Andrew Delbanco is a well-known historian and the author of Melville: His World and Work, a book jamessal thought enough of to give me a copy for Christmas. In short, he’s not the kind of writer I expect to find wantonly misusing words, so I was taken aback by what I thought was such a misuse in this sentence from his NY Times review of Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World: “Grandin’s kaleidoscopic technique gives his book a certain pastiche quality (many years and miles are silently traversed in the breaks between chapters), but through a remarkable feat of research he establishes a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum.” To me, pastiche means (in the words of Merriam-Webster‘s first definition) “something (such as a piece of writing, music, etc.) that imitates the style of someone or something else,” and that didn’t make any sense here. But having looked it up, I found that the word also has the senses “a piece of writing, music, etc., that is made up of selections from different works” and “a mixture of different things,” so I now understand the sentence. But I’m wondering whether I’m alone in my limited understanding of the word, or whether the “mixture” senses are in fact uncommon. How do you understand and/or use pastiche?


  1. The “mixture” sense of the word is the first that comes to my mind.

  2. I certainly wasn’t familiar with “pastiche” meaning a simple mixture of things.

    While this sense of “pastiche” chimes with “kaleidoscopic”, I’m still not sure I can fully comprehend the sentence, because the parenthesis that follows – about the book’s gappiness – seems intended to reinforce the previous descriptions, and I don’t see why it does. Gappiness in content seems unconnected with mixture of modes.

  3. I graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy in 1995, and “pastiche” was the term we were taught to describe any work of art that was an intentional mixture of different styles, like Pulp Fiction. It’s one of the characteristics of post-modern art.

  4. I try to use it in the sense familiar to Hat, but my strong impression is that the “mixture” sense is fast becoming the dominant one.

  5. Same as you, oh great sage: imitative.

  6. my strong impression is that the “mixture” sense is fast becoming the dominant one.

    Ah well then, this is yet another case of my falling behind the ever-moving language. (But Delbanco’s only a year younger than I am! It isn’t fair!)

  7. In one of Robertson Davies’ novels, a brilliant but ill-educated music student is filling in the missing parts of an unfinished early Romantic opera. (Weber? I forget.) As I recall, she annoys her professors more than once by mistakenly calling her method of working ‘pistache’.

    I don’t think there’s a necessary contradiction between the imitation and mixture meanings of ‘pastiche’. If you’re doing something like Davies’ music student, or like Stravinsky in some of his neoclassical works, you’re imitating, but also (if you don’t want to look like a plagiarist) putting together bits and pieces from various sources to make your own whole. Hogwood’s CD of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella includes for comparison four movements from three different trio sonatas of Domenico Gallo, and another piece by Pergolesi, all of which Stravinsky reworked and included in his own composition.

    A cento is a species of pastiche. In the prose preface to his hilariously dirty Nuptial Cento – he includes the consummation – Ausonius explains the rules of the cento-making game. Taking more than one-and-a-half lines of Vergil in succession is ‘inept’, and taking three is mere trifling (‘merae nugae’), because any idiot could make a cento with rules that loose. As with Stravinsky, we have imitation, but also mixture of bits taken from different sources – at least different passages of the same author.

  8. Huh, the word is much more recent than I thought — the first OED citation is 1866: Nation (N.Y.) 25 Jan. 116/1 “This book [sc. Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake] is not, in our opinion, what historical novels are so apt to become—a pastiche.” And the earliest sense is “A novel, poem, painting, etc., incorporating several different styles, or made up of parts drawn from a variety of sources.” Should have checked the OED before posting.

  9. John Cowan says

    The word is a mixture of French pastiche < Italian pasticcio and the older English pasticcio direct < Italian. The sense-development from the original ‘pie with mixed ingredients’ to ‘work of art with multiple sources or styles’ took place in Italian; the extension to ‘work of art imitating another person’s style’ happened in French, and is described by TLFI as metonymy. Both senses of pastiche apparently landed in English around 1860, says the OED.

    For myself, I knew only the ‘imitation’ sense. Noted parodist and pasticheur Randall Garrett wrote in the introduction to his collection Takeoff!

    The difference between a pastiche and a parody is, perhaps, a subtle one..

    A pastiche attempts to tell a story in the same way that another author would have told it. In this book, “The Best Policy” is a pastiche, not a parody. I used, to the best of my ability, Eric Frank Russell’s style of writing and his way of telling a story.

