Listening to Women
Why smart, serious men have misunderstood Sheila Heti’s new book.
Illustration by Matt Kindt.
Imagine the following scenario. You—and in this scenario “you” are a celebrated young writer who just so happens to be a woman—have written your latest novel off-recipe. You never bothered with the conventions of plot, climax, dénouement. In fact, you attack the idea of fiction itself, by incorporating the personal histories, quirks, and even actual names of some of your friends, into what you still call “a novel.” You take years to write it. And then, when you present the novel to the editor of your last book, a man who will soon be put in charge of one of the country’s most prestigious literary journals, he not only says that he himself will not publish it but tells you that, word to the wise, it might be best if it never saw the light of day at all.
You find another editor, a woman. The book comes out, a couple of years later than anticipated, because the business of publishing literary fiction is a thing that cannot be rushed. Young women flock to it. They declare that everyone could benefit from reading it. Perhaps because it is listening for that call, no less than The New Yorker decides to review it. (They ignored your last book.) And not just any review: They assign it to one of the last rock-star literary critics left, a man so acclaimed he can plausibly write a book about how “fiction”—not just one novel, but all of them—works. He concludes that your book does not, in fact, work. And though he just recently raved about a book very similar to yours (that one was written by a man, but one of the same age and same meandering disposition, one who also mixed fiction and fact), the critic’s lukewarm review is written with the air of one holding the offending item out at arm’s length, sniffing warily.
Sheila Heti may recognize this story I have been telling, because it is taken from her life, just like her new novel, How Should a Person Be? The book is an attempt to answer that titular question—and as something of a philosophical investigation, it is bound not to be everyone’s travel mug of fair-trade Darjeeling. The intrigue, here, is that it has prompted these influential, “serious” men to plant themselves so firmly in its way. This looks all the more strange when you consider that one of the novel’s refrains, one I already find myself repeating at cocktail parties, over dinner, to myself as I write this review, is this: “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something.”
The first character to utter those words is Margaux Williamson (a character based on Margaux Williamson). Her friendship with Sheila (the character, not the author—not exactly, anyway) is the closest thing the story has to a driving narrative force. This is a story of girl meets girl, girl talks to girl, girl talks to girl again, girl buys same dress as girl, girl makes up with girl, and so forth. There are other friends in the constellation Heti presents, but they are dwarves to Margaux’s supergiant, at least in Sheila’s ordering of the universe. And it’s in her relationship with Margaux, a painter, that Sheila investigates, and reinvestigates, and reinvestigates, the question that obsesses her. This is not the kind of book you can really spoil, but I will say, right off the bat, that the process of asking turns out to be just as important as the answer.
You could call this navel-gazing—or, if you are James Wood, you can call the author’s emotional age into question. An author invites that critique by keeping the world of her book very small. But a critic needs to pause, at least, before simply dismissing a writer’s unapologetic focus on the intellectual effects of female friendships. It is no accident that Sheila’s sexual affair with a lout named Israel is not of interest to Margaux, who is “made impatient by conversations about relationships or men.” That echo you hear is of the “Bechdel test,” which applied to movies asks whether the film contains a conversation between two women about something other than a man. The world of books, lacking the bombast imparted by the Hollywood machine, has largely been excused from such rigid measures. But the truth is that literature has its own line to tow here. In “serious” fiction of the sort reviewed by “serious” people, the subjects discussed by women tend not to be so wide and abstract as the nature of “life, the universe, and everything” (to steal a man’s phrase, because there are few others available). Pointing to anything made primarily by women—Girls, Bridesmaids, Swamplandia!—and declaring it a triumph for all women everywhere is an increasingly popular pastime. But I’m not willing to plant a victory flag until the kinds of conversations Sheila has with Margaux feel much less rare—or, at least, provoke a reaction in male critics other than the dubious rubbernecking they currently inspire.
But wasn’t Girls adored by high-minded guys, you might ask? Comparisons between How Should A Person Be? and Lena Dunham’s HBO series are inevitable, but not terribly apt—if only because Dunham’s interests are so much narrower than Heti’s. Dunham’s Hannah Horvath is not the type to ask many questions about the nature of art: She is a solipsist uninterested in real questions about solipsism. Her creator is too preoccupied with getting to the next sight gag—or, put differently, the next way to mediate her (admittedly original) voice into something more palatable. Sure, certain gatekeeper critics loved Girls—Hilton Als was particularly unable to contain himself, waxing rhapsodic over Jemima Kirke’s lips—but it didn’t challenge them in the way that Heti’s book does.
Michelle Dean is a writer and recovering lawyer in New York.