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The Elite Devotee or How The Sherlock Fandom Is A Horrible Embarrassment To The Sherlockian World by Phillip Shreffler

This is the article that the rant was written in retaliation to. At the time I hadn’t read it, because it was sent only to a select few Sherlockians, but heard through the grapevine of the contents. I’ve since been sent the article and warned of its actual words. I knew it was aimed at fandom in a very derogatory way, but I had no idea it was a personal attack. My name is mentioned. I’m quoted. I’m apparently a horrible embarrassment and a tragedy.You know what, that doesn’t matter. Were my feelings hurt? Sure. Was I enraged for being called out by a petty cowardly man? A bit. But that doesn’t matter, I’ll take your bitter words Mr. Shreffler and continue to make The Baker Street Babes amazing. Maybe you’ve seen us on your television, as we’ve been on NBC, The Today Show, CBS, and appeared in USA Today and online at FOX. Or maybe you’ll see us in your local bookstore when our essay collection is published. Or maybe you’ll see us at the BSI Dinner which, guess what, we were invited by your BSI boss Michael Whelan, to for our contributions to the Sherlockian world. Hmmm.

As for us just being silly Sherlock fangirls. I hope you know that you contradicted yourself. You said we only drooled over Sherlock and then quoted me saying I wanted to start something for SHERLOCK HOLMES fans. Notice I didn’t actually mention the BBC. Also, if you bother to look at our episode backlog, you’ll notice we only have three out of thirty-six episodes are directly linked to the BBC show. Sure, we mentioned it in others because, guess what, it’s a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. I know. It’s hard to accept. I’m sure you’ll get over it, after you get over yourself.

And so, for those who dare risk the ignorant babble of a man who cannot let go of the past and thinks himself at least ten times above every one of you, you made read below the cut. There are some blanks because the scan we have isn’t the greatest, but it doesn’t impede it much. No more than it impedes itself.

The Elite Devotee Redux

Phillip Shreffler, while editor of The Baker Street Journal, devoted his March 1988 Editor’s Gaslamp to the topic he called “The Elite Devotee.” At that time, Jeremy Brett fandom threatened to overwhelm more traditional forms of Sherlockian sensibility, and Shreffler’s acute observations offered a way to think about the vast gulf between the Holmes fan and the Holmes devotee. We seem condemned to repeat the past, as a new fan movement has emerged in circumstances all too similar to those that preempted his 1988 editorial, and so we have asked Prof. Shreffler to offer an up-date of his notion of the elite devotee. We start with his original column, from The Baker Street Journal, March 1988.

The Elite Devotee

By Philip A. Shreffler

In all of my writing and speaking about the cult of Sherlock Holmes, I have scrupulously avoided using the word “fan” and have employed “devotee” instead. Though there is little practical differences in these words’ definitions, there is, I think, a substantial difference in what they connote. “Fan,” in fact, is an informal word (derived from “fanatic,” as it happens, not that it matters); “devotee” is a word unto itself and is therefore by its very nature more formal. I like to think of Sherlockians—we ought to think of Sherlockians—as devotees, not fans.

“Devotee” suggests the Old World gentlemanly and ladylike milieu in which Sherlock Holmes lived and, later, from which the Baker Street Irregulars were born. “Fan” (regardless of when or by whom the word was early used) suggests the more casual, less proprietous ambiance associated with life in the mid-to-late twentieth century. A Sherlockian’s allegiance here should be clear.

And when the press labels organized Sherlockians as “elite,” it does so because that refers not to one’s financial status but to one’s intellectual and behavioral devotion (hence, devotee) to that time “before the world went all awry.” The Sherlockian cult as an elite of devotees is envied precisely because it is capable of preserving in actual practice a gentler, more civilized world—in which the “fan” may acquire but which he has not ?? into his life.

