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Pastiche vs Fanfiction: The Debate That Wouldn’t Die

A few years ago, I wrote a piece laying out my viewpoint that pastiche is anything Sherlock Holmes-themed that is faithful to Doyle’s characters. Since then, my opinion has evolved and changed. I’m going to re-articulate it.

Just today, I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere published this piece, which does a great job of explaining the viewpoint that pastiche should be a word reserved only for works that directly imitate Doyle’s storytelling style. (By that definition, as a reader and book reviewer, I personally prefer Holmes-themedworks that are not pastiche about a million times more than most of those that are, but that’s a topic for another time.)

I don’t have a massive quarrel with IHOSE’s definition–technically. The problem is, words are not used in a vacuum, especially not in fandom. Somebody has to decide which works are “enough like Doyle” or “trying hard enough to be like Doyle” or “traditional enough” to warrant the word. Works that “fail” someone’s subjective test are, all-too-often, relegated to second-class status: In other words, fanfiction. This is the ugly little secret, and I’ve been seeing it happen ever since I entered the Sherlock Holmes world as an adult.

Let’s make one thing crystal clear. All pastiche is fanfiction. Breathe into a paper bag and repeat: All pastiche is fanfiction. Anything written by a fan of something, inspired by that something, is, by definition, fanfiction. There is nothing inherently negative, suggestive of low quality, or second class about fanfiction. It’s been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Fanfiction is a perfectly good word, and pastiche, however you choose to define it, is a perfectly good word. The problem is, human beings have a nasty habit of taking perfectly good words and giving them very problematic contexts, contexts meant to exclude and shame others.

This is what I’ve seen happen over and over with the pastiche vs. fanfiction issue. (To be clear, I am not saying everyone who espouses the use of the word “pastiche” is prejudiced or intolerant. Many are lovely. However, the culture of exclusion around the term is one I’ve observed repeatedly for years.)

Fandom context means that pastiche, as much as we’d like it to be, isn’t just a technical term for a type of fanfiction. All too often, it’s an in-word, a word used to describe what some consider to be the only “right” way to express creativity in the Sherlock Holmes world. Sure, there’s a catchall category for what those “other people” (often times young people, people of different gender, millennials, people of the Internet generation) create, but it’s not high and mighty pastiche. That word is only for the works of correct people, who write what they’re supposed to write.

Frankly, I’m tired of it. If I had my druthers, we’d call it all fanfiction and stop acting like “fan” and “fandom” are only words that apply to new enthusiasts, instead of being really broad words that have open arms to welcome all who are enthusiastic about something, regardless of age or duration of interest or any other factor.

Some of us write fanfiction that is published and sold. Others of us write fanfiction that we kindly share with the world free of charge. Still others write fanfiction that is only for our own eyes and enjoyment. It’s all creative. It’s all part of the Holmesian experience, and none of it deserves to be categorically excluded. (Of course we all have opinions about what we prefer or what is better and worse, but that has to do with personal taste and preference, not excluding entire categories of creativity because they don’t fit our mold.)

I know it’s not going to happen. Pastiche is not going to disappear as a word, and I’ll probably still use it in certain contexts, even though I wish fanfiction would suffice. But honestly? Please form your own opinion. This post is not intended to feed into the idea that there’s one right way to think about fandom concepts or a correct way to be creative.

If someone says to you, with that trademark disdain in their voice, “That’s not pastiche; that’s fanfiction,” smile at them and say, “Thank you. That’s an amazing compliment.” Because it is. Fanfiction is awesome, and when you create it, you’re awesome too.

Originally posted at Girl Meets Sherlock.

Amy Thomas is a book reviewer, freelance essayist, and author of The Detective and The Woman mystery novel series featuring Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, published by MX Publishing. She holds a degree in professional communication and is an avid knitter, geek, and grammar nerd. Amy blogs about Sherlock Holmes at Girlmeetssherlock.wordpress.com and can be reached for professional enquiries at nottinghillnapoleon@gmail.com. Connect with her on Twitter @Pickwick12. Email her at reviews@bakerstreetbabes.com.

7 Responses to “Pastiche vs Fanfiction: The Debate That Wouldn’t Die”

  1. androdea says:

    Good point. These terms don’t exist in vacuum and many people use the word fantfiction to demean writers. I hardly actually use the term pastiche anymore, but I might just stop altogether.

