler 1999, 388)

[4.3] In 1946, Smith became the first editor of the BSJ. Like much of the material published in the BSJ, the majority of the material in Profile by Gaslight exemplifies, in both its conceit and its contents, the affirmational impulse behind the Grand Game.

[4.4] The Game operates both seriously and ironically: practitioners meticulously apply themselves to the challenge of reconciling inconsistencies within, and extrapolating additional information from, the 60 stories that make up the Sherlock Holmes canon. At the same time, tongue-in-cheek irony is at the center of the Game. Practitioners engage what Michael Saler (2012) calls "the ironic imagination," in which "adult readers seeking enchantment began to inhabit the imaginary worlds of fantastic fiction for extended periods of time without losing sight of the real world" (30, 14); it represents a "union between logic and fancy" (119). Edgar W. Smith noted in his preface to a 1953 issue of the BSJ titled "A Perspective on Scholarship" that "if we approach our task of writing about the Writings with the sincerity and objectivity Holmes himself would have liked…we shall, after all, have more fun than if we try heavily to be funny" (quoted in Saler 2012, 125). It was with this attitude that he included a note in Profile by Gaslight, between the dedication and the table of contents, that reads, "The characters in this book are real persons. Any resemblance to fictional characters, living or dead, is purely accidental." Smith maintains this conceit in his Foreword, in which he states that

[4.5] Holmes lived and had his being, in sober truth, in that nostalgic gas-lit London of the late nineteenth century which saw the realization of a snug and peaceful world…It was a world we would all give our hearts to capture and to know again…This book is for those who would explore that pleasant world again, and who would seek to know the man himself a little better. (quoted in Saler 2012, 126)

[4.6] The essays collected in the book likewise adopt Smith's conceit, with the exception of four pieces collected under the heading "Sherlock Holmes the Legend." At the end of that section, Smith dismisses the essays by declaring, "What we have heard until now is interesting and instructive, but…we are led to cry: 'Let us get back to reality!'" Subsequent essays utilize details from the canon to explore such diverse questions as Holmes's coat of arms and genealogy, his drug habit, and Watson's mysterious, wandering war wound.

[4.7] The book and most of its contents represent the impulse of affirmation, in which "fans of the 'canon' obsess about every detail of the fictional universe Conan Doyle created, mentally inhabiting this geography of the imagination" (Saler 2012, 107). Where essays in the book tend toward the transformational, Smith utilizes editor's notes to distance himself from the opinions presented in them. Profile by Gaslight's enjoyment of the Grand Game is driven by an investment in the world of Sherlock Holmes as it was established by Conan Doyle. The fannish self-identification at work is thus in the affirmational model, in which fans immerse themselves in minutiae, claiming their place in the community through their adept navigation of the text. Manipulation and interpretation are at work, but their aim is to explore the virtual geography, as Saler would have it, and uncover details within a bounded space.

[4.8] The style and framework of Smith's book would be carried over into the pages of the BSJ and promote its tendency toward affirmational discourse. The preservationist and escapist attitudes that unsurprisingly pervade the work, published as it was at the height of World War II, became an entrenched component of that discourse. Contemporary concerns are often conspicuously absent from it, and the measure of a Sherlockian is often judged by the depth of their knowledge of the canon.

[4.9] As I indicated earlier, the affirmational impulse is frequently conflated with the traditional framework in which fannish discourse is expressed. The affirmational impulse, however, is not unique to the traditional Sherlockian framework. It is also expressed in the transmedial fan community. On January 15, 2012, the final episode of the second series of BBC's Sherlock aired in the UK. The episode featured Benedict Cumberbatch's 21st-century Sherlock Holmes battling his arch-nemesis, James Moriarty. In the confrontation's original iteration, published by Arthur Conan Doyle as "The Final Problem" in December 1893, Holmes and Moriarty perish together in the throes of mortal combat, toppling into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (note 4). In Sherlock's reimagining, Jim Moriarty creates an elaborate game of cat and mouse during which he utilizes the pseudonym Richard Brook—a clever Anglicization of "Reichenbach"—to slander the detective and frame him for Moriarty's own series of heinous crimes. The episode ends with Sherlock, his reputation in tatters and his friends in imminent danger, throwing himself off the rooftop of St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London.

