How Should A Person Be?, subtitled "A Novel from Life," is the (fictionalized) story of Sheila Heti's friendship with painter Margaux Williamson, and of both their efforts to make meaningful (and sometimes ugly) art. Since its June release in the U.S., it's been lauded as indispensable reading and compared to the TV show Girls (by that show's creator Lena Dunham, among others), but also criticized as self-involved and "navel-gazing." Stories by and about young women — about "girls" and "girly" concerns — are increasingly capturing our attention, and they may force a still male-dominated cultural establishment to reconsider what it considers "serious."
Heti uses emails and transcripts of recorded conversations as well as traditional prose to tell a fictionalized story about herself and her real-life friend. The result is a novel that focuses intensely on the everyday interactions between two women, sometimes in what feels like real time. Heti told BuzzFeed Shift that she was inspired in part by Andy Warhol's circle, and their relationships that weren't "about the exclusivity of romantic love between two people, which can get exhausting to see portrayed everywhere, and elevated in these distorted ways." She asked, "Why should friendship be seen as secondary to romance? Montaigne and other writers have placed platonic friendship first and foremost in their hearts." And, she said, friendship between two women can have particularly interesting qualities: sometimes "a friendship with a man is like a break from yourself, while a friendship with a woman is like your interiority, doubled."
Female friendship — and young women's lives more generally — may be enjoying particular pop-cultural prominence right now. Kate Zambreno, novelist and author of the upcoming critical memoir Heroines (which deals in part with how women have been perceived in literary history), told BuzzFeed Shift that we're seeing a rise what she calls "girly" stories. She makes a distinction between writing by women and "women who write of a girly experience." Girliness, she said, is something that "transcends age" and is characterized by "not being entirely empowered." Girly characters are those "who are messy, who are ambivalent," whose "feminism is messy." Heti's book is girly, she said, and so are Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple, and the characters on Girls. "We're in a general moment now," she said, "where young female narratives are being heralded" — but "then there's this huge backlash that they're not serious."
She added that in recent years "there's been a lot of conversation about how few women are reviewed, but I feel like there hasnt been enough conversation about how they're reviewed, who they're compared to." Young male writers, she said, are more likely than female ones to be immediately "canonized," classed alongside great, respected writers of the past.
Heti's book has gotten the kind of press attention many writers dream of, including a full-length review in the New Yorker. But questions about its seriousness have definitely cropped up. The Oregonian, for instance, titled its review "Young woman's navel-gazing frustrates but makes you think."
James Wood, who wrote the New Yorker review, has drawn fire for showing less enthusiasm for How Should A Person Be? than he did for poet Ben Lerner's first novel Leaving the Atocha Station. Wood told BuzzFeed, though, that he was very aware of gender issues when writing his New Yorker review — he said these issues were "central to the book." He added that in his marriage to novelist Claire Messud, "I witness many of the anxieties and ambitions that Heti treats well in her novel: [...] Why do only men get called 'stylists'? (Even when their prose is shit...) When I produce something beautiful and important will it be taken "seriously" (which is to say, will it be taken seriously, largely by men)?"
He also said he didn't consider his review negative. Rather, he said, "It was true to my feelings about the book," which he found "vital, and bold, and funny," even as he felt "that quite a bit of the conversation is not very interesting or original, and that it is perhaps slightly in love with itself." Despite his misgivings, he does consider How Should A Person Be? an "important" book: "Any novel that tries to dismantle, as boldly as this one does, the artificialities and conventionalities of the novel-form is important."
Asked if she might have received harsher criticism because of her gender, Heti said that "the most ancient of philosophical questions are questions of ethics and questions like 'how should a person be?'" Still, she argued, "If you put these concerns in the mouth of a contemporary North American woman