“We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists,” begins the fiction piece in the latest issue of the literary journal n+1. “Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.”
The narrator is a female playwright obsessed with becoming a world-renowned genius. It’s still a distant goal, but, she says, one good thing about being a woman is that there aren’t many examples of female geniuses yet. For all we know, she could be one! In the meantime, she says, “I just do what I can not to gag too much.”
The story’s author, Sheila Heti, knows a little bit about renown. Her likeness can be found on a poster promoting Canada’s brightest literary talents, which circulated a few years ago. She is plainly the youngest, mugging in a cloche, two down from Margaret Atwood.
But, like her fictional counterpart, Sheila Heti is having some trouble with the rest of the world, a fact hinted at by her contributor bio in the back of n+1: “Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be?, excerpted in this issue, was published in Canada in October by House of Anansi. It does not yet at have a US publisher.”
And despite the n+1 appearance, Heti told The Observer on the phone from Toronto, she’s still looking.
How Should A Person Be? has been turned down by at least six American publishers. That’s no reason to give up hope. Times 2010 Notable Books author Sam Lipsyte’s second novel Homeland was memorably rejected by more than 20 editors before being published in the UK and, eventually, the US.
Heti’s predicament has raised eyebrows given that her first novel Ticknor was published in the US by the prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), where it was acquired by current Paris Review editor Lorin Stein. Ticknor has found its way on to at least one college syllabus, alongside works by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roberto Bolaño, and Heti’s byline has turned up in bookish publications like McSweeney’s (whose publishing arm put out her first book of stories), The Believer, Bookforum and n+1.
Moreover, Heti has sold other books since she began shopping around How Should a Person Be? in 2008. Next year Faber & Faber, an imprint of FSG, will publish a volume of essays by Heti and friend Misha Glouberman. McSweeney’s will publish her children’s book around the same time. Another thing that might be expected to work in her favor: She is an attractive young woman writing about sex.
“What is it about How Should A Person Be?” Heti asked, clicking audibly through her e-mail. She read snippets of rejections rapid-fire, without attributing them. One editor enjoyed reading it but didn’t find the story line compelling enough. One informed her that people “don’t talk like that in New York.” Another wanted one character’s presence amplified. Yet another didn’t think he could sell a book about not being able to finish a play.
“It’s not just about not being able to finish a play!”
How Should a Person Be? is a novel about a woman in her late twenties living in Toronto, trying to figure out how make art (she’s working on a play commissioned by a feminist theater) and, more important, how to be an artist. The other main character is the playwright’s best friend, a painter, who is more at ease in the making and less preoccupied with the being. Unable to make the play come together, the protagonist, also named Sheila, displaces her aesthetic ambitions into giving perfect haircuts and performing perfect oral sex.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me because I think How Should a Person Be? is so easy,” the author said.
Heti has already written her “difficult” novel. Ticknor is a rigorous first-person meditation on jealousy written from the fictional perspective of the real-life biographer of a real-life historian. According to The Library Journal it’s “not really a novel at all but rather an extended prose poem… [that] will appeal mainly to writers and critics interested in literary experimentation, rather than general readers looking for a satisfying yarn.”
Ticknor‘s high-brow success does not translate into wholesale industry confidence. Stein said that although he admires Heti’s experimental bent, it is not the most direct route to bound copies. “If you’re familiar with Sheila’s writing, you know she’s always trying new things. Some writers are really interested in deepening one channel and–if you can generalize–those writers can be easier to publish, book after book,” Stein said.
It was wise, therefore, for Sam Lipsyte to follow up Homeland (after it finally found a publisher) with The Ask, another funny look at an overeducated and understimulated man in early middle age coming to terms with his mediocrity.
The new thing Heti tries in How Should a Person Be? is actually “easy” (perhaps even a “satisfying yarn”), but there are ways in which it is not like most novels. It is fiction, but the characters are the author and her Google-able friends. The plot advances through long stretches of transcribed dialogue, conversations about painting recorded for use in the narrator’s unfinished play. Dreams, fantasies, and Jungian therapy sessions are dutifully documented.
It’s not hard to imagine some critics (perhaps the older ones) diagnosing it as a work of generational narcissism.
But anyone who has ever experienced something, documented the experience, and then narrated and shared the document–that is, anyone who has made a Facebook photo album–will feel relieved to see this mediated, semi-public way of life reproduced in literature.
“Before I was twenty-five, I never had any friends, but the friends I have now interest me non-stop. Margaux paints my picture and I record what she is saying. We do whatever we can to make the other one feel famous,” the narrator says.
Stein recalled that during their discussions of an early draft, Heti recommended he watch the MTV series The Hills to get a better sense of what she was trying to capture.
“It did help me understand something about the novel, but it didn’t bring me any closer to a publishing plan at Farrar, Straus and Giroux,” Stein said. He ended up passing on the book, although both he and Heti say it has since changed shape significantly.
Unlike the stars of The Hills, who are so boring their allure is Brechtian, Heti’s characters reflect a novelist’s skill for empathy-wrangling. Sheila grapples with the consequences of using self-documentation as a means to fame, as it threatens to destroy the imperfect life she does have.
A week after Sheila buys the same dress as her best friend Margaux, Margaux e-mails Sheila: “when you said that you’d only wear it out of town and never in toronto, it sort of seemed reasonable, but not really, since of course we only exist in pictures.” They then stop talking.
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.”