[4.10] The day after the episode aired, a Swedish Tumblr user named Mika Hallor, who goes by the username "Earl Foolish," posted a message to other transmedial fans as though he were within the fictional world of Sherlock and speaking to others who were likewise immersed:

[4.11] So…I guess you all have heard/read/seen the news. It's been pretty hard to miss it—the death of Sherlock Holmes. I'm gutted but I'm doing my best to keep it together. I don't know about you guys, but I refuse to believe it. That he was a fraud. He just can't have been, can't have! I saw him at a crime scene once, I had followed the sound of sirens in hope it'd be one of his cases, and there is NO WAY he was a fake. You can't make that sort of shit up, he was too good! He was an inspiration for all of us to be more observant in our every day lives, and I won't accept the so called truth about Sherlock that is all over the media. I know you feel like I do, and now it's our turn to show that we haven't lost faith in him. Sherlock might be gone, but I won't sit silent! (Hallor 2012)

[4.12] In his post, he followed this statement by stepping out of the fiction and issuing a call to action to other fans of the program:

[4.13] Imagine being a Sherlock fan in the show universe. You've been following John's blog, stalking Sherlock a bit at crime scenes, try to be within earshot so you can hear him do his deductions. You've got cutouts from the papers. Then the news reach you. What do you do? Some would believe the papers, but not everyone would buy it. And they would do what they could to clear his name…This is my take on what I would like to propose as a tribute campaign, to show our love and support. Yes, in real life. We put ourselves in the mindset of the in-show fans. (Hallor 2012)

[4.14] Hallor proposed the hashtag #BELIEVEINSHERLOCK and the slogans "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" and "Moriarty was real" to represent the campaign, and it soon went viral globally. Fans who were connected to the Sherlockian community primarily through the Internet—those whose framework was transmedial—coalesced behind the campaign, answering the call to post flyers, paint graffiti, and create T-shirts. Within two weeks, the campaign had been reported widely across social media and in the mainstream UK news; soon after, the BBC appropriated it to promote the show. An interactive Google map maintained by the "Believe in Sherlock" Tumblr reports campaign activity as far afield as Canada, Brazil, India, Japan, Israel, and South Africa.

[4.15] Although this is a decidedly transmedial iteration of Sherlockian fan engagement, it is characterized by the same affirmational impulse that was behind Profile by Gaslight. Saler's ironic imagination is firmly at work in the "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" campaign. It is marked by the same interplay between passionate dedication to craft and studious engagement with a fictional space uncomplicated by contemporary world issues. When Michael Saler describes Sherlockians "inhabiting [Holmes's] imaginary world and contributing to its virtual existence through their freely chosen efforts" in which they, "like Holmes…were productive detectives, solving the riddles of his existence; like Sherlock, they were self-determining artists, delineating his character solely out of love" (Saler 2012, 128), he is describing the drive of early Baker Street Irregulars. However, he could just as easily be describing transmedial Sherlock fans and their efforts to inhabit the fictional space of the program while simultaneously sustaining their passion for the beloved property during the long wait for the next episode.

[4.16] Gatekeeping seems to be central to affirmational discourse, and although it is difficult to spot here, it is nonetheless at work in the campaign in two related forms. The first is in the fans' desire to perpetuate a controlling narrative. In the two-year hiatus between the airing of "The Reichenbach Fall" and that of the next episode, "The Empty Hearse," the fluidity and expansiveness of transmedial platforms could have allowed a free and varied unraveling of the central text, as fans theorized about and played with it. However, "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" reinforced the narrative at the heart of the ur-text, calling on fans to continually reiterate the story as it was presented by the program's writers and to override theories that might contradict it. The second form of gatekeeping was enacted by the BBC. Throughout his 2006 monograph Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins utilizes the term "gatekeeper" primarily to refer to those who hold corporate, or fiscal-creative, control over a property. When the BBC appropriated the "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" campaign, it normalized the campaign's reading of the text—that Holmes was innocent and the public should stand by him and eschew Moriarty's version of events—and incorporated that reading into its own construction of the Sherlock property, going so far as to have one of the main characters speak the phrase "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" in "The Empty Hearse."

