Margaux and Sheila’s relationship is more cerebral than the girl-power friendships that typically send books into Oprah’s Book Club and up bestseller charts. Margaux writes Sheila philosophical e-mails about “this new freedom of letting my words be separate from my body and become a different person.” Sheila knows Margaux is upset with her based on how Margaux represents herself in a painting.
“For me, reading it as a man, it gave me new insight into the life of female artists that didn’t look like the cliches,” said Mark Greif, the n+1 editor who solicited and edited Heti for excerpt.
In fact, men are remarkably absent from Sheila and Margaux’s dynamic. It is a rare work of fiction that passes the Bechdel test: 1. It has more than one female character, 2. the female characters talk to each other, and 3. the female characters talk to each other about something other than men. Sheila never tells Margaux about the blow jobs.
“One thing that could be threatening to publishers is that the sex is so frank–one scene in particular is really a masterpiece–but it doesn’t dominate the narrative,” Greif said. Heti said that she was delighted when a reader compared the book to Henry Miller, but as Greif points out, it’s not a sex memoir, the sex is just a feature.
Most of the men Greif has asked to read the book thought it was a positive experience, but one said that “the sheer honesty of the sex scenes made him want to get in bed, pull the covers over his head and never come out.”
“In a male-dominated culture of literature, I do worry about that,” he said.
The art critic Dave Hickey, whom Heti interviewed for The Believer, agreed.
“Jonathan Franzen can get away with things Sheila can’t because he’s a boy,” Hickey said. “Getting a blow job is different from giving one.”
One reason it’s tempting to blame sexism for the book’s struggles is that the selection process in book publishing is so opaque. Editor, agent, and author walk away from each rejection with a different account of what has transpired. Doublespeak is prevalent; talking to the press could threaten personal and professional relationships.
“It doesn’t usually end well,” one editor sighed as he declined to comment on why he did not publish How Should a Person Be?
Lorin Stein reminded The Observer that books have to play dual roles; they are aesthetic objects and commodities. Publishing houses haunted by bottom lines and lay-offs don’t have the luxury of cheering on new genius as loudly as risk-taking literary magazines do.
“If I had a publishing house, the first thing I would do is publish How Should a Person Be?,” Greif said. “If a book like this, that is so visibly of our moment, can’t be published in America, it makes me wonder, what do we even bother with literature for?”
Even if New York publishing decides its female genius doesn’t look like Sheila Heti, don’t expect her to resort to writing more marketable books the way her fictional counterpart resorted to lesser arts.
“You give someone a blow job to give them pleasure, and if it doesn’t give pleasure, it fails. A novel, it seems to me, ought to be a faithful representation of how that artist sees the world, and this worldview may give pleasure or it may not,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“Every book has its own life, and I’m sure that the people who could get something out of reading this book will end up reading it.”