    A parody, when properly done, takes an author’s idiosyncrasies—of style, content, and method of presentation — and very carefully exaggerates them. You jack them up just one more notch. The idea is to make those idiosyncrasies blatantly visible. Thus, “Backstage Lensman” is a parody. Doc Smith would never have — very probably could never have — written it. It is very difficult indeed for a writer to see his own idiosyncrasies; they are too much a part of him.

    But the line between parody and pastiche is not hard and thin; it is broad and fuzzy. Is “The Horror Out of Time” [a Lovecraft-style tale] a pastiche or a parody? I don’t know. You tell me.

    I do not decide to write a pastiche or parody just for the sake of writing one. The story idea comes first. In 99.44% of the cases, I write my own story in one of my own styles. But once in a very great while it seems to me that the idea belongs in someone else’s universe. Then I write a pastiche. See, herein, “No Connections” [in Asimov’s Foundation universe]

    And when the idea belongs in another’s universe — except that it is patently ridiculous — I write a parody. The idea for “Backstage Lensman”, for instance, you will find in the next-to-last scene, in a simple mathematical formula. All the rest of it came from that.

  10. The Garrett quote is excellent and corresponds to my own sense of the word.

  11. Marc’s invocation of Tarantino shows the continuity between the two main senses of “pastiche”. Kill Bill, more than Pulp Fiction, both imitates in a non-parodic but overtly derivative (and transformative) way, and also combines (as it were freely) amongst styles.

  12. There are nonfictional examples of what Robertson Davies wrote about. Lots of people have written endings to Edwin Drood, and two different composers have finished Busoni’s Faust. (The first was a student of Busoni, but the second had access to sketches that turned up years later, which would be a different kind of advantage.) In such cases wouldn’t one naturally try to rework or imitate bits of the master’s other works, so as to match his style, but do only but only with bits, not whole sections, so as not to look too derivative? That’s exactly what I think of as ‘pastiche’. Parody is less respectful.

  13. J. W. Brewer says

    The alleged “mixture” sense is a totally new one on me. Just as a usage is not necessarily incorrect because it is not documented in dictionaries, affirmative appearance in some dictionary or other is not, imho, an absolute defense to a charge of wanton misuse, although maybe you could plea-bargain it down to second degree or something.

    U.S. copyright law has a wacky distinction between a “parody,” which is good (i.e. considered fair use and thus non-infringing even if you don’t have permission) and a mere “burlesque,” which is not so good (i.e. not fair use and thus potentially infringing if you didn’t get permission). “Pastiche” in the imitative sense could cover a wide variety of things, some of which might be infringing and others not, and is not, I think, used as a conceptual category in the copyright world, at least in the U.S. A distinctive style, as such, is not in theory supposed to be protectible, although theory does not always match up with practice when you have an aggressive rightsholder chasing someone with less in the way of resources and/or stomach for confrontation.

  14. I learned the “mixture” sense first, and always assumed (incorrectly, it seems) that the “imitation” sense derived from that. As in, to make a pastiche of Beethoven, you don’t grind through thematic material the way he did until you have a sonata in his style, you just cut and paste together a mixture of well-known Beethoveny bits.

  15. John Cowan says

    The OED, Sir, is not “some dictionary or other”. For one thing, it is (as the old lady said of Hamlet) full of quotations. Here’s the evidence:

    A. n.

    1. a. A novel, poem, painting, etc., incorporating several different styles, or made up of parts drawn from a variety of sources. Cf. pasticcio n. 1b.

    1866 Nation (N.Y.) 25 Jan. 116/1 This book [sc. Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake] is not, in our opinion, what historical novels are so apt to become—a pastiche.

    1874 Galaxy Apr. 469, I should say that it is a very fair looks as if he [sc. the author] had taken it at second or third hand-not from original researches, but from other novelists and poets.

    1975 Nation Rev. (Melbourne) 1 May, The Good Doctor is a Neil Simon pastiche of Chekov stories, with a narrator who is Chekov himself.

    2002 N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 24 Mar. 7/1 Eiji’s fantasies are..pastiches of Japanese pop culture:..gangster movies, Sega video games and manga (comic books).

    b. A musical composition incorporating different styles; a medley. Cf. pasticcio n. 1a.

    1934 C. Lambert Music Ho! i. 20 The illogicality of some of the present-day pastiches may give you ‘a rare turn’.

    1979 Washington Post (Nexis) 26 June b2 Mike Malone..has drawn on the Library of Congress and the music of James A. Bland and W. C. Handy to put together a driving, exciting musical pastiche.