[4.17] "I believe in Sherlock Holmes," like Profile by Gaslight, takes itself seriously in its devotion to existing within and preserving the virtual space of the text. It is joyful in the same way that Smith defined the fun of the Grand Game: it is earnest, and the fans who were part of it, despite their geographic diversity and nontraditional platforms for engagement, used their participation to identify as fans of Sherlock Holmes. Rather than manipulating the text, they utilized it as a starting point and allowed their discourse—their participation with the campaign and with others involved in the campaign—to build and define their fan identities.

5. "Sherlock Holmes is everyone": The impulse of transformation

[5.1] If affirmational fan practice is marked by fans' self-identification with a text that is conceptualized within a premapped, or at least bounded, virtual space, then the contrary impulse, transformational fan practice, is marked by fans' manipulation of some aspect or aspects of a text considered to inhabit an unbounded virtual space to reflect their own identities, or more broadly, their outlook on the world. Transformational discourse, according to this model, involves an expression of fans' desire to see themselves and their interests, concerns, and perceptions of the world reflected in the text, and their willingness to "twist" the text to achieve this. While affirmational discourse is akin, according to Edgar W. Smith and Michael Saler alike, to Sherlock Holmes's own methods of inductive reasoning as described in "A Scandal in Bohemia," according to which one should "twist theories to suit facts," transformational discourse involves the inverse, in which one "twists facts to suit theories" (Conan Doyle 2005, 11). It is in this arena that those who operate as traditional Sherlockians often find fault with what they consider transgressive readings of the Holmes milieu by transmedial fans. However, just as transmedial fans are sometimes driven by affirmational impulses, traditional Sherlockiana is sometimes driven by transformational ones.

[5.2] Although he was "an infrequent contributor to the Grand Game" (King and Klinger 2011, 91), there can be no more apt representative of traditional Sherlockiana than the founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, Christopher Morley. In his introduction to the collection The Standard Doyle Company: Christopher Morley on Sherlock Holmes, Steven Rothman is adamant about Morley's importance:

[5.3] Every movement needs its point man—the fellow who actually goes out on the road, climbs a stump, and starts to preach the received truth to the as-yet-unbelieving masses. Though others may be more inspired or delve deeper into the mystery, one lone fearless voice gives the movement form out of the void…Christopher Morley was just such a voice for the Sherlockian movement. (Rothman 1990, 1)

[5.4] In founding a society in which Sherlockians could meet face to face and in publishing ample material in print media, Morley clearly operated within the traditional framework of Sherlock Holmes fan discourse.

[5.5] Among the eclectic essays in Morley's 1936 volume Streamlines is a piece titled "Was Sherlock Holmes an American?" The work appears to follow the precepts of the Game, treating Holmes and Watson as real and finding evidence in the canon for Morley's unorthodox proposition. Morley claims that Holmes's being of American birth "would explain much. The jealousy of Scotland Yard, the refusal of knighthood, the expert use of Western argot, the offhand behavior to aristocratic clients, the easy camaraderie with working people of all sorts, the always traveling First Class in trains" (quoted in King and Klinger 2011, 92). However, Morley must explain away nearly as many details as he cites in favor of the theory: Holmes's older brother's explicit identification of England as "your country" in "The Bruce-Partington Plans," his "broad satiric treatment" of America, his "curious ignorance of Southern susceptibilities in the matter of race," and his ignorance of US geography, as "he did not know which was the Lone Star State," are among the conflicts he notes (94–96). Morley concludes by appealing to "the absent-mindedness and inaccuracy which we have learned to expect from good old Watson," who has "hopelessly confused us on even more important matters" (97).

[5.6] My critique is not aimed at undermining Morley's theory; rather, I wish to point out that it transgresses the boundaries of the canon, and that, with his final appeal to Watson's unreliable narration, Morley breaks down the boundaries established by Conan Doyle and opens the door to the legitimatization of virtually any reading of the canon. His own reading, and the door it opens, allows the text "to spin outward into nutty chaos" so that "everyone has their own shot at declaring what the source material means, and at radically re-interpreting it" (obsession_inc 2009). This is, emphatically, still within the traditional Sherlockian framework of the Game; it is also driven by the transformational rather than the affirmational impulse. Morley's argument that Holmes was an American is not an example of a fan's immersion in the text, as Profile by Gaslight was; it is an instance of a fan claiming that the text reflects himself.

