"He's just another man who wants to teach me something.” This common refrain in How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti is first uttered by Margaux, the best friend of the narrator, Sheila, to explain why she cut off a communication with a fellow painter. Before mansplaining was being debated on the internet, Heti hit the nail on the head in this novel that prizes female exchanges over male authority.
The friendship between Sheila and Margaux (Heti has based the characters in the novel on herself and her friends) is one of the more brilliant aspects of the book. Both women confess that they have not had a close girlfriend before, with Margaux writing in an email to Sheila that she “always had a fantasy of meeting a girl...who was as serious as I was.”
It's telling how this female friendship reads as so extraordinary. It is not often that a friendship between women is portrayed in such an honest, realistic way. These characters are actually enjoying each other's company and savoring their time spent together, completely independent of any man. In a recent interview between Miranda July and Lena Dunham (whose show Girls has often been compared to How Should A Person Be?), July describes Dunham's candid conversational style, stating, “This is how girls talk to one another when they really like each other, endlessly pushing deeper with growing boldness. This is why women have to talk to each other so much and for so long; it is simply more satisfying than other things...”
This perfectly illustrates the philosophical exchanges that take place between Margaux and Sheila. It is rare for female characters to be depicted in such an earnest manner, pondering questions on life and art that have long been segregated to the domain of great male thinkers.
Men often don't know what to make of complex women, whether fictional or actual. Women’s writing has been dismissed as too personal, too self-involved, not creative enough, not intellectual, frivolous. Flaubert famously complained that “contemporary literature is drowning in women's menses.” The recent furor over Wikipedia editors slyly removing women from its “American Novelists” category to an “American Women Novelists” subcategory also highlights the issue. (The site currently has both “American Male Novelists” and “American Female Novelists” categories.) Hence the writing of women has long been relegated to a “second shelf” status.
So it should come as no surprise that literary critics dismissed How Should A Person Be? for many of these same reasons. The New Yorker's holier-than-thou reviewer James Wood largely disregards the novel for its simple language, calling the character's conversations “sloppy,” and for being “hideously narcissistic,” while admitting that the book hopes that its “local littleness can radiate generally, if not universally.” Nary a male reviewer can help but point out that a female author's writing can never reach that universal gold standard. Yet the dialogue throughout the book was a fitting way for the narrator to contemplate the question posed in the title. How else do we process our thoughts besides talking to our friends? (Or writing about them?)
The uncertainty surrounding Heti's search for an American publisher also casts some light into how the book has been viewed. N+1 editor Mark Greif, who excerpted the novel in a previous issue, wondered if the honesty of the (brief) sex scenes impacted its fate “in a male-dominated culture of literature.” Indeed the headline, “Sheila Heti: ‘I did worry putting sex in the book would eclipse everything else’” from an interview in The Spectator confirms this suspicion. Another interviewer tells Heti that men she knew confessed, “reading the sex scenes made them feel insecure.”
Heti seems to have foreseen all these reactions and more, writing in the prologue, “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like.” She is daring the reader to come up with reasons why a female genius can't be like her. As Chris Kraus, a feminist author whose work has been similarly dismissed, writes in her autobiographical novel I Love Dick (1997), “Because most ‘serious’ fiction, still, involves the fullest possible expression of a single person’s subjectivity, it’s considered crass and amateurish not to ‘fictionalize’ the supporting cast of characters, changing names and insignificant features of their identities. The ‘serious contemporary hetero-male novel’ is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy.”
Although male “genius” writers from Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Tolstoy have been known to draw directly from their lives, it only appears to be problematic when women writers do it. This alone could be responsible for the fate of women writers being taken less seriously than their male counterparts, their work ghettoized into the more feminine memoir genre rather than standing as novels, a/k/a important works of art. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, a work that blends her life with fiction and folktales, is a great example; there has been endless scholarly debate as to how this book should be classified. Similarly, HSAPB's tagline “A Novel from Life,” was added by Heti's American publisher, as a way to clarify the book's structure for the reader.
In an email to Sheila explaining a realization about her art practice, Margaux writes “maybe we can be honest and transparent and give away nothing.” Heti, in her blurring of fact and fiction, author and character, has indeed accomplished just that. HSAPB is a serious book that helps open a space for future authors seeking to defy easy categorization.
As Kingston wrote, “I made my mind large, so it would have room for paradoxes.” The marginalized know that the world is not two-sided; it is complex and contradictory. Hopefully the world of literary criticism will soon catch up.
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heiti was originally published in September 2010 by House of Anansi Press. Last month, the paperback version was released in the U.S. by Picador.