Upon the Clear Distinction Between Fandom and the Baker Street Irregulars

In light of the ever-expanding popularity of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in conjunction with recent adaptations including the Warner Brothers films, the BBC series, and the CBS reimagining, it falls to me to discuss certain disturbing tendencies on the part of new devotees to refer to that venerable institution, the Baker Street Irregulars, as a “fandom” when it is actually a literary society. The youth of the Sherlockian world will be excused for making this dare I say elementary error, since the case for the distinction has not been hitherto laid out. Following the summation of this article, however, fans and traditional Sherlockians alike will have reached a much clearer understanding, and the unfortunate misnomer of referring to the present Irregulars as a “fandom” will doubtless cease and be swiftly forgotten.

(Note: for the purposes of this intellectual exercise, the possibility that the BSI may potentially be a storied and erudite literary society and a happily thriving fandom simultaneously will be ignored. This decision was made in light of the fact that a noun cannot be two things concurrently, the way the Empire State Building is not both a functioning office tower and a tourist destination, and the way Bill Clinton is not both a former president and a saxophone player. Arguments that the BSI is peopled by both cultured readers and by eager fans would only muddy the issue, and therefore will not be entertained here.)

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word fandom dates from 1903 and is defined simply as “the realm of avid enthusiasts.” Although undoubtedly a positive, even a flattering definition, already we can see that this is an inaccurate way of describing the Baker Street Irregulars, founded in January of 1934 by Doubleday editor Christopher Morley and later permanently established as the premier Sherlockian society by Edgar W. Smith. While the BSI was conceived as a group of congenial, clubbable men who admittedly shared an avid enthusiasm for the Great Detective, no mention whatsoever is made in the definition of fandom of a taste for adult beverages, and the drinking of toasts to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters, which is of such import to the group as to be codified in the BSI’s by-laws. As a matter of fact, the words “Sherlock Holmes” appear nowhere in this document, while the words “drunk,” “drink,” “round,” and “toast” occur six times in the brief record. Describing the BSI as a fandom is thus clearly a counterfactual practice, and should be treated as such.

Not for fans: a Sidney Paget illustration from The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
Not for fans: a Sidney Paget illustration from The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet


Of note, because the dates could potentially lead to confusion, is the fact that the Irregulars were founded in 1934 in New York City, at very close to the identical time period when the science fiction fandom was forming convivial societies of “avid enthusiasts” in order to discuss space travel, interplanetary colonization, their whip-smart literary contributions, and large-chested alien females. The Futurians, according to Frederik Pohl’s autobiography, were founded in 1934 in New York City; the Scienceers were founded in 1929 in New York City; the Los Angeles Fantasy Society was founded in 1934 in Los Angeles; and the National Fantasy Fan Federation was founded in 1941 in Boston. These societies in no way resembled the BSI, however, for their purpose was to discuss speculative, fictional adventures, while the BSI’s purpose (apart from toasting) was to discuss Sherlock Holmes. The Grand Game, as it’s called, a form of meta-scholarship, bears but scant resemblance to the doings of folk who pen Middle-Earth chronologies and dictionaries of the Klingon language. Those who suggest the BSI is a fandom will also note that, as a literary society, the BSI has always been peopled with thinkers and literary luminaries such as Isaac Asimov, while the Futurians boasted as one of their members Isaac Asimov, who was undoubtedly a different Isaac Asimov to the deservedly admired creative philosopher invested in the Irregulars.

One of the most self-evident differences between the Irregulars and those involved in fandom is the latter’s tendency to memorize an enormous amount of trivia regarding their specific preoccupations, be those preoccupations Battlestar Galactica or fiction featuring anthropomorphized dragons. A member of the Star Trek fandom, for instance, could readily inform an outsider that when Captain Picard was captured by the Cardassians, he insisted despite being cruelly tortured that the number of lights shown to him numbered four; such remarkable displays of knowledge are all too common among fandom enthusiasts. Invested members of the BSI could undoubtedly inform non-Sherlockians that Sherlock Holmes’s ancestors were country squires, that John Watson was an invalided member of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, and that Holmes is on record as having possessed three dressing gowns (blue, purple, and mouse), but as these are matters of historical fact, knowledge of them is much more akin to familiarity with the Gettysburg Address. I say again: do not succumb to lazy terminology and misidentify the BSI as a fandom. The one is concerned with an exceedingly popular series of crime stories, and the other is concerned with pop culture.

The activities of fans vs. traditional Sherlockians are hugely divergent. While fans come together to discuss their favorite sci-fi stories, television shows, and films, Sherlockians confine their conversation (and toasts) exclusively to the sixty stories, referred to as the “canon.” No mention is made of adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries; indeed, it is safe to say that the BSI as a whole is unaware of such bastardizations of the original writings, if indeed such things as movies and television shows based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exist, which is doubtful. In addition, fandom engages in a pastime termed “cosplay,” defined by Wikipedia as “a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea.” Such behavior would be anathema to a Baker Street Irregular, some of whom have been photographed dressing in Victorian garb and deerstalker hats. 