The true Sherlockian devotee presents him- or herself as a gentleman or lady when representing Sherlockians publicly and, one hopes, at all other moments as well. The fan feels no such compulsion. The devotee is acutely aware of social etiquette; often, too often, the fan has only the vagrant awareness that there are such injunctions. The devotee, mindful of the earlier time that saw the genesis of Sherlock Holmes and of the Irregulars, turns out in a suit or a jacket and tie (depending upon the occasion)—or in commensurate attire if a lady; the fan outfits himself with his blue jeans and slogan tee-shirt. The devotee is a person of language, of words; the fan is more commonly a person of half-ideas, half-expressed. The devotee is comfortable in genteel, dignified Sherlockian surroundings; the fan (dare we suggest this?) is at home at a science-fiction convention.

Do Sherlockians (and should they) struggle uphill agains the prevailing social tide of public behavior today? Yes, they do. And yes, they should. For the Sherlockian is devoted to the world where it is always 1895 and always 1934. As Basil Rathbone is quoted in this issue as having observed about early meetings of the BSI, such commotions were affairs of “protocol” at which members were on “their best behaviour.” That rather expresses it.
The Elite Devotee Redux

During the course of the century just past (and it seems already an entire century since we lived in it), the mock-scholarly pursuit of Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street something French was born and attained its lushest flowering. The men and women who engaged in this cerebral activity (for so it was), and engaged in it at its best, I have called “elite devotees” as opposed to Sherlock “fans.” Now, in just the few years of this brave new millennium, the term “Sherlockian fandom” has entered the poorer and often Internet-inspired legion of public discourse to such a degree that even The Baker Street Journal, the publication of the Baker Street Irregulars, has embraced it. (To those fans an editorial in the Spring 2012 member of the Journal preferred an egalitarian if somewhat chilling “Welcome to your new home!”)

I used “elite devotee” for the first time in print in The Baker Street Journal at a time when it was under my editorship. My suggestion was that elite devotion to Holmes does not refer to one’s economic wealth, rather to one’s intellectual wealth. After all, one doesn’t need to own the silverware in order to know which fork to use. The elite devotee is one devoted to “that age before the world went all awry,” to preserving in practice a gentler, more civilized existence, to bringing to bear upon the subject of the Master of Baker Street superior education, native wisdom, social sophistication, verbal grace, reverence for the printed word, and a commitment to the principles of reason to which Holmes himself subscribed.

The term fan, of course, is derived from “fanatic.” Its collective cousin “fandom” achieved its most widespread early cultural use with reference to science fiction buffs and those who attend upon comic book characters. Fandom gave rise to a subculture and jargon of its one, one of the most common examples of the latter being the use of “con” first as slang and then as colloquialism for “convention” as in, for example, the annual comic book convention, Comic Con. Troubling, however, is the conflation of Sherlockians as established in the twentieth century with its present practice by those whose primary adherence to Holmes is through the BBC’s Sherlock television series and the kindred “I Believe in Sherlock” movement (slapping up signs to that effect willy-nilly in public places in the U.S. and Europe), commitment to both of which has flourished particularly on the Internet.

An April 2012 article by Jeanette Laredo, appearing in The Journal of Victorian Culture Online (where else?), is entitled “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes: Sherlockian Fandom Then & Now,” and opens with an epigrammatic quotation from a “Sherlockian fanfic,” which I take to mean “fan fiction” and not something vulgar in German. It then proceeds to discuss the adoration of Benedict Cumberbatch’s modernized Holmes in Sherlock and the spirited conversation about the man and the series initiated by “internet fanboys… on Twitter and Tumblr,” while referring, in the same breath, to the 1934 first formal meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars as one of the “fans” who first gathered at “The first Sherlock ‘con’” thus suggesting an unbroken lineal descent (and descent is the right word) from essayist, critic and novelist Christopher Morley’s BSI to the ??? of a TV program and Internet pop culture while, astonishingly, using the same terminology for both.

Ms. Laredo does mention that some earlier Irregulars were “not merely fans but writers” and cites “such luminaries as Ellery Queen, Basil Rathbone, Issac ???, T.S. Eliot and Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” properly impressed with the catalogue of names—to which many more could be added. View from this twenty-first-century perspective, not all Irregulars were writers, but all Irregulars were fans. And the academic raiment with which the BSI clothed its writing, she argued, “irked” some scholars.* (This perception seems to posit that the author views “fandom” as of lesser importance than academia, or at least that the latter views the former that way, and presumably that it doesn’t pay to be too articulate about it.)