  2. An interesting commentary on this site, given that one of your own is one of the best pastiche writers our genre has seen (we’re talking about Lyndsay, of course), who spelled out the difference between “pastiche” and “fanfiction” for our readers just last week: http://www.ihearofsherlock.com/2015/02/interview-author-lyndsay-faye-on-art-of.html

    • Barbara Piper says:

      [Lyndsay] “spelled out the difference between ‘pastiche’ and ‘fanfiction’ for our readers just last week.”

      Did we read the same interview? Ms. Faye said “…the real line of demarcation in my mind is people who insist on the fact they write “pastiches” and people who don’t.”

      In other words, the only difference she sees is the intentions of the authors, not the works themselves. And, as we know from several decades of literary theory, authorial intent is irrelevant.

  3. Jennybug says:

    Sorry there, Amy, but I can’t agree with this need to equate all forms of fannish expression and say that it’s not okay to value some more than others. And I really can’t agree with newbies’ attempts to dictate to the established fandom what they’re allowed to say or value. It smacks of Social Justice Warrior bullying, political correctness. This long campaign from the Babes is getting really tiring.

    To IHOS, Lyndsay may be a great writer, but that doesn’t mean she’s right in saying that pastiche and fanfic are interchangeable terms – that is such a very new concept that totally makes pastiche lose almost all original meaning. Her opinion here really isn’t better than anybody else’s who’s been around a while.

  4. David R. McCallister says:

    I think that the term “parody” needs to be thrown into the mix here. It has varied in definition over the years from its Greek origins, and so is presently somewhat as vague and subject to flux as is the term “pastiche”. For legal purposes, a parody need not be totally mocking, silly, or humorous, just using the style or characters of the original, but with an additional “comment” element.
    As a derivative work, it is nonetheless protected by copyright law against the copyright holder under the fair use doctrine, if and when some sort of comment (social, literary, political, etc.) is employed which is served by the use of the original style and/or characters.
    Thus, parody provides creative opportunities distinct from pastiche, which may well be subject to undesirable copyright limitations and consequences.
    I know this seems unfair, but perhaps this aspect will be considered at 221B-Con in Atlanta, where a legalities of fanfiction panel is on the program.
    David R. McCallister

  5. GD says:

    Thank you, Jennybug, for your comments. I have to agree with you on all points.

    I really dislike the vocabulary policing going on. I have a clear understanding of “pastiche” in my mind (as it relates to Holmes works). I also happen to enjoy fanfiction, and I think it has value on many levels.

    I reserve the right to distinguish between the two and identify which works I consider good. For me, pastiche refers to professionally published works that closely mimic ACD’s writing style. Some pastiche I like and appreciate; some pastiche I do not like and appreciate. Here we are in the land of my opinion, which means I have to back up my claims if I want to hold my own in an argument. I’ll call that pastiche for the rest of my foreseeable future.

    Fanfic is everything else under the sun: published, self-published, on the Internet for free, kept hidden away for eternity, whatever, that is Holmes related. Some fanfic is awesome; some is rotten and terrible (yet still awesome in its own way?) and I am the judge of that for myself. I’ll call everything that is NOT closely mimicking ACD’s writing style fanfic until I expire.

    I understand that the most vocal people get the majority of the attention, but I hope it is clear that there are many, many fans (including younger women like me who embrace many of the newer fandom ideas/ newer TV shows) who do not share the same opinions as the BSB.

  6. AD says:

    Hi Amy,

    There is a small (technical?) problem with saying that all pastiche (or homage) is fan-fiction. It assumes that all pastiche/homage is written by fans. Surely this is not necessarily the case. What about when a literary estate commissions an author to produce a pastiche? There’s nothing to say that the author so commissioned has to be (or is) a fan of the author they’re being paid to channel. They may not even be a fan of the genre. To them it’s just a commission. What they produce (regardless of quality) is pastiche as it’s aping or attempting to ape an author but it is not necessarily fan-fiction.

    The cases (in the Sherlock Holmes world) where a pastiche is not written by a fan may be rare but it is possible and therefore I don’t think the pastiche circle can sit entirely within the fan-fiction circle in the Venn diagram you are depicting.

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