Denizens of the fandom community fail to confine their “avid enthusiasm” to mere discussion of hobbits and tribbles; they also, as a group, have a marked tendency to collect memorabilia relevant to their favorite ch

The Strand Magazine Christmas 1893 issue. Of great literary importance.
The Strand Magazine Christmas 1893 issue. Of great literary importance.
aracters, spending precious funds in pursuit of items such as action figures and animation cells. A comic book collector would think absolutely nothing of paying triple digits for a prized mint-condition issue of Spider-Man, for example, while my copy of the 1892 issue of the Strand Magazine…no, strike that, I beg your pardon, the comparison is similar but ultimately misleading. Irregulars of my acquaintance have amassed collections of Sherlock Holmes art, Sherlock Holmes books, Sherlock Holmes knickknacks, Sherlock Holmes pins, Sherlock Holmes translations, Sherlock Holmes reference volumes, and Sherlock Holmes talismans such as magnifying glasses or pipes, but as these are clearly objets d’art, they find no equivalency within the realm of fandom.

It is of particular importance to note that fandom participants often write what is termed fanfiction, fictional works featuring their beloved characters in various situations of the fan’s own imagining, defined as “stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.” Whenever a writer pens a story about a character created by another author, that tale falls under the umbrella of fanfiction, a practice that the Baker Street Irregulars would find both mystifying and vaguely distasteful. In fact, the mere concept of writing new stories starring characters not belonging to the author would strike dismay into the hearts of the BSI, who very often write and read pastiches featuring Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (a pastiche is defined as “a work of art, literature, film, music, or architecture that openly imitates the work of a previous artist”). As you have already recognized, no doubt, pastiche is entirely different from fanfiction, as fanfiction is specified as being penned by fans, and as I have argued previously, the Baker Street Irregulars are not fans but rather a literary society, and thus are categorically incapable of writing fanfiction. The notion that they could be both we have already dismissed as specious.

One must bear in mind as well the ironclad argument that the BSI was founded in the tradition of the great metropolitan men’s clubs of the 1930s, and thus bears no resemblance whatsoever to fandoms, which are largely concerned with grown men and women wearing tights. I find this line of reasoning particularly compelling, since it is common knowledge that once a group forms around a certain idea, it remains always the identical entity, indistinguishable in its modern incarnation from its origins, free from growth, change, or adaptation. Admittedly the BSI is no longer exclusively for men, but that is an admirable mark of progress and should be considered accordingly. Just as the company Apple Inc. sells small personal circuit boards hand-crafted by the artist Steve Wozniak (keyboard and screen not included), the BSI is emphatically not a fandom. And please stop referring to them by such blatantly fallacious terminology.

Lastly, a word upon the subject of respect for the gentleman who made our literary society possible, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are some who take mild offense to those who speak of the BSI as a fandom, but I am not of their number, though it is worth mentioning out of deference that Doyle would certainly be outraged by the term. So beloved a character was Sherlock Holmes to Doyle that he spoke of him always with the soft light of adoration in his eyes and a flush upon his cupid’s cheeks, joy suffusing his features whensoever the subject of his masterful sleuth was raised. Were Doyle to be reanimated and exposed to the neophytes who ignore all discrepancies and insist upon wrongly identifying the BSI as a fandom, his mighty love for his hero would so overwhelm him, and his fury at the misidentification swell into so vast a storm cloud of righteous rage, that he would probably decide to remain alive simply for the pure, unadulterated pleasure he derived from writing the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and would deliver unto us sixty more cases. And lo, global warming would be reversed, and he would find a cure for herpes.

I trust that this article clears up any remaining confusion regarding the word fandom, and its woeful inexactitude when characterizing the Baker Street Irregulars. I likewise hope I have assured the reader the BSI cannot be both a respected literary society and a fandom, any more than Australia can be both a continent and an island. One earnestly hopes that this will settle the matter for good and all, and we can move on to other, better topics. In the meanwhile, I am going to don my deerstalker and write a story in which Sherlock Holmes fights the Cardassians, that being the sort of activity relevant to my interests. Thank you.

Lyndsay Faye is the author of Dust and Shadow and The Gods of Gotham from Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. She tweets @LyndsayFaye.

Read all posts by Lyndsay Faye for Criminal Element.


  1. Clare 2e

    And now I know! Once he’s done with the Cardassians, have him move on to dethroning Ming the Merciless, too, please.

  2. Nicholas Winter

    Titan Books has been reprinting class pastiches of Sherlock Holmes such as the one that came for review here at Sleeping Hedgehog this morning: Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes Vs. Dracula.

    Other novels in the series have tackled Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even the Martians as envisioned by H.G. Wells! Some are very good, some are quite appallingly awful.

    PS — the BBC series is also a reimagining as it’s set in the present time. Indeed all Holmes stories not written by Doyle are such.

  3. uberfrosch

    I really want to read that story about Sherlock Holmes and the Cardassians now.

  4. Gary Thaden

    A very accurate and erudite analysis of the differences between fandom and literary societies such as the BSI and the Norwegian Explorers.

    Gary Thaden
    Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota
    (A Sherlockian Literary Society)

  5. Mira

    Was it wrong of me to giggle throughout this article, then get all somber and serious when “Sherlock Holmes” and “Cardassians” are in the sentence?

    Please tell me you wrote that! I just can imagine that Bashir told Garak about him and the spy is so fascinated by Holmes then Holmes appears… and Watson has to be there to he can sigh with Julian over their friends who are being creepy sneaky together. Or something else. You know, it’s up to you.

  6. brk5239

    I was getting a little anxious there thinking that you were unwittingly contradicting yourself in a pursuit to appear eloquent and intelligent, but luckily I was assured that wasn’t the case–a notion reinforced by your second-to-last paragraph.

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