Elphine, a character in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, spends her days dancing in fields, dressing in fanciful costumes and generally gadding about like a sprite of the woods. She also announces to the heroine, Flora Poste, that she writes poetry. Flora, being the wry Jazz Age society girl (and would-be author) that she is, discourages publicizing such a hobby, particularly to men. Myself, I prefer the opposite tack. If a fella can’t grok that I’m a writer and reader of weird things, we probably wouldn’t get along in the long term anyway.
My OKCupid profile announces near the top that I enjoy writing hard-to-categorize genre fiction. Last week, for the first time, someone sent me a message using that as his hook. How would I categorize my fiction, given the chance? I haven’t yet taken him up on the opportunity to explain in person, but I did start thinking about how I could break down my preferences in an easy-to-digest format.
This won’t be about steampunk or dystopias or paranormal romance. All I know for certain is that I consider myself a fantasy writer: it’s the broadest category that’s always made me happiest. My caveat is that I’m not generally invested in Tolkienesque sword-and-sorcery: my definitive introductory fantasy text wasn’t Lord of the Rings, but Redwall, which took me in some different directions. (As a sidebar, I’m the heretic who adores Peter Jackson’s movies but is bored by the books, save for The Silmarillion, which many people find impenetrable.) I tend to think there’s an internal logic to my genres. Here are my top five.
1. Epics. Blame this on Homer. The bigger and meatier the story, the more I can get lost in the world, the more I love it. The experience of immersing myself in something else entirely is one of the reasons I read and write. Quest stories in particular are really delightful to me, and given that I wrote reams of Redwall and Odyssey spinoffs as a kid, it’s no surprise to me that I have a hard time assembling novels in which the protagonists stay put.
2. Myth, folk tales and fairy tales. There’s something so fascinating to me about authorless stories that everyone within a culture knows. I love how potently these stories become connective tissue within a society, and I’m always impressed by how the telling of these stories is such an important part of the story itself. These are narratives as an act of power, and they change so much in relation to who tells them. That dynamism never stops moving me; I always want to engage.
3. Magical realism. I loved this genre for a long time before I knew the term for it. I’ve always been attracted to the tone and atmosphere of a story where everything seems normal except for one particular thing, or where something becomes literalized — cities are people, books are alive, God is dead and needs to be towed out to sea. The scale of magical realist stories is something I also find inviting: it can be as far-reaching or as personal as you wish.
4. Literary derivations. Two of my ongoing projects are radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare plays — not just retellings from another perspective, but taking those characters and their lives and putting them somewhere entirely new. I’m also working on a version of the Odyssey actually set in space, with all the considerations for psychology and culture that a modern audience demands. I honestly think the value of reinterpreting texts and engaging with them through storytelling cannot be overstated, no matter what the text.
5. Pastiche. I recently finished a story told in the style and conventions of a Jane Austen novel, and it was the most fun I’ve had writing in a long, long time. In the same sense that poetry with strict stylistic requirements gives poets a framework to break and play with, so too does taking on a voice decidedly not your own. The writing can just flow once you’ve figured out the style. It’s a neat way of combining elements of improv and collage, in that you’re operating within a character more than dictating it, and that you’re playing with juxtaposition and combination.
As I look these over, the pattern I notice is how much I’m into reframing and world-building. Perhaps these aren’t as immediately marketable as “werewolf novel” or “deconstructing superheroes” (both of which I love dearly, don’t get me wrong!), but I find I’m not really nervous about that. Like Elphine, I know what I like, and when the time comes, if I can spoil the ending of Cold Comfort Farm a little, I’m confident I can land a guy — or an agent, knock on wood! — who gets that.