In 1893, a tragedy shook London. The greatest detective England had ever known had met his match. The Napoleon of Crime, Professor James Moriarty (once merely a professor of mathematics at one of England’s smaller universities), had wrestled with amateur violinist, anthropologist, chemist, swordsman, and consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls; both men had fallen to their deaths. Ten years after Doyle published "The Final Problem", however, a miracle was revealed to the world; Holmes had survived and, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, sequestered himself in Tibet under the name of Sigerson. Doyle’s attempt to kill off a character he was no longer terribly fond of had failed. But what if it had succeeded? Would legions of Holmesians have had to explain on their own, outside the Canon, just how Sherlock had survived and why he had hidden himself from Watson? And what about Mycroft, Inspector Lestrade, and the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson? Someone would have filled the void, and it would have been fan fiction (link via Making Light). I’m neither a producer nor, really, a consumer of the stuff, and certainly neither a historian nor a theorist (although if you’re interested in the last, you could do worse than read Bariata), but it seems to have required the rise of popular fiction and the mass media to bring fan fiction into full flower. The desire to retell a story, whether Shakespeare tackling Ovid (often directly using the language of translator Arthur Golding; ownership was conceived differently then) or Defoe and Fielding both taking a turn at the story of seventeenth century thief-taker Jonathan Wild, is surely an ancient one. Answer poems date back to the English Renaissance at the very latest. Since the dawn of time, people have made up stories to tell one another. In 1421, a poet named John Lydgate inserted himself into Chaucer’s Canterbery Tales in The Siege of Thebes. But fan fiction seems to be largely a response of amateur writers to professionals, and thus a modern development.

Fanfiction.net lists 113 different works of Holmes fan fiction; Holmes is no Shakespeare (175 pieces of fanfic) or Dragonlance (213), but he has such contenders as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (111) and V.C. Andrews (47) beat, let alone such oddities as 1984 (26) and Anne Frank (11). People like writing stories about Holmes almost as much as they seem to like reading them; Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven Percent Solution and Laurie King‘s tales of the elderly Holmes’ May-December romance are only a few of the parodies, pastiches, and tales of further adventures that have accumulated over the decades.Why Holmes? Holmes was a product of The Strand (via Eclogues), one of the early pulps, and the pulps tended to value things that seem to translate well to fiction: characters with sharply efined quirks; workmanlike language; little psychological nuance; strong plots; and standardized relations between the characters. (On that note, I’ll mention slash fanfic — the name coming from "K / S", "Kirk / Spock" — sexually explicit fan fiction which often reimagines heterosexual male characters from mainstream books and television as lovers.) Holmes fiction requires only a few set pieces — a weird mystery, perhaps; a pipe or a syringe of cocaine; the presence of Watson and a few of the recurring characters; and of course the deductions — that writing recognizable Holmes fanfics must be a positive treat compared to the jarring difficulties of, say, plausible William Gibson fanfic. Gibson’s strengths lie in his prose. How easy can it be to write something that reads like Gibson? Or does one just jettison the idea of writing a pastiche in favor of something flatter that just happens to feature Case and Mollie?

But the all-time champ of fan fiction seems not to have been a pulp writer at all. Her characters are quirky and recognizable and her plots are strong, but she aimed at psychological realism and a fine prose style. Maybe the most important element is how real the characters are to the readers, because Jane Austen‘s portraits of Regency life painted on little bits of ivory (two inches wide) are now two hundred years old and still making people say, "That’s not how it should have happened?" and "What happened next?" And then writing it for themselves.