[5.7] In introducing Morley's essay in their collection The Grand Game: A Celebration of Sherlockian Scholarship, Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger posit that "evidently,…the idea [that Holmes was American] was much on the minds of the American Irregulars during World War II" (King and Klinger 2011, 91). As evidence that this was a trend among those with a national and historical interest in the theory, they pair Morley's essay with a brief letter written to Edgar W. Smith on December 18, 1944, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was secretly a Baker Street Irregular. Roosevelt states categorically, and with "little evidence except presidential prerogative" (Dundas 2015, 231), "Actually, [Holmes] was born an American and…his attributes were primarily American, not English" (quoted in King and Klinger 2011, 98). In the midst of World War II, in 1944, the affirmational impulse was driving some Sherlockians, like Smith, "to recapture and preserve in amber a magical past" as they avoided associating "Holmes's world with contemporary concerns" (Saler 2012, 126). Meanwhile, in the same year, one of the men at the heart of the conflict, the commander in chief of the United States, driven by the transformational impulse, sought to appropriate Holmes as a reflection of himself and his countrymen.

[5.8] In his essay Morley transformed Holmes to reflect his own Americanness, but fans need not make characters reflect themselves in order to pursue the transformational impulse. The transformational impulse can also be identified in works that shift the text not to reflect the personal identity of the fan, but rather to bring it more closely into alignment with the fan's broader worldview. As an example of this less obvious implementation of transformational discourse in early traditional Sherlockiana, consider author Rex Stout's essay "Watson Was a Woman."

[5.9] Rex Stout was himself a fairly radical liberal, so it is not surprising that he published a piece that to this day is labeled a "radical reading" of the Holmes canon (note 5). The piece originally appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1941 and was reprinted three years later in Profile by Gaslight with an accompanying good-humored editor's note:

[5.10] Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are watchwords with Americans, and there can be no faltering in our determination to stand with Voltaire in defending to the last breath the right of our opponents to be as subversive as they please. Yet when our most cherished institutions are under bold and ruthless attack, we can be forgiven if we search our hearts in an effort to sift tolerance from folly. Mr. Rex Stout, who has otherwise and elsewhere exhibited every evidence of soundness of mind and reverence of soul, here launches a heterodox doctrine that challenges the very foundation of our faith. We are torn between an embittered urge to burn him at the stake and a generous compulsion to let him have his say. Calm in the knowledge that our faith is strong, however, and that freedom is our watchword still, we choose to let him have his say. (Smith 1944, 156)

[5.11] The note distanced Smith from Stout's argument, preserving the affirmational tone of the book as a whole. However, Stout's essay is transformational in its content, blithely arguing, on the basis of quotations from the canon, that "indubitably ["the Watson person"] was a female" (King and Klinger 2011, 379). Although the shift of Watson's gender is clearly not meant to reflect Stout's own identity, it does reflect his heteronormative understanding of close personal relationships. He selects passages that, to a twentieth-century heterosexual male, may be read as the words of a wife regarding her relationship with her husband. "The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavored to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself," Stout quotes from A Study in Scarlet. He declares that on the basis of this page of text from the canon, he "regarded the question of the Watson person's sex as settled for good." An additional passage describing Holmes's daily routine, Stout insisted, "was unquestionably a woman speaking of a man" (379). He also cites Watson fainting at the sight of Holmes upon the detective's return in "The Adventure of the Empty House" and one of many "painful banal" scenes of Watson and Holmes eating breakfast and bickering over tobacco smoke as evidence that theirs was a common domestic relationship of man and wife.

[5.12] The affirmational impulse leads fans to appreciate, venerate, and even attempt to emulate the close friendship that Holmes and Watson share in Conan Doyle's tales. A great deal has been written on this "textbook of friendship," as Christopher Morley called it. The transformational impulse, however, led Stout to reimagine that friendship, taking the scenes as written and interpreting them through the lens of his own heteronormative worldview. This is not to say that Stout actually believed his argument, nor that his goal was to reaffirm mid-20th-century gender roles. However, the essay does, in its way, reflect the transformational impulse; it is guided by Stout's experience of his own world, rather than the world of Sherlock Holmes.

