Identifying herself as an Irish writer because her "preoccupations are [those]
of an Irish person," six of Johnston's novels contain elements of the Big House, featuring
aristocratic Anglo-Irish families in decline; all her novels feature Irish settings. However,
Johnston is resistant to labels because "we are all diminished" by them ( Keynote Address,
Culture 11), and she resists categorization as a Big House writer, a common critical
response to her work, which she terms a "sort of backwater" ( Perrick, Interview 3).
Johnston's novels generally feature characters from privileged backgrounds; in fact,
Shadows on Our Skin ( 1977) is her only novel to date to feature a working-class
protagonist. Johnston loads her prose with literary allusions: Irish, British, Russian, and
German authors are included, and she quotes from nursery rhymes and popular songs.
Johnston's novels are characteristically delivered from multiple points of view; usually the
story is told in part by the protagonist in the first person, by an outsider to the character’s
story, who watches the character’s progress in life detachedly, or by the author herself,
with pretended-detachment, this time.
Johnston's refusal to sentimentalize Ireland or the characters she creates forces her
readers to deal with Ireland's complicated issues. Further, by creating female
protagonists who themselves author texts, Johnston is revising a national literary
tradition that has fictionalized women for political ends and has excluded women from
active participation in public life, including literary work. She implicates the reader in
the experiences she depicts through her stylistic and thematic choices: by disrupting
conventional expectations brought by the reader to her texts, that reader is forced to
reconsider his or her position--not only to the text but to the substance of the story as
well. This is Not a Novel is one more example in this respect.