Fandom, publishing, and playing the Grand Game

Andrew L. Solberg and Robert S. Katz

[0.1] Abstract—We explore the characteristics of fandom in the Sherlockian world and why so many people are drawn to participate in Sherlockian critical analysis.

[0.2] Keywords—Critical analysis; Fan community; Sherlock Holmes; Sherlockian

Solberg, Andrew L., and Robert S. Katz. 2017. "Fandom, Publishing, and Playing the Grand Game." 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] The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the term "fandom" had an American origin and that it first appeared in print in 1903 (figure 1).

Figure 1. Screenshot of "fandom, n." OED Online (

A screenshot of the definition of the word fandom from the Oxford English Dictionary website. It lists the word's origin as U.S. and defines it as: The world of enthusiasts for some amusement or for some artist; also in extended use. Below this are listed four examples of the word's usage in print: by the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1903, by Publishers' Weekly in 1928, by Times in 1958 and by The Philosophical Review in 1963.

Figure 1. [View larger image.]

[2] In general, seasoned (i.e., old) Sherlockians must swallow before we admit that what we do for and with our love of Sherlock Holmes fully fits in the fannish domain. We doubt that the word "fandom" was in general usage while Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing, and it certainly was not used in any Sherlockian writings before about five years ago. We like to think of ourselves as aficionados or devotees. But if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that our love of the Sherlock Holmes 40-year chronicle made us individual fans initially and then a community of fans. What is it about being a fan of Sherlock Holmes and the Sherlockian canon that encourages the desire to write, edit, and publish? More specifically, why is writing more of a compulsion than a mere desire?

[3] The Sherlock Holmes stories are unique. Anyone reading this article probably realized that by page four of the first story that they read. The characters leap from the page into the deepest recesses of our minds. In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson starts out rather down and out in London (to paraphrase George Orwell), and his meeting with Sherlock Holmes is memorable. After a new reader has devoured several stories, however, other things become apparent. Those who love the canon are invariably curious people who question what they read. What become apparent are the many inconsistencies, the contradictions, the unanswered questions. And this was true of even early readers. The January 1902 edition of The Bookman included an article entitled "Some Inconsistencies of Sherlock Holmes."

[4] Thoughtful fans are offered a lot of grist for the mill. The urge to analyze is partly caused by there being 60 stories covering 40 years. In one tale, Watson tells us that he was wounded in the shoulder. In another tale, he refers to the same wound as being in the Achilles tendon. It takes Holmes 7 years to get around to telling Watson that he has a brother. As if turnabout were fair play, Watson never tells Holmes about his own brother; Holmes has to deduce his existence from a pocket watch. There are the stories that were never printed (the "Untold Tales"). The chronology of the stories is murky at best, and opaque most of the time; it is a perennial topic among Sherlockian analysts.

[5] Some readers would just regard these gaps and inconsistencies as flaws in the stories and move on to some other author. But fans view them as challenges, provoking thought and constant rereading of the tales.

[6] Eventually many of us then have the Moment. It happens when we realize that we are not alone and that others ask the same questions about the Sherlockian canon, puzzle over the same inconsistencies…and actually write about them. The Moment often occurs in a bookstore when one comes across a book of Sherlockian criticism. For the baby boomer generation, that book was often Baring-Gould's annotated version of the canon or his biography of Sherlock Holmes. Whatever it is, it probably offers footnotes and references, not only to the canon itself but also to other books and to journals. One in particular, The Baker Street Journal (BSJ), is an entire magazine, published four times a year (since 1946), devoted entirely to the study and analysis of Sherlock Holmes! What a find. After one subscribes and the first issue arrives, the desire to publish takes hold. The learned articles, fascinating discourse, and impeccable research are immediately addicting. If others can do this, so can we.

[7] Then things take a further leap. A section in Baring-Gould's Annotated Sherlock Holmes describes something called scion societies. There are organizations that meet to discuss and enjoy the canon. The reader's reaction is inevitably, "Oh, my God, others who think like I do formed a community." What a revelation to learn that others who share this interest actually meet with each other! Attendance at a meeting is often the final stage of ascent into fandom and publishing. Meeting kindred spirits is exhilarating. Finding that they read and discuss not only the stories but also what are called "the writings on the writings" is intoxicating. A large percentage of Sherlockians then rush to typewriters (or now to computers) and set their own thoughts and research into words.

[8] Both of us felt the need to set down in type scholarly articles before joining the Sherlockian community or attending any scion meetings. Both articles were eventually published in the BSJ (Solberg 1976; Katz 1977). In both cases, while it was gratifying to receive an acceptance from an editor and see our article in print, it was even more so to meet someone at a meeting, give our name, and then hear, "Didn't you write that article in the most recent BSJ? It was really clever." Now it's a done deal. Publishing is in our blood, as art is in Holmes's.

[9] Research and publishing are just two of the many things Sherlockians have done as part of the Game. In 1911, Ronald Knox presented a parody of literary analysis entitled "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" at Oxford University that was later published. Though it was a parody, it raised many analytical points that Sherlockians have been writing about ever since. In 1931, S. C. Roberts published Dr. Watson, the first book dedicated entirely to Sherlockian analysis. It was quickly followed by many others, including T. S. Blakeney's Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction? (1932), H. W. Bell's Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: The Chronology of Their Adventures (1933), and Vincent Starrett's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933).

