How Should a Person Be
The first day of the year feels like a good day to talk about Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be.
I’m afraid that in discussing it I will show myself to possess the vacuousness that some critics have accused the book itself of possessing.
I liked the book. I did. But when, in the m.o. of Heti’s main character, I set upon the smart small circle of friends around me to suss out how a person should think about How Should a Person Be, I found that my thinking was wrong. They hated it.
ME (typing this out for html giant, at the kitchen table looking at the xmas tree behind my mother, who is here in my apt because we each feel we will be more productive if held accountable by the physical presence of the other, rereading my first five sentences and taking myself to task): but why do you need to ask others’ opinions in order to figure out what is objectionable or admirable in this book? why does it matter what your friends think?
ME (whining): but isn’t my need to do exactly that the reason i like Heti’s book? it places a certain tongue-in-cheek yet very serious emphasis on fame, and fame depends on the opinions of others…
act 1: titillation
at a chain tea-only establishment on the main commercial drag of the Brown campus, I, having just read the prologue of Heti’s book, bring it up with my friend Kate, a poet, whose intellectual admiration is indeed a thing to earn.
ME ( cupping the tea of the day with both hands): You know that newish book by Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?
KATE (her natural politeness warring with the visceral disgust the book had apparently bred in her, as if watching someone pick an anchovy off a piece of pizza and dangle it over his mouth before eating it with too much tongue and lip activity): That book? Yeah.
KATE (explaining her familiarity with the offending text): James brought it into the house.
after tea, walking home up thayer street, pushing past the throngs of girls wearing flip-flops well into autumn and wondering how girls displaying such fatuous predilections could also be students at a school like Brown, I thought about the Heti book again.
ME: Kate is wrong about that book. it’s exactly the book we should all be reading. it’s asking questions about how to be in the world as an artistic and a moral person. it’s not a women’s book, thank you very much, but it’s about women, women as writers, artists– people!– not about women as a particular class or sector of humanity, not about women’s romantic lives (which isn’t the same as sex) or breeding issues.
ME: but Kate doesn’t need to read that book. She is already living as a writer. Her identity is solid. She’s much more like the Margaux character. It’s you who needs it. You’re the Sheila character.
act 2: orgasm
Over Thanksgiving, to avoid various heartbreaks borne of family situations, my partner and i escape to a hotel in Boston. Maxed out on the luxury of a king-sized bed with bedding so white you’d easily spot an errant pubic hair from the last occupant, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and the bulk of the Heti book. I am in raptures.
Women! Friends! Writing! all for the writing! yes, don’t we want to be geniuses! yes, isn’t Heti just admitting it for all of us. yes, isn’t narcissism inherent in the pursuit. yes, necessary even! yes, confusion, yes doubt, yes, longing, yes blindness, deliberate and innate, yes, yes, this is all what i write out of too.
act 3: pimples and rashes in morning glare
i make my partner also read the book, partly because i think he needs a primer on how to yearn for fame.
when he’s halfway through, he sends me a letter. The sender is identified on the envelope as “Just another man trying to teach me something.” This is a line from Heti’s book, uttered by the character Margaux. i think, “he’s on board.”
but one night after he had finished the entire book, as we walked to kinkos, i asked him what he had thought of it. he is a painter, and he agreed the angst of the Sheila character surrounding art & fame is apt. but he said that he did not see the point of writing it. or reading it.
he wouldn’t let me quote that conversation. but here’s another recent one that i think shows why he hated the Heti book.
ME (on the kitchen floor, drinking wine out of the pretty jam jar late one night): so did jori write back about that show at 186 carpenter?
HIM (sitting on the red bean bag): yes, but carl hersh pulled out of the show.
HIM: he told me he didn’t want to be in the show. he doesn’t want to have a show ever again. he said that he doesn’t want to make sculptures for people to look at or buy. he doesn’t want to make sculptures at all, he only wants to make idols.
i could tell that he thought carl hersh’s position on exhibiting his art was perhaps the only tenable position.
ME: but is anybody ever going to see the idols?
Act 4: shower (monologue)
i must scrub this book from my digital ticker tape. Let us commence cleaning:
Heti’s sentences do not make my heart sing but as had been said, that is perhaps not the point. even when it’s the only point! (Virginia Woolf: “art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful…”
i liked that Heti made the choice to have Sheila Heti star in the book. Thinking of the lines between Sheila the writer and Sheila the character both brightens and bedims the experience of reading the book. Virginia Woolf says that in order to write, one must get out of life. “sometimes i like being Virginia, but only when i’m scattered & various & gregarious.” maybe the way out of life is in it?
i liked the discomfort i felt reading the book. Heti allows the Sheila character to appear at times so very ugly and yet, or consequently, relatable.
A critic for the LA Review of Books has joined many other readers in aligning the book with Leaving the Atocha Station, particularly in the way it deals with “the complexities of making art in an age of heightened self-consciousness, in which one is constantly charged with mediating the ways his image touches– or fails to touch– the outside world.”
–and perhaps THAT’S why on a day when i’m making resolutions about my writing, i keep thinking about How Should a Person Be.
i’m not really making resolutions about what to write or how to write today– i’m trying to make a deal with my morass of self-conscious insecurities around being a writer.
I’m not not on FB or Twitter and i don’t have a website or blog, but i really can’t say that i’ve eschewed these things out of principle. i think it’s more an overlarge ego wrestling too much with what to say, so i say nothing.
and yet my ego itches me when i’m quiet and offline. i asked Blake if i could write this post back in november, but i kept procrastinating: do i want to be a part of a literary conversation for the sake of the conversation itself, or do i want to be part of the conversation in order to mediate my image, in order to even have an image at all, as far as the outside world is concerned? Were the latter the case, the character of Sheila wouldn’t be afraid to admit it.
but what’s the price of all this image mediation? there’s only so much time. i wrote this post today instead of working on something with a hopefully longer shelf life. but then again, what’s the price of not doing it? i want to be asked to give readings, i want to people to read my books, i want to win fellowships. i don’t think those things happen with as much frequency if you publish a book and then simply hide. or if you write down wishes on paper scraps and then burn the scraps and feed the ashes to a river, though i have done that on other new year’s days.
v woolf, after the end of holiday parties of 1927: “the dream is too often about myself. To correct this; and to forget one’s own sharp absurd little personality, reputation and the rest of it, one should read; see outsiders; think more; write more logically; above all be full of work; and practice anonymity.”
i don’t know what to do! and i guess i liked that in the end, no one in heti’s book does either.