The Critics’ Corner
by Don Webb
“Derivative” works such as satire and parody have a time-honored place in literature, and examples of them have frequently appeared in Bewildering Stories. However, we require that the works be original with their authors; that’s why we don’t accept fan fiction or pastiches: the originality is so thin that we would wonder whose work we’re really publishing.
What is a pastiche, exactly? The common definition is rather loose and tends to overlap with parody. My definition is strict and somewhat technical, but I think it’s very practical.
A pastiche is an exercise in literary criticism: it involves changing one or more elements in a work of prose or poetry in order to examine the effects of stylistic variations. Writers can use pastiches to hone their own style, and a pastiche may even lead further, to an original story or essay.
How does one go about it? There are any number of ways, depending on your objective:
Christine Davies’ article “Writing a Sestina,” in this issue, describes a form of poetry in which the rules are so intricate that it practically writes a pastiche for you: plug your own words into a model poem and check to make sure your version is coherent. Michael Murry’s description of Gaelic bardic verse is quite similar. And of course putting your own words into the recipe is saying a whole whopping lot: ’t ain’t easy!
But suppose you want to improve your style in prose fiction. You can set your own rules, and that gives you a lot of leeway. You can write a pastiche at many levels. Here are some examples, just for starters:
Plot: Take any story and outline its plot. Change the plot outline from a tragedy to a comedy or vice-versa. Molière did that with his own plays: typically a deus ex machina comes on stage in the final scene and bails everyone out of trouble. The action is comic but the plot is tragic up to the last, implausible scene. And that, Molière seems to imply, is the point.
Setting: Change the setting of a story. If the action takes place in a big city, change it to a small town or jungle or vice-versa. Likewise, if the action takes place in the present, change it to the past or future. If the story seems to have no particular setting of note, give it one in a way that is more than decoration.
Character: Transform a character from male to female or vice-versa. How will that affect dialogue and action? Or turn a villain into a hero by making the fewest changes possible. Can your character be a villain or hero by actions alone, without talking or looking like one? What’s the least you can do to avoid inconsistency? And, of course, how do these changes affect the meaning of the story?
Point of view: Rewrite a scene in a story from the point of view of another character (something like the “Rashomon effect”). Or change a scene by adding senses other than sight and hearing.
Dialogue: Take a scene in a novel or play and change the level or mode of language: how would the characters speak if they were from another region or social class?
In none of these exercises do you have to rewrite the entire story; it’s hard to see the point in doing so. Usually one scene will suffice, and in the case of plot you’re basically making an annotated list.
What stories might you choose to pastiche? Normally, ones that you think are closest to your own “voice” or ones that you might wish you’d written yourself. These will usually be stories by your favorite authors.
On the other hand, a lot — perhaps even more — can be learned from authors who are not your favorites and from stories that you would never have written or even wanted to write. Think of it as broadening your field of vision.
A practical example
In the past week we received a story that may have been intended to be a pastiche; if it was, it missed the point of the exercise. Perhaps it was intended as a parody; it’s hard to tell. The author had taken a story of Edgar Allan Poe’s and borrowed a raftload of externals: the title, character names, and setting. All he did was eliminate the supernatural element and change the plot to a romance in realistic mode.
Now, as an academic exercise, that’s perfectly okay. However, rewriting the story to make so simple a plot change seems like more trouble than it’s worth. If I wanted to experiment with changing fantasy to realism, here’s how I’d go about it:
- Copy-paste the text into a word processor file.
- Remove all references to the supernatural and see what was left.
- If the story were still complete, that would prove that the supernatural was merely decoration, not an integral part of the story. On the other hand, if the story was left with holes in it, I’d make least-effort additions to complete it in realistic mode.
The author protested that he had no intention of comparing his writing to Edgar Allan Poe’s. However, I had to point out that borrowing practically everything — including the narrative form — practically dumps a comparison into the reader’s lap. It’s like showing up at a party dressed in Poe’s clothes and — by appropriating the story title itself — with his face as a Halloween mask!
To reiterate: Bewildering Stories encourages writing or planning pastiches as a practical method of analysis and even seeking inspiration. But they’re a starting point, not an end in themselves. And that’s why we don’t publish them.
One of the best models to study is Poe’s sentences: they’re dynamic; they propel the reader along by continually raising questions in the reader’s mind and thus adding to the mystery.
How to pastiche sentences? That takes a little work, but it can be rewarding:
- Copy-paste a paragraph from an author.
- Delete everything but the verbs and nouns. The result will be a word list in chronological order.
- Then, on a fresh screen, without looking at the original, use the list you’ve made to rewrite the paragraph.
- When you’ve finished, compare the results. What did the author do that you didn’t, and vice-versa?
The object of a pastiche is not to borrow externals and write a pale imitation of the original but to learn from the author. Writing pastiches gives you a practical system for doing that, and it can be fun, too.
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb