That Door Is a Mischief the question of genre


One wonders how many times the great but very different Anglo-Irish writers Lord Dunsany and Elizabeth Bowen have been quoted on the same page. They were contemporaries (Dunsany twenty years Bowen’s senior): one wonders what they thought of each other and each other’s works. Or if they ever did.

This idle speculation being preface to presenting the two epigraphs to my forthcoming novel That Door Is a Mischief (which, good lord, you can already preorder because Gentle Publisher is amazing), passages from a pair of novels that could hardly be more distinct though they appeared only eleven years apart, in 1935 and 1924.

‘No doubt you do not care for fairy-tales, Leopold? An enchanted wood full of dumb people would offend you; you are not the young man with the sword who goes jumping his way through. Fairy-tales always made me impatient also. But unfortunately there is no doubt that in life such things exist: we are all very much bound up in what happens.’

—Elizabeth Bowen: The House in Paris

‘Go forth,’ he said, ‘before these days of mine are over, and therefore go in haste, and go from here eastwards and pass the fields we know, till you see the lands that clearly pertain to faery, and cross their boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.’

‘It is far from here,’ said the young man Alveric.

—Lord Dunsany: The King of Elfland’s Daughter

A few days ago, bored and depressed, I tried to entertain myself by working out answers to a novelist meme going around even though nobody had tagged me. I never finished (story. of. life.), but here’s my answer to one question, which seems also—serendipitously—to say something about my choice of quotes from a major masterpiece of modernist melodrama and a minor masterpiece of foundational modern fantasy to preface my odd little novel.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t even know what “genre” means anymore! To readers, to publishers, to me. The labels keep multiplying, subdividing, splintering. Back in my day (and get off my lawn while you’re at it, horrid kids) the three genres that attracted me were science fiction, fantasy, and literary—or, as defensive SF/F nerds called it then, mainstream—fiction. Their definitions were solid and the distinctions between them were clear, but even so I jumped around a lot. These days I don’t seem drawn much to anything resembling science fiction despite two massive projects I’d like to finish one day. Ditto consensus-reality-based lit fic, though it’s only one project there.

I suppose most of what I’m doing recently falls under the broad fantasy umbrella but the pie chart that makes up that umbrella has so many sharply demarcated segments nowadays, many of which I fail to understand or, sadly, to find very interesting. Am I writing “urban fantasy” when I propose a fairy brought up by human people in twenty-first-century America? Not if “urban fantasy” is what I think it is. (On the simplest level, the settings of That Door Is a Mischief are primarily rural.) Is a story about a were-hyena assassin for hire in eleventh-century Cairo “historical fantasy,” “shifter fantasy,” or what? “The Hyena’s Blessing” was published in a book of zombie stories although the zombies were, for me, about the least interesting part of it and it’s not a horror story by any definition, so I dunno. Does the slight preponderance of teenage protagonists in my work of the last five or six years mean I’m writing YA some of the time? I don’t think so, generally, but clearly I don’t know anything.

If pressed, I’d define what I’m mostly attempting to write as stories of heightened reality inflected by fantasy tropes and viewed through the lens of literary fiction. Is that a genre? Is anybody else working in it?