[10] These authors weren't young. They were grown, accomplished adults. Since then, authors of books of Sherlockian analysis have included doctors, lawyers, teachers, actors, writers, businesspeople, and many others who are accomplished in their private lives as well as in the Sherlockian world. They operate in that world by stipulating that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real people. This stipulation is called the Grand Game, and adherence to it runs through almost all Sherlockian analysis. And while we embark on it with our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks, we take it very seriously. In 1941, mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers articulated the rules of this Sherlockian game in the introduction to her 1946 book Unpopular Opinions, writing, "The rule of the game is that it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord's." It has always been interesting to us that we grown-ups are willing to put so much time and effort into scholarly analysis because of our love of Sherlock Holmes. It may be that scholarly analysis is a good alternative to what we do in real life on a daily basis.

[11] We enjoyed doing the research and honing the text of our papers. We read the work of other Sherlockian analytical writers, many of whom become friends. Published papers lead to invitations to speak at Sherlockian meetings and events, and those talks are turned into other papers.

[12] For the two of us, things then took a new and unexpected turn. We were at the 2011 annual dinner of the Baker Street Irregulars, and the series editor of the BSI Manuscript Series, which publishes annotated facsimile editions of Conan Doyle's handwritten Holmes-related manuscripts, approached each of us separately during the cocktail hour. First one and then the other was asked to serve as editor of the next volume in the series. Each of us pled other obligations and begged off. It is a prestigious series, and we each hated to decline. Later that evening, we happened to be seated together for the dinner, and we realized that while neither of us had time to edit the book independently, it would be possible if we did it together. We'd been friends for decades but had never worked on a project together. We offered to undertake it as a team. The series editor quickly gave assent, and we now had a new project.

[13] In the past, we'd worked on our own articles, though we sometimes sought advice from others before submitting them for publication. This book was a very different undertaking. It was to include a reproduction of Conan Doyle's original manuscript of "The Golden Pince-Nez," an annotated transcription of it, and chapters on aspects of the story and Conan Doyle's writing of it. We needed to assemble a team of contributors, and so we drew on Sherlockians whose work we respected. Chapters were assigned and began to arrive. We spoke with the chapter authors, helped them when they needed it, and challenged them when they needed that. We worked together to edit the chapters and then assisted the publisher in the production process. Seeing the finished product, between hard covers, was thrilling.

[14] But beyond the sheer pleasure of publishing was something much deeper. Working with Conan Doyle's original manuscript enabled us to see the thought process that went into the writing of the story. Each crossed-out word represented a different direction that the tale could have taken. In addition, there were subtle differences between what was written in the manuscript and what appeared in print. Clearly the story had changed between submission and final publication. All of these changes provided new and different perspectives on the story. Studying the manuscript allowed us to see the story from angles that had never occurred to us in multiple readings of the published version.

[15] Then there were the chapters by our contributors. We were fortunate in having put together a group of talented scholars who worked hard on their contributions. Each took an approach that we had not previously seen in our own readings of the literature.

[16] Finally, the process of publishing the manuscript also gave us a sense of Sherlockian history. There are 60 stories, but not 60 original manuscripts. Some, particularly those of the earlier stories, just don't exist. A few are incomplete. The handwritten manuscripts represent a writing process that dates back to the invention of paper and ink but that no longer exists. For a brief period, many writers put aside their pens and used a typewriter. With the advent of the computer and the Internet, the era of handwritten manuscripts ended. Our own book was prepared entirely by electronic methods. We all communicated by e-mail. All editing was done on the computer screen. The typesetting was automated, and the galley proofs were also handled by computer. The first time any of us saw the physical book, composed of paper, ink, and binding, was when it went on sale at the 2013 annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. As we worked with Conan Doyle's manuscript, we were truly in a lost world.

[17] It's impossible to read the Sherlock Holmes stories without thinking about the inconsistencies that make these tales unique in literature. Realizing that others wrote about these issues with the same passion that we felt was all the incentive it took to start us on a lifetime of research and publishing. There are many stories of crime and detection by other authors, with interesting plots and colorful characters. But none of them constitutes a chronicle spanning 40 years of one man's life, and none has spawned as vast a literature as that surrounding the Holmes canon. When it comes to Sherlock Holmes, being a fan and being a writer are almost inseparable.

Works cited

Baring-Gould, William S., ed. 1967. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Four Novels and the Fifty-six Short Stories Complete. By Arthur Conan Doyle. 2 vols. New York: C. N. Potter/Crown.

Katz, Robert S. 1977. "Mary Morstan Moriarty." Baker Street Journal 27 (1): 22–23.

Knox, Ronald. 1911. "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes." Diogenes Club.

Sayers, Dorothy L. 1946. Unpopular Opinions. London: Gollancz.

Solberg, Andrew L. 1976. "The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes." Baker Street Journal 26 (4): 197–202.