[5.13] Just as the transformational impulse can be found in the earliest traditional Sherlockian framework, transmedial platforms have provided an expansive arena for transformational discourse. Perhaps the most obvious case study for transmedial, transformational Sherlockian discourse is the wealth of material relating to queer readings of Sherlock Holmes. There is certainly not enough space to offer anything like a comprehensive analysis of such readings here, but their ubiquity and variety recommend them as broadly representative of the intersection between transmedial frameworks and transformational modes of discourse. To some degree, these readings are an extension of Stout's reimagining of Watson as a woman, and, more importantly, as Holmes's wife.

[5.14] In an October 2014 post to the Syracuse University English Department's online "forum for critical analysis and cross-disciplinary dialogue," Ashley O'Mara defines "headcanon," a term used by transmedial Sherlockians (and other fans), as "a fan's personal parallel world(s)," utilized "to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation." She notes that a characteristic of "headcanon" is that "a plurality of 'headcanons' co-exist on the periphery of the source text." In other words, headcanons allow fans to express their preferences, manipulations, and interpretations in their fan discourse without needing to appeal to, or claim to represent, an authoritative reading of the ur-text. This space for legitimating multiple parallel and conflicting readings is characteristic of transformational discourse. Morley and Roosevelt's claim that Sherlock Holmes was American can coexist with the canonically authoritative claim that he was English. Similarly, O'Mara argues that fans can elect to apply noncanonical sexualities to characters "without needing or intending to make claims about their 'canonical' sexuality."

[5.15] Two characteristics of the use of headcanons are particularly relevant to my purpose. The first is its centrality to transmedial frameworks for fan engagement, which allows it to properly illustrate how the transformational impulse manifests within them. The second is its function as a method for members of the LGBTQ+ community to appropriate, and thus see themselves reflected in, the texts of Sherlock Holmes, which makes it parallel to my earlier example of traditional transformational discourse.

[5.16] Transmedial fandom is notably different from traditional fandom in that it is less hampered by financial and physical concerns. There is unlimited, free virtual space for the dissemination of fan works; the digital platforms (such as the Archive of Our Own,, Tumblr, and LiveJournal) that house fan works, together with others (such as Facebook and Twitter) that facilitate networking and cross-pollination of ideas and trends, encourage the unrestrained proliferation of headcanons. Transmedial frameworks, by virtue of their ability to preserve anonymity, also encourage fans to explore interpretations that they may not be comfortable being linked with in more traditional face-to-face and print spaces.

[5.17] Transmedial Sherlockiana is home to a large LGBTQ+ population, and this population is often outspoken in its support for specifically queer readings. The Retired Beekeepers, for example, a Tumblr community that labels itself an "all-inclusive LGBTQ+ Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts' group," publishes The Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, a biannual journal that "especially encourage[s] anyone identifying as LGBTQ+ to submit pieces relating to their own experiences, as we feel that our voices rarely have the opportunity to be heard when it comes to Holmesian scholarship" (Tumblr post, September 28, 2016). The group promotes openness to queer readings of Sherlock Holmes, because such interpretations and manipulations of the texts will likely reflect the identities and experiences of the group's majority LGBTQ+ membership. Queer readings both of the canon and of adaptations—BBC's Sherlock, in particular—are supported by culling evidence from the texts, just as Morley did in arguing for Holmes's American origin. And like Morley's, the fannish impulse at work is transformational: the texts are being manipulated to reflect the fans, their concerns, and the contemporary historical and cultural environment.

[5.18] Although these transmedial fans are treating a more sensitive and complex subject than Morley was, the impulse is the same. It is possible that traditional Sherlockians are made uncomfortable by seeing transmedial fans mirror what the traditional Sherlockians perceive as radical characteristics onto the characters of the canon, but this has more to do with their own qualms than with the frameworks and modes of discourse in play.

