What’s a Pastiche?

Some of my fellow Holmes authors have been engaging in friendly discourse about pastiche and what it really means, so here is my addition to the conversation.

According to dictionary.com, a pastiche is “a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.”

By this definition, most, if not all, Holmes-related fiction qualifies as pastiche. This is the definition I espouse. Other authors have a different viewpoint, notably celebrated Sherlockians David Ruffle and Dan Andriacco, who consider true Holmes pastiche to be only works that imitate Conan Doyle’s style and employ Watson as their narrator. Personally, I find such a narrow definition to be unnecessarily limiting.

When I think of the idea of literary pastiche of any kind–Holmes is by no means the only character employed in this way–I do not expect authors to strictly adhere to the original creator’s style. For instance, I do not expect books that use Jane Austen’s characters to sound exactly like Jane Austen (an impossible task) or books that contain Dracula to sound like Bram Stoker. I am prepared to sound utterly heretical when I say that some subsequent writers actually improve on the writing styles of the original. After all, certain classics are venerated because of the beauty of the writing, but some are venerated for other reasons.

In the same way, I don’t expect writers of Holmesian pastiches to strictly imitate the Conan Doyle style to merit the word. Conan Doyle was a master at plotting and characterization, but he is far from my favorite author with respect to artistic and evocative language use. As a result, I enjoy it when contemporary writers use their own style and language to paint his world and characters with their own colors.

I was not aware that anyone except Conan Doyle wrote stories about the Holmes characters until a few years ago when a friend introduced me to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King, the least traditional sort of pastiche imaginable. And yet, King’s Holmes is the one I read about from the first page of A Study in Scarlet, and her world is Conan Doyle’s. To me, her books are pastiches, however far from the creator’s style they fall.

I have one single qualification when it comes to pastiche. I do not require a Watsonian narrator, a Doylean voice, or even a Victorian setting. What I do require is authenticity of  character. An author’s characterization of Sherlock Holmes and any other canonical characters employed must resonate with Conan Doyle’s characterizations, or I believe a story fails as a Holmesian pastiche. To state it another way, perhaps my qualification is actually a demanding one. I require more than a reach for Conan Doyle and the employment of Watson; I need to hear Holmes’s heartbeat echoing through the pages of a book to feel that I am reading an authentic pastiche.

As a final word, I am glad to say that no matter how much we talk about the use of the word “pastiche,” I have yet to encounter any author who is against the idea of employing Holmes in non-traditional ways. We may differ on the subject of nomenclature, but we definitely agree on the value of all sorts of stories about literature’s greatest consulting detective.

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5 thoughts on “What’s a Pastiche?

  1. A “pastiche” is really just a word with a definition. I am older than Amy, and, for me,.a pastiche is an imitator of an author’s style. Perhaps the definition has broadened when I wasn’t looking, though my definition is present I other online dictionaries. I don’t consider Laurie King’s work a true Doyle pastiche, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love at least some of the books in her series. Everything written featuring the Sherlock Holmes character does not have to be a “pastiche” to be a wonderful exercise in imagination and a contribution to lover’s of the character. So, when I say, Amy, that something you write is not a “real” pastiche, I hope you don’t think that I am saying your work is less valuable. A thing is what it is. As I said in our online discussion, maybe we need a new term for what writer’s like you produce. Whether it be “Sherlock Holmes related fiction” (my current favorite) or something else, is up to the community to determine. I guess I like precise definitions, a resist of the broadening of their definitions over time, which is perhaps inevitable with time.

    • I would consider some to be pastiches and some spinoffs (Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler series, the three or four Mrs. Hudson series, the two or more Mrs. Watson series). When you have Holmes with a different partner than Watson (Wiggins, Henry Verner), I don’t know if that is a spinoff or not.

      I was surprised by your assessment of Doyle’s writing, Amy. I think it is beautiful and also find it to be a very modern style, but, of course, to each her own.

      • Interesting comment! I like the idea of those novels as spinoffs. I think that’s a very valid way to describe them. Thank you for replying!

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