Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The "Lowered Expectations" areas of Sherlockian work

I was pondering my Sherlockian output a while back when, in a weird bit of synchronicity,  this little post turned up from Chris Redmond, entitled "Hardly anyone bought my book."  Now, by any standards I've ever come up with, Chris is a very successful Sherlockian. His recent specialty of gathering Sherlockian writers in groups of sixty on a given theme has been a very admirable bit of work by itself, and it's hardly the highest point of his long Sherlockian career. But Sherlockiana . . . true, in the weeds, Sherlockiana . . . has never been quite as popular the shiney new member of the faith might hope.

Pastiche, though oft much berated by the older, crankier members of our species, would seem to be the one route gaining readership above a certain threshold. A number of talented writers have broken into the mainstream with a Sherlock Holmes novel, then released Sherlock like a booster rocket falling away as they launched into the orbit of professional fictioneers. And a much, much greater number never moves beyond Holmes fiction. But even those novelists tend to see greater numbers of readership than those of us who stick to that curious niche sometimes called "Sherlockian scholarship."

Take the first book at hand, here at Sherlock Peoria home base, Baker Street Chronology: Commentaries on The Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson by Ernest Bloomfield Zeisler. The initial run, even with a Vincent Starrett preface, was only two hundred copies. Thirty years later, it was reprinted in a run of five hundred copies. That's seven hundred copies, perhaps not all of which eventually sold, some of which were undoubtedly lost by non-Sherlockian heirs or acts of God . . . seven hundred potential copies in the entire world.

Let me grab another random piece off the shelves . . . The Herpetological Holmes: A Monograph on Reptiles and Amphibians in the Time of Sherlock Holmes by Donald Girard Jewell, the eighth volume in his "Sherlock Holmes Natural History Series."  One hundred total copies in existence.

Such numbers make Sherlockian works a delightful chase for the collector . . . though the web has made this more of a "what can I afford" versus "what can I find" game. But they're hardly the road to fame and fortune. In fact, after a lifetime of writing in the Twilight Zone of fiction-based non-fiction (or whatever you call playing the games Sherlockian), it's probably why I've settled down to this blogging business rather than building up the words and releasing it in book form. The readership numbers I get here are pretty much the same as in print, but without the overhead of time spent on circulating the stuff.

Yes, yes, the internet is an ephemeral thing. Electrons are here today and gone tomorrow, and one never knows when a website might die a sudden death. But even books have a lifespan, even if we may not live to see the end of it. And if you want to go down that road of succumbing to depression, hey, Earth gets swallowed by the sun eventually, if we survive all else.

So why do we do it? Why do we go to places for Sherlock Holmes that often no one cares that we went? Well, two reasons.

First, we do it for those rare few that are like us in our love of Holmes and will actually read this ultra-niche material. Connecting with someone that special has just a little more zest to it than, "Oh, you like eating pizza and watching TV? Me, too!" We love our fellow Sherlockians, as weird as they can be sometimes, and it always is a kick to produce something in a print run of seventeen copies and see delight in the eyes of those crazy enough to think that odd little publication is something cool. Those are the people I made it for.

And second, the best Sherlockian works are the ones that you do because you just enjoy doing them. Even if nobody ever reads them, there was value in the time you spent working it all out. Readers are often writers, and a born writer is eventually going to start a diary if they can do nothing else. And a diary is, of course, the most limited-circulation work of all.

Most of us may have to lower our expectations a bit as we move through decade after decade of a Sherlockian life. But the joy of it will always be there, if you stick to those basics -- doing it for yourself and your friends. (And if you get a family that shows real interest? You're leading a truly charmed life.) Because Sherlock Holmes hasn't lasted this long by making people rich or making people famous.

He's here because we love him, and, well, even if he doesn't always love us back, hey, he's Sherlock Holmes. Welcome to the Watson-hood!

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