    2003 Los Angeles Times (Nexis) 30 Jan. v. 9 Set to a musical pastiche by Paul Sullivan (including rock, Japanese flute and the ‘Lone Ranger’ theme), the work suffered from Keystone Kops-like silliness.

    2. a. A work, esp. of literature, created in the style of someone or something else; a work that humorously exaggerates or parodies a particular style.

    1873 N. Amer. Rev. Apr. 328 Une Larme du Diable is a light pastiche of a mediæval miracle-play.

    1902 Westm. Gaz. 22 Nov. 3/1 It is an extraordinarily clever and unabashed lightning-pastiche of Sir Thomas Lawrence.

    1919 W. Lewis Caliph’s Design iii. vi. 57 However good a pastiche of El Greco may be, it is not worth prolonging indefinitely this exercise.

    1932 W. Lewis in Time & Tide Oct. 1073/2, I observed closely..the students and their bad pastiche of American sports-wear.

    1961 Listener 5 Oct. 508/1 The new examination is not conceived as a pastiche of the G.C.E.

    1990 Illustr. London News Christmas No. 47/1 In Holy Disorders there is a marvellous pastiche of a ghost story by M. R. James.

    b. The technique of incorporating distinctive elements of other works or styles in a literary composition, design, etc.

    1892 Nation (N.Y.) 24 Nov. 396/2 Mr. Burne-Jones is not accused..of plagiarism, but of pastiche, which is a very different thing.

    1899 E. Gosse Life J. Donne I. 62 It was left to his [sc. Donne’s] Caroline disciples to introduce..a trick of pastiche, an alloy of literary pretence.

    1955 Times 11 May 7/5 At the Players’ we are still basking in the glory of having started The Boy Friend on its historic career, and to attempt pastiche again would have been an affront to the theatrical gods.

    2000 N.Y. Times (Nexis) 24 Dec. v. 4/1 London-based artist Gavin Turk uses pastiche to make visual points by recycling a variety of pop icons.

    B. adj.

    1. Composed as an imitation or parody of a particular style or artist.

    1871 Ladies’ Repository May 350/2 This is a law of imitation and devout respect for the ancient types; we see traces of it in their poetry, surcharged with allusions and pastiche reproduction.

    1930 Classical Rev. 44 126/1 It is surely perverse to compare the Eclogues of Virgil, largely imitative, tentative, experimental, at times pastiche.., with the maturity of Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre.

    1978 Newsweek (Nexis) 9 Oct. (Arts section) 114 The Jane Austen comparison is usually trotted out for demure pastiche novels, set in villages.

    2003 Daily Tel. (Nexis) 16 July 20 Emile Wolk and Mark Long’s riotous pastiche adventure, which lays patently spurious claim to being the last great untold tale in the Holmes canon, demands a double-quick zaniness from its cast and crew.

    2. Exhibiting or incorporating an amalgam of different styles.

    1949 Amer. Q. 1 242 Eliot has himself largely discarded the pastiche style of the greater part of The Waste Land.

    1960 A. Cook Meaning Fiction iv. 64 Dos Passos’ success is qualified by his pastiche style and also by too explicit an illustrative purpose.

    1979 Washington Post (Nexis) 19 Jan. (Style section) d3 The ballet, a pastiche score including portions of the Humperdinck opera music, has the homemade look of many community productions.

    1996 L. Al-Hafidh et al. Europe: Rough Guide (ed. 3) II. x. 534 It’s a compendium of jumbled pastiche architecture, its vaults mimicking every style from Byzantine to Gothic and Ottoman.

  16. J. W. Brewer says

    I wonder if the musical sense is distinctive and relies on a readership that knows the related or antecedent Italian term. It’s not a sense I know (in English or Italian – pasticcio could be a variety of pasta for all I know), but none of the examples are from sources i would likely have read. The 1975 and 2002 examples for sense 1a seem quite ambiguous and could equally well be put in sense 2 – if the elements of your “mixture” are all from the same ultimate source, e.g. Chekov or “Japanese pop culture” then more or less by definition your “mixture” will end up imitating the distinctive style of that source. The other 1.a. examples are not inconsistent with the thesis that this sense is archaic/obsolete. Except it’s allegedly made a comeback quite recently.

  17. John Cowan says

    A third English word from the same source is pastitsio, the Greek/Mediterranean baked dish with tubular noodles, ground beef, and béchamel sauce. It’s < It. pasticcio di pasta, with /tʃ/ > /ts/ because standard Greek has no shibilants. Pasticcio in Italian, it seems, can also mean ‘tangle, mess’ or ‘fuck-up’.

