Authenticity is a trap: A rant about Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?

how-should-a-person-be-061812-ew-620I tried to write a full review of Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? but I became as frustrated and incoherent as the novel’s protagonist, a Toronto writer/layabout also named Sheila Heti. I hated the novel/memoir’s insularity and lack of curiosity about the outside world, even if I was occasionally charmed by some of its (many) rambling transcriptions of conversations. Those transcriptions—meandering walk-and-talks, email exchanges, coffeeshop chatter—dominate the book, acting as a sort of closet play. Indeed, the novel ostensibly concerns Heti’s attempts to write a play, which then becomes the book you read. And around and around we go.

Heti’s frustrated me before, and I’m tired of circling around this drain, particularly because the blogosphere’s love for this book is deep and virulent. In some ways, I get it. How Should A Person Be? extols and details clearly the narcissism of the book’s intended demographic—young, educated, urban white women with creative aspirations. It celebrates selfishness and insularity as a path to “authenticity”—Heti (or “Heti”) grows a bit by the book’s end but only in the sense that she knows more about herself, not about any other part of the world around her. She’s more fully self-actualized. But, hey, so was Charles Manson.

Instead of writing an essay on How Should A Person Be?, I took on the form of the book, and vented in an email to an editor who shall remain unnamed. She intensely disliked the book, too, and got blowback from feminist writers for saying so. Several writers unfollowed her on Twitter, specifically citing her reaction to Heti as the reason for doing so. Maybe that’ll happen to me, too. Whatever. I’ve edited the letter slightly, so that it’ll make sense to the world outside my little environs; Sheila Heti could learn something from that.

* * * * * * *

Dear _____________,

Thanks for getting back. I laughed out loud at your negative response to the Heti pitch, because that’s exactly how I imagined you’d respond. And good: I finished How Should A Person Be? tonight, and the 2nd half is just… well, I still really like The Chairs Are Where the People Go, but I’m no longer interested in writing about her novel/memoir/re-purposed diary/what-the-fuck-ever. Is this really what adult friendships between women are like? All this junior-high drama over sophomoric acting out, and the perpetual need to “re-affirm” the relationship? I don’t see this among my female friends but maybe that’s because I’m 1) a man; 2) not white or upper-middle-class; and 3) not living in a major city, among urban artists. I don’t know. Wait, I do know. It’s bullshit that I can’t criticize the book because I don’t belong to its demographic, in the same way that it’s a bullshit idea that white men shouldn’t be allowed to show interest in, and write about African countries and peoples. (Which is an idea that Heti harps on at one point in the book.)

So, here goes, with my most basic criticism of the book: Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson’s relationship. The entire novel hinges on this friendship but the very nature of the friendship doesn’t seem convincing—why do Margaux and Misha (Glouberman, Margaux’s partner) even like this clingy, desperate, selfish girl? I use “girl” instead of “woman” because, like you and James Wood (and Lord knows I never thought I’d be agreeing with him), Heti—or, rather, the “Heti” of this book—lacks the emotional maturity of an adult. She does everything—marriage, playwriting, working at a beauty salon, hanging out with friends—as if she’s trying them on like a pair of jeans, as if people’s lives and the communities around them mean nothing to her than fodder for the discovery of her authentic self. But, if the world around you is nothing more than window-dressing for your soul, man, then either you don’t have much authenticity to begin with, or your authentic self is an asshole. (People always assume that “To thine own self be true” is a good goal, and a possible one, but I don’t buy it, and I don’t think Shakespeare did, either.) Yes, I get that we all perform our identities to some extent; thanks, Judith Butler. But just because we perform it doesn’t mean it isn’t real or that it doesn’t have real-world consequences, outside of ourselves. Heti spends the majority of this book so obviously performing the “role of the artist.” But Margaux is clearly just fucking living and working as an artist—it’s not a fashion choice to her—and the novel/memoir/whatever doesn’t convince me that Margaux would (or should) have much patience for someone who appears to be trying all this on for size.

Some might argue that Heti’s brave for exposing her triviality and “transgressions”—her marriage basically busts up because she didn’t feel free to be herself (even though she didn’t even know what that meant); her “relationship” with Israel, a boorish man who uses her like a blowup sex doll, is a conscious attempt to deny being a self at all. In both instances, she ends up looking narcissistic and stupid, though I’m not sure either Heti or “Heti” quite realize that. But it’s only bravery if she’s self-aware enough to recognize how problematic she is, and that her behavior is really shitty, and that the act of “finding herself” doesn’t justify being terrible to others, and  that a world exists beyond the walls of her apartment and the contours of her mind. And I don’t see that self-awareness in Heti the character (or Heti the writer), or even an interest in her immediate world of friends beyond potential fodder for her book. Or, rather, I see an endless need to ironize (not a real word) everything she does, to put it all in scare quotes. It’s a cheat, a pretended awareness of one’s flaws without doing the hard work of actually addressing or fixing said flaws. That’s why Margaux gets so infuriated with her. But why does Margaux tolerate her to begin with? The novel doesn’t give a sense of an actual friendship, of the push-and-pull of mutual interests and mutual help to one another that a deep friendship has. When Margaux says, toward the end, that Sheila is “the kindest, and most difficult friend I’ve ever had,” I scratched my head, because the evidence of the kindness and empathy is nowhere on display in the book’s actions or “Heti’s” interior thoughts. I don’t get what Heti offers to anyone else in the book; she just takes, takes, takes.

And that mode is insufferable, especially because she doesn’t process what she takes. That’s why there are the endless transcriptions of banal conversations that have only a kernel of a good point within them. Heti (the writer) sucks up information and conversations and events, but she hasn’t learned to process and refine, to use prose to get at the meat of what she wants to say. Look, I’m not saying this should be a minimalist novel. I don’t want the “scintillating,” utterly dull MFA prose style of the fine-tuned stylist. But neither the narrator nor the author have learned to make any choices about what to include and exclude in one’s life and one’s writing. If you can’t make choices, and respect that choices necessarily negate some other choices, then you’re not a functioning adult. That might be fine if this were a young-adult novel, about a teenage protagonist. But How Should A Person Be? is written by a woman who’s my age (I’m 36), and it’s about people in their fucking thirties. Heti doesn’t seem to realize there’s a problem with that.

Jesus. Enough. I’ve got other shit to do. I’ve given Sheila Heti four chances. I’m done with her. I still love The Chairs Are Where the People Go, her nonfiction collaboration with Misha about how to live and be grounded in a city, so I thank her for that. It’s interesting that Chairs is mostly Misha Glouberman’s voice, and he seems so much more grounded, engaged, responsible, and alert to the community around him than his stenographer (Heti) could ever hope to be.

All best,
Walter

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Authenticity is a trap: A rant about Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?

  1. Sally says:

    This is a much more focused explanation of your distaste with the book than mine, which was just “It’s icky and I don’t want to read anymore.”

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