“The uncomfortable relationship between fandom and academia,” Ms. Laredo asserts, “is personified in The Baker Street Journal…” In addition to the misuse of the word “personified,” this notion is a common neophyte’s error. The Grand Game of Sherlockians never sought academic approval and was never intended to be academically considered; it is a parody of scholarship and always has been—though many academics have indulged in it, including myself. It is opposite to ?? those both within and without the Sherlockian world that the Game is one of intellectual gymnastics performed with the minutiae of the Holmes more French, practiced principally in essay form. Those few dour professors and critics outside Sherlockian ?? who have maligned the Game as illegitimate in a scholarly sense do not understand that. To misapprehend Sherlockians in this way is to be utterly ?, to attack it for this reason is a waste of time. And “fans,” especially those for whom Holmes exists primarily through the popular electronic media, do not at all represent the Grand Game as it has been practiced for a century, and they err when they assume that they do.

But it does seem to be a fact that the public edifice of Sherlockians, as it has been reconstructed in recent years, is indeed open to a probably justified disdain. When critic Edmund Wilson, in 1945, indicated the enterprise, and particularly The Baker Street Irregulars, as “infantile,” he scarcely could have imagined the advent of the “fan” of today.

I wrote that the “fan,” as opposed to the “elite devotee,” is commonly an individual of half-ideas, half-expressed—or possibly only enthusiasm with few or no ideas at all. Since much contemporary “fandom” occurs on the Internet, I am reminded that Twitter allows only for communication limited to 140 characters, hardly a medium for a complex idea—even for a single idea. And because of the Internet’s immediacy (one can bang out on the keyboard any ill-considered notion, even one substantially longer than a “tweet,” and instantly flash it to many thousands), this can lead easily to the casual slovenliness of expression that contemporary electronic media engender. Indeed, the cyber-fan puts us in mind of the aphoristic Thoreau’s caveat from the first chapter of             Walden:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”


To make this point, perhaps most grimly, consider a pair of statements. The first is from Edgar W. Smith, ??? of the Baker Street Irregulars from 194? to 194?, on his establishment of The Baker Street Journal. It appeared in the April 195? member of that periodical:

“…when the possibility of publishing a journal of Sherlockians 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 has been crowded out of [Smith’s anthology] Profile by Gaslight, when it came out in 1944, and these, it was felt, could for a nucleus around which an irregular annual, or even semi-annual, could safely be built.”

Compare Smith’s lucid pronouncement to the transcript of a “podcast” on the Baker Street Babes’ website, featuring Kristina Manente (who was somewhat fawningly feted, to our surprise and discomfort, in the Spring 2012 BSI) on her founding of the Babes, a fan group that dotes upon the Sherlock television series:

“Basically, I did a radio show in college, and I was like, I love podcasts, I want to do a podcast! So, I had all these friends were Sherlock Holmes fans, and I made this Twitter list—I just called them the Baker Street Babes, and someone else was like ‘that sounds like a group of something!’ And I was like… ‘Speaking of, do you want to do this with me?” [sic]

The comparison may be unfair in the sense that Smith was writing in his typically deliberate and articulate way, and Ms. Manente was speaking in an interview situation. Yet it is impossible to imagine Smith—or any of the Baker Street Irregulars of an earlier and better day—uttering the lines above. Sherlockians ought to be a temple to wit and wisdom and grace of expression, not a potting shed on which is scrawled derogatory graffiti.

In this difference, largely, that distinguishes those intellectually elite devotees (as well as the ones who still exist to carry the torch) from the “Sherlock fandom” of today. However, it would be erroneous to perceive the subversion of the best of what Sherlockians is as being limited to those who obsess over a television series or who live their lives through the Internet.

Organized, Sherlockiana itself seems to be devolving when it should be evolving, growing in size but shrinking in influence. Once, The New York Times covered annual dinners of the Baker Street Irregulars not infrequently. Today this is far less likely to

*Ms. Laredo does not identify which scholars.