  18. John Burgess says

    I definitely had the ‘mixture’ sense before the ‘imitative’ sense. “Pastiche”, to me, was close to ‘scrap book’ or ‘collage’.

  19. Seems to me that “pastiche” has been increasingly contorted, certainly in the decorative art world (and Art History theory), to allow unoriginal work the wiggle-room to masquerade as soi-disant intentionally imitative. Just as sarcasm serves to obfuscate the need for true originality, whether in art or comedy, pasticheurs are only too happy to drink from the creative wellspring of others.

  20. JWB: The 1949 and 1960 quotations in section B.1 both refer to literature, not music, and seem to me squarely on point, continuing the sense of the 1874 quotation in A.1.a and leading up to the “quite recent”1996 use. I don’t see any evidence of a hiatus in usage. It’s true that the OED conservatively calls the B.1 and B.2 quotations adjectival, but with the exception of 1930, all of them are in fact in noun-noun compounds.

  21. I don’t think I’d use the word unless I wanted to invoke both meanings. That is, I think of a pastiche as a combination of imitations. Take a little Kafka, a little Raymond Chandler, and a dollop of Woolf and voila, a pastiche.

    I imagine all Hollywood productions originating this way in pitch meetings: “It’s Jaws meets Mary Poppins meets My Dinner with Andre.

  22. I have always thought of pastiche as a kind of patchwork. Lots of different things patched together. I had always thought of that as the original sense, not a sense that is recently becoming dominant.

  23. +1 @Bathrobe, John Burgess, and others: I think of the Fine Arts patchwork/mixture as the primary sense; so had no difficulty with the Grandin quote.
    The sense of imitating a style (or various authors’ styles) I feel is a debased usage.

  24. I have always (that is since the mid-1990s) taken “pastiche” to mean “patchwork” or “medley” — a technique often used in postmodern art and literature.

  25. Could there be a dialect thing here?

  26. mollymooly says

    Hat’s sense is in my active vocabulary; Delbanco’s is in my passive vocabulary.

  27. The 1975 and 2002 examples for sense 1a seem quite ambiguous and could equally well be put in sense 2

    You might consider that the OED lexicographers have been doing this for their entire professional careers and furthermore have access to far more citations than they put in the dictionary entry; I put it to you that you are unlikely to successfully correct their assignments of meanings by giving the published citations a cursory overview.

    The sense of imitating a style (or various authors’ styles) I feel is a debased usage.

    Why this need to be dismissive about any sense, pronunciation, etc., one does not personally use?

  28. >”The alleged “mixture” sense is a totally new one on me.”

    I love this “alleged.” 🙂

  29. J. W. Brewer says

    Maybe it’s a dialect issue, as suggested above. It seems a remarkable coincidence that both hat and I should have been hitherto unaware of this usage if it were part of the lexicon of the prestige variety of Standard American English. Obviously, there are other Englishes, such as the socially-marginal cant used by the sort of people who would be so desperate or shameless as to write about Neil Simon plays for Australian newspapers. One could, I suppose do some corpus work to pull up a hundred hits for the word and see how many were associated with which sense (and what sort of users/contexts correlated with which), but that’s not a project I have time for today.

  30. Siganus Sutor says

    “How do you [understand and/or] use pastiche?”

    With fresh water, which makes it become a kind of blurry liquid — but a delichious one.

  31. marie-lucie says

    Pastiche: I have spent more of my life in North America than in France, but I too learned the ‘mixture’ meaning of this word right here on this blog. Until now I was not aware of this second, presumably recent meaning. For the French word (le pastiche) the TLFI gives three slightly different definitions which all revolve around deliberate imitation of another’s work, never any suggestion of mixing bits and pieces from that work. A better word for literary or artistic cut-and-pasting would be collage. To me pastiche has a definite connotation of humorous imitation, but never of mixing.

  32. I wonder if my understanding of the word was influenced by my immersion in French language and literature in high school?

  33. J. W. Brewer says

    FWIW, my understanding, which seems to have been identical with hat’s, was almost certainly not affected by exposure to French. I think I picked it up in contexts like descriptions of August Derleth’s Solar Pons stories, which were referred as being a pastiche of the proper Sherlock Holmes stories (with the sense of definitely an imitation and a conscious one, and probably not quite as good as the original, but with overtones of homage rather than mere rip-off).

  34. >I wonder if my understanding of the word was influenced by my immersion in French language and literature in high school?

