(sighs) All right. You know I have more respect for your art than I do for my own fears.
Thank you! Thank you!
Just promise you won’t betray me.
A lot of people I know are trying to get their first jobs out of college. Many of them are bitter that they did not prepare with vocational training instead. Too many intangibles are invited when the qualifications one has do not just dictate the next step. Boundaries are seductive. Sheila Heti’s book How Should a Person Be? assumes there are boundaries to be longed for by the narrator, Sheila.
If a person should be a particular way, it is for others. The central conflict therein is the disintegration of a friendship. Sheila audiotaped her best friend, Margaux, in order to learn how a person should be, and by doing so, Sheila sabotaged Margaux’s (a painter’s) relationship with her own art and started to assume some of Margaux’s qualities. A person should be able to circumvent this. A person should be able to be the subject of art without reducing that art to shit. A person should be able to be a friend without driving that friend to manic emails. Sheila embarks on this quest to determine how a person should be after the end of her marriage, in which she realizes she has aspired all her life to show the men who want to teach her something that they’ve taught her something, and she touts them like a relic, these lessons she’s learned, until her life is shit and she can’t make art.
As one who spends most of my energy allocated to worrying worrying about art, this book provoked the unpleasant urge to counter every statement with thoughts of psychotic policymakers, disenfranchised voters, and the kind of actions that turn lives to shit. Any time I catch myself feeling art has been trivialized – especially in my own head, over which I have all the control I do not have over the state – I am alert. Of the many factors that contributed to my wanting to read this book, the real one is all about one of my most significant relationships with someone who refuses to read anything but self-help books.
As long as this person and I have been acquainted, I have given her shit for relying so much on self-help literature. As one who is forever unable to make them herself, she is a great seeker of boundaries and people and things that will tell her what to do and how to be. As this is someone I have known for a long time, my total fed-up-ed-ness with this behavior is episodic, and I was cycling back towards repulsion for the whole thing when I read this book and this conversation surfaced about attitudes in book reviews:the case for divorcing the author and the work in order to conflate admiration or disappointment with a person when it should be the work being judged. Amid this conversation here is a work about an author working whose own shortcomings as a person prevent her from making art – or at least, as she judges it, good art.
I reiterate my first statement: a lot of people I know are trying to get their first jobs out of college. I am very young. I went to college and I studied writing there with a man who warned me and five others as often as he saw us how dangerous it would be to fuck up art, how we must be vigilant to call out anyone who fucked it up, how we had to be impenetrable in our belief and understanding about what did not fuck up art but would advance it, and be ready to meet head-on anyone accusing us of fucking up art and hand them their ass. In school I learned the discipline to develop a style I could defend and how to wield compassion and love for art that is barbed and built to undo what are wastes of time, what takes advantage of the idea that just because it was difficult to produce, it is art.
If you are one who considers how a person should be in relation to those around you, negative criticism is a batbomb – you’ve gone about everything all wrong. Ideally – this is not how it is by any means – if negative criticism is provoked, it stands as a generative response, moving the conversation forward that the art being criticized failed to do by the force of its own artfulness. As easily as a book could make one think could there ever be love a book could make one think why the fuck do we keep writing fucking books about love.
I read How Should a Person Be? because it invites a batbomb. If you care how a person should be because that person stands the chance of being used to make art, and artists must be vigilant of art that could turn to shit – that could be borne in a person being how one should not be. So if the main character, Sheila, is concerned with how she should be because she knows she and by virtue what she is involved in the deepest – her friendship with Margaux – is the subject of her art, she is concerned with her performance in the book itself, and if How Should a Person Be? is shit, if it is the winner of the Ugliest Painting Competition. Is someone worrying how one should behave a sturdy or shit-prone subject for art? Do those worries pose a bigger threat to art than a critical audience who just cannot section work versus writer right, who cannot establish boundaries?
Boundaries are seductive. But in art, “there is no place it does not see you.”
If Sheila Heti longed to be for others a particular way, as a writer she might make things easier for critics, but How Should a Person Be? which is subtitled “a novel from life,” demonstrates that a book that seems transcribed from true events is not reducible, dismissable as uncrafted and, as they have been, evidence of the female author’s inability to do a thing but parrot their depths in the context of therapy in an attempt to assert the personhood assumed automatically by men, the foundation upon which they can lay art. How Should a Person Be? has a fit in that space and cries in that space.
I almost can’t blame it for posing itself as a question, although I want to blame it for how aware I am of my roll in judging the book. That question exposes my particular biases as a critic and a lover of art and how I care profoundly for how people should be while I detest the articulation of the concern. If you must ask, you only want to be for others. If you make art and you ask How Should a Person Be?, you only want to make art for others, for people like me. Is that shit?
How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti is available from Henry Holt and Company