[5.19] A further intersection may elucidate how personal identity influences transformational fannish play, and why the transformational impulse appears at first glance to be less evident that the affirmational one in traditional discourse. The common belief is that early traditional discourse was highly affirmational in nature. For instance, in his "Editor's Gas-Lamp" column in the third issue of the BSJ (1946), Edgar W. Smith stated that "we have, for instance, protested with our silence the horrid deed performed in selling Holmes and Watson down the twin and twisting rivers of ethereal travesty and cinematic schmalz…We have resisted every temptation to modernize the scene in Baker Street, or to give a super-duper streamlining to its characters and its characterizations." But despite this screed against the transformational impulse, which is inevitably in play in adaptation, Smith had justified that very impulse in the preceding issue, published the same year:

[5.20] For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent and self-assured; it is we ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content. The easy chair in the room is drawn up to the hearthstone of our very hearts—it is our tobacco in the Persian slipper, and our violin lying so carelessly across the knee—it is we who hear the pounding on the stairs and the knock upon the door. The swirling fog without and the acrid smoke within bite deep indeed, for we taste them even now. And the time and place and all the great events are near and dear to us not because our memories call them forth in pure nostalgia, but because they are a part of us today. That is the Sherlock Holmes we love—the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves.

[5.21] Although these statements seem at odds, they are easily reconciled by acknowledging the important role that personal identity and worldview have in shaping the products of transformational fandom. Transmedial fandom is largely populated by young women, and includes a substantial LGBTQ+ community as well. In order to transform the text to be reflective of themselves and their concerns, transmedial fans have quite a distance to travel. Conversely, traditional Sherlockian publications were and still are primarily produced by cisgender, heterosexual, white men. Demographically, therefore, the Sherlock Holmes stories already largely align with the identities and worldviews of a majority of the fans who prefer traditional frameworks for discourse.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] My aim in addressing these links between competing Sherlockian discourse frameworks that occasionally find themselves at odds is to acknowledge an additional layer of complexity in the impulses that drive them. Although the demographics of affirmational fans and traditional fans appear to largely overlap, as do those of transformational and transmedial fans, the distinctions between these groups are not so clear. In reality, the impulses of affirmational engagement and transformational engagement run in parallel through the entire history of Sherlock Holmes fandom. And while traditional and transmedial Sherlockians will likely continue to line up on opposite sides of debates within the larger fan community, they share the urge to identify as members of that community through affirmational discourse, and also the desire to see themselves and their understandings of their world reflected in the texts they love through transformational discourse.

[6.2] In a 2011 editorial, "'I'm Buffy, and You're History': Putting Fan Studies into History," Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein discuss the value of historical studies of fan communities and their practices. They call for more, and more nuanced, scholarship on the subject:

[6.3] Fans' accounts and fan studies scholarship…have reinforced each other in acknowledging only these two time periods [i.e., that following the appearance of Star Trek in the 1960s and that of the advent of the Internet in the 1990s]. While we agree that these two developments were important, they do not constitute a complete history. If we fail to develop a more complex, careful, and detailed understanding of the past, we risk misinterpreting the present and underestimating the ways that fans have shaped the world. (¶5.4)

[6.4] Moreover, if the history of fandom is oversimplified, both fans and those studying them risk utilizing these historical flashpoints to define all of the practices inherent in fan communities. This oversimplification has led to the conflation of frameworks—the platforms and "rules" that dictate how fans engage with the texts as products and with one another as fans—with the modes of discourse that those fans prefer—how they choose to relate to and engage with the texts as stories. We can develop a more complete understanding of both the history of Sherlock Holmes fandom and the impulses that drive the fans themselves if we recognize that while one framework may tend toward a particular mode of discourse or draw fans who are disposed toward that mode, the frameworks and the modes of discourse are nonetheless distinct.

[6.5] Although the community of Sherlockian fandom may seem monolithic from the outside, there are clear and distinct factions within it. I believe that locating individual fans, smaller communities, particular practices, and specific fan artifacts on both the traditional/transmedial axis and the affirmational/transformational axis, rather than collapsing them into one dimension, will help both fan studies scholars and those within the Sherlock Holmes fan community better understand these factions. Further investigation of this topic, looking more deeply into more case studies, will help us identify other factors that may also divide the larger Sherlockian community, such as age, sex, gender identity, income, race, nationality, or education. Perhaps more importantly, it will allow us to identify continuities that may not be immediately apparent. Many first-generation Sherlockians may have been driven by the same fannish impulses as those only discovering Sherlock Holmes today.

