Sheila Heti has struck hard against the male literary scene, as all the fuss showsby Richard Beck / February 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sheila Heti: the new Philip Roth? © Getty Images
How Should A Person Be?
by Sheila Heti (Harvill Secker, £15)
How Should A Person Be? is Sheila Heti’s second novel. Its narrator is a 36-year-old woman named Sheila Heti, who, like the author, lives in Toronto and spends her days in conversation with friends about how best to live and make art. Much of this extraordinary book’s dialogue is taken from recordings of conversations that actually occurred.
“As people feel life,” Henry James wrote, “so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it.” This is terrific advice, yet many novelists ignore it, holding instead to what James called “an eternal repetition of a few familiar clichés.” The recorded conversations that make up about half of Heti’s book are her way of holding life close, without which the book’s animating question would remain unanswerable and unreal.
The novelty of Heti’s approach is eye-catching, but it is her seeming indifference to many of contemporary fiction’s most cherished ideas that made How Should A Person Be? last year’s most polarising and widely discussed novel in the US. In a literary landscape dominated by realists like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, Heti’s impatience with the fiction/non-fiction divide struck reviewers as either inspired or tedious, bold or self-indulgent. When asked by interviewers to spell out the rationale behind her approach, Heti’s answer was direct and refreshing: “I wrote this book to answer the question posed by its title,” she said. “I wanted to use everything at my disposal.”
So how should a person be? “Not like a novelist,” seems to be part of Heti’s answer. In the book, Sheila spends time with painters, poets, hairdressers and Jungian analysts—but not with novelists. Heti has acknowledged as influences self-help books, Fortune magazine, reality TV, films by Werner Herzog, and the Bible—but not novels. Her wariness about the form may have less to do with novels as such (she did, in the end, choose to write one) than with the current culture of novels. This is primarily one of insecurity and fear, in which worries about the novel’s future and the declining attention span of its audience serve as rallying cries for the demoralised. What Heti notices in the book’s prologue, however, is that these anxieties belong almost entirely to men, and this makes it easy for her to skip right past them. “One good thing about being a woman,” she writes, “is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” She jokes that the current age cries out for a new kind of genius, one by definition unavailable to heterosexual men. “We live in the age of some really great blow-job artists,” she writes. “Every era has its art form. The 19th century, I know, was tops for the novel.”