    Maybe… anyway it’s definitely time to mention Proust’s 1919 Pastiches et Mélanges.

    The nine Pastiches are definitely imitations, each of a separate author. (The Mélanges are assemblages of Proust’s own miscellaneous journalism.)

    re the OED, I cannot be scared off from feeling that all four of the quotations in A.1.a primarily mean “imitation” – the plurality of the subjects imitated being neither here nor there. The difficulty is, I suppose, that the idea of imitation underlies all the definitions, because a “style” is only ultimately distinct because it is recognized, i.e. it imitates something that the reader or listener knew of before. But if the definition of A.1.a basically = a mixture of imitations, and the definition of 2.a basically = an imitation, then how can you distinguish usage of A.1.a from usage of 2.a extended to work that imitates multiple subjects?

    What’s arresting about the Delbanco quote is that it talks about multiple techniques rather than styles – the idea of imitation has pretty much disappeared.

  35. Pastiche vs. collage: My understanding of the former is that it is a somewhat sloppy or perhaps amateurish version of the latter.

  36. re, Paul Ogden. Yes, what you say emphasizes that “pastiche” is derogatory, as often as not. i.e. it means “you think you’re so original, but you’re just parroting other people’s mannerisms”. Traditionally, far more people are accused of pastiche than the tiny handful who deliberately cultivate it. Postmodernism might have changed that balance, though.

  37. badgerchild says

    Without reading the previous comments, so as to preserve my initial impressions… I use “pastiche” as “mixture of imitative things”. For example, I might characterize a vegetarian meat substitute that I concoct in my kitchen as “a pastiche of ingredients that mimic flavor components of meat”, or a training module as “a pastiche of training modules borrowed from other trainers that were close to, but not exactly, what I needed for this class”.

  38. J. W. Brewer says

    I think the cool Postmodern kids, if doing the sort of mix-and-match reappropriation on purpose, like to call it bricolage, or at least that word has skyrocketed in English in the n gram viewer over the last half-century. (I vaguely imagined some Situationists might have coined it late one night in Paris in May ’68 in the middle of either a riot or an acid trip, but wikipedia says Levi-Strauss was all over it as early as ’62.)

  39. It took me a little while to figure out what your question was, I always understood it to mean a mash-up of imitations.

  40. Italian pasticcio also refers to the artistic practice of gathering several bits of disparate works, cobbling them together and passing them off as a single original. It’s a throw back to the renaissance when the vogue for ancient art hit town and suddenly there seemed to be a use for all these bits and pieces of antiquity lying around. Put up some original Roman frieze bits, plaster in what’s missing and hey presto – pasticcio.

    On a smaller scale, Grand Tourists were sometimes fobbed off with mostly modern objets enhanced with antique bits, with stress being laid on the antique bits. A more honest, if bizarre, example, is Sir John Soane‘s pasticcio, which he erected in his back yard at Lincoln’s Inn. (The word can also refer to a hash, or stew)

    Possibly this is why I’ve always understood both definition, but assumed the mixture definition predominant.

  41. Soane’s Pasticcio is wonderful. I guess Brighton Pavilion would have been regarded in the same way, ingenious and frivolous. I don’t know if ‘pastiche’ is ever still used in that sense. It’s routinely applied to buildings that mimic or reference the architecture of an earlier period, but always to imply cynicism or lack of talent on the part of a designer or developer.
    All designers copy/appropriate/steal to some extent, and have to reconcile all sorts of contradictory demands – ‘pastiche’ is where the resolution is felt to be wrong, too facile or too harsh. Outside the unreality of a film set, I’d suggest if there’s mimicry there’s inevitably going to be mixture too, and either can counterpoint or defeat the other: the ideal purity that’s been watered down, the imitation that’s full of anachronisms, the clash of elements that don’t go together.

  42. To paraphase mooly, Delbanco’s is in my active vocabulary, Hat’s sense is in my passive vocabulary. If asked

    to define pastiche I would have said a little from here and a little from there. Re: the OED definition, I would also

    have characterized a pastiche of history as that type of historical writing that is like rag picking- you gather a

    disparate amount of material and lay it out any way you can.

  43. Curiously timely in relation to this discussion:

    Proust, Pastiche, and the Postmodern: Or Why Style Matters, by James F. Austin (Bucknell UP, 2013).

    Just had a look at the early pages, via Google Books; they elegantly traverse many of the questions raised here.

  44. Timely indeed — thanks for pointing it out!

  45. peter desmond says

    i would have said “collage,” maybe.

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