7. Notes

1. The "Grand Game," the "Great Game," or simply the "Game" are terms for a fan practice in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are envisioned as real historical figures and the 60 stories that make up the Sherlock Holmes canon are considered genuine records of their exploits, written by Watson. This fantasy necessarily relegates Arthur Conan Doyle to a supplementary position, and within the context of the Game, he is referred to as the Literary Agent. Published material within the context of the Game is generally of two types, pastiche and pseudoscholarship. Both types of writing ultimately serve the same fannish function, which is to fill in the gaps of the characters' backgrounds, lives, and activities. Pastiche does so by imitating Conan Doyle's stories, thus supplementing the fictional world of the canon, and pseudoscholarship manifests itself when aficionados, familiar with the canon down to the last detail, seek to generate a single cohesive narrative that slots flawlessly into historical reality.

2. While this may seem a small number, it is significant in that the vocal core of the transmedial fan community and the relatively insular upper echelons of the traditional fan community rarely engage in direct, deep, and extended conversation. Specifically, comments by many traditional Sherlockians on Facebook indicated that they had read the Tumblr post, and several transmedial Sherlockians engaged directly with traditional Sherlockians on Facebook. There are many Sherlockians who operate in both communities, and as one myself, I can attest, at least anecdotally, that those who stand firmly in one camp often have little knowledge of the operation, interests, or concerns of the other. The Chap incident therefore represented an uncommon moment of mutual visibility.

3. For clarity, I use the term "fan" regardless of whether the person in question prefers traditional or transmedial engagement. However, it is worth noting that a tenet of the traditional framework is the rejection of the term "fan" in favor of "devotee," "enthusiast," "aficionado," or simply "Sherlockian." This is a form of gatekeeping. For reference, see the controversy surrounding the BSJ article "The Elite Devotee Redux" by former Baker Street Irregular Phillip Shreffler, in which he maintains, "I like to think of Sherlockians—we ought to think of Sherlockians—as devotees, not fans…The devotee is a person of language, of words; the fan is more commonly a person of half-ideas, half-expressed." The article was leaked to the online Sherlock Holmes fan community in early 2013 and is available online, together with a brief response from the Baker Street Babes, a podcast group that operates both traditionally and transmedially and that Shreffler directly targeted (

4. After experiencing both public and financial pressures, Conan Doyle resurrected Holmes in "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1903), in which Holmes explains to Watson that he had survived (while Moriarty had not) and had spent the intervening years in hiding, traveling Europe and Asia in disguise.

5. King and Klinger (2011) place Stout's essay as the first in their section titled "Radical Criticism," locating it firmly within the tradition of the Grand Game, but clearly outside the mainstream of Sherlockian pseudoscholarship.

8. Works cited

Chap, Basil. 2016. "Just a Heads-up." Ghostbees. Tumblr, February 20.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. 2005. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Edited by Leslie S. Klinger. Vol. 1. New York: Norton.

Dundas, Zach. 2015. The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hallor, Mika. 2012. "I Believe in Sherlock Holmes." Smug as a Bug and Pretty. Tumblr, January 16.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

King, Laurie R., and Leslie S. Klinger, eds. 2011. The Grand Game: A Celebration of Sherlockian Scholarship. Vol. 1, 1902–1959. New York: BSI Press.

obsession_inc. 2009. "Affirmational Fandom vs. Transformational Fandom.", June 1.

O'Mara, Ashley. 2014. "Queering Sherlock LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic." Metathesis. WordPress blog, Oct. 24.

Pearson, Roberta. 2007. "Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies, and Sherlockians." In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Harrington, 98–109. New York: New York University Press.

Polasek, Ashley D. 2012. "Winning the Grand Game: Sherlock and the Fragmentation of Fan Discourse." In Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series, edited by Louisa Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse, 41–54. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Reagin, Nancy, and Anne Rubenstein. 2011. "'I'm Buffy, and You're History': Putting Fan Studies into History." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6.

Rothman, Steven. 1990. Introduction to The Standard Doyle Company: Christopher Morley on Sherlock Holmes, edited by Steven Rothman, 1–26. New York: Fordham University Press.

Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shreffler, Phillip A. 1999. "The Original Series BSJ: Quintessence of Irregular." In Irregular Crises of the Late 'Forties, edited by Jon L. Lellenberg, 388–95. BSI Archival Series No. 5. New York: BSI Press.

Smith, Edgar W. 1944. Profile by Gaslight: An Irregular Reader about the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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