Occasionally, someone attributes a quote to me that I don't quite remember saying or writing, but if it sounds good, I'll claim it. This week, the quote was "It's not about the sixty stories any more." That's sounds like me, if you add the word "just" in there. Because it isn't just about the sixty original Sherlock Holmes stories any more. And when Joel Senter asked me to elucidate, my immediate reply was just, "it hasn't been about the sixty stories for a long time, really."
Let me actually explain myself this time, for Joel and everybody else, because I wanted to talk about fanon tonight. "Fanon" is a word I just learned this weekend, a word that perfectly describes something I've been into since day one as a Sherlockian.
We all know what Canon is, the holy texts that we all agree upon for our hobby's center. The complete Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.
"Fanon" are those things we all know and agree upon that weren't written down by Doyle. Sherlock Holmes's birthday, for example. January 6th, right? That was data created by fans of Holmes, accepted by fans of Holmes, and used by fans of Holmes. Our Fanon. People who don't have a clue why Holmes's birthday is January 6 hold to that date and celebrate on it. Watson's middle name? A little less certain, but at this point I think "Hamish" will not get you into many arguments.
And that's just the fan aspect of Sherlock Holmes culture. The deerstalker, the calabash pipe, both brought to us by actors and yet the accepted icons of Sherlock Holmes. No one disputes those at all. Movies have contributed so much to the legend of Sherlock Holmes. Most of Moriarty's villainy has been added post-Canon in movies and television, as there is so damned little of it in the stories.
When I think about what non-Doyle writers have added to Holmes's legend, I have to enter into the realm of "headcanon,"another new word for me. Headcanon are things outside the original sixty that your brain has come to accept as a part of Holmes's legend. Headcanon varies from person to person, but I'll make an embarassing personal admission here: As much as I'm not a fan of Miss Mary Russell, but my brain seems to have given over to the King fans' claim that "After 1914, he's ours!" Mary Russell has become a part of my headcanon. Of course, my headcanon also thinks that Mary Russell is insane, but that's another matter.
Which brings me to the new Sherlocks, modern London and modern New York editions. No gaslight. Little fog. No 1895. The world hasn't exploded as Vincent Starrett's well known poem "221B" theorizes, but Holmes and Watson have moved on from Victorian London. Having been a reader of comic books and science fiction all my life, the idea of alternate universes fits right into my mindset, so accepting parallel worlds where Holmes is a modern is something I can slide right into, if the character of Holmes fits my personal image of him. (And if it doesn't, my sliding in takes a bit longer. Even with acceptance of Elementary as a parallel universe, my headcanon still thinks Jonny Lee Miller's character is a delusional Baker Street Irregular.)
Sherlock Holmes's legend has always encompassed more than just the sixty stories. Some of it, like deerstalkers and calabash pipes, are Fanon we accepted because it was with us from day one. The lore of Sherlock Holmes developed at a much slower rate in years past, because the delays of postal delivery and publishing schedules kept ideas from flitting between humans at anything but a snail's pace. The internet has ramped up the speed of the evolution of ideas to a previously unheard of pace, and as a result we're suddenly seeing ideas entering the mix without seeing the build-up to them or where they come from. The fandom coming in from the TV show Sherlock has an amazingly developed Fanon that may seem totally alien to an old school fan who first encounters it, and yet it comes from the same place the Fanon of Morley and Starrett did: scarcity.
We can never get enough of Sherlock Holmes. Whether it's waiting for that sixty-first Doyle story that will never come, or waiting the long year or so between short seasons of Sherlock, all mighty fandoms come from a longing for something you can't have. People write stories, obsess over trivia, collect the furnishings of Sherlock's sitting room, and get together with those who share their love of Holmes. That part has never changed since day one, and will never change. It just might look a little different to the casual observer. But we're not casual observers. We're the followers of Sherlock Holmes.
"Here, though the world explode, these two survive," Vincent Starrett wrote in his classic poem. "And it is always eighteen ninety-five." But the world doesn't explode very often. Mostly it just changes. We change. Generations live in ways their grandparents could hardly imagine. And Sherlock Holmes changes with us. The Canon, those original sixty, will never change. But what we build on that foundation may look different from year to year. Even Starrett's phrase "always eighteen ninety-five" was more Fanon than Canon, more about his headcanon than the actual Canon. (Sometimes it was 1887, Vincent!) But that's okay, Starrett got to be a fan his way, we get to be a fan our way. The guy who was first in line at the cineplex doesn't get to decide which movie the rest of us see.
Because it's never been just about the sixty stories. Without human beings to react to them, be entertained by them, and be inspired to spin new things out of them, they're just 566 sheets of paper with ink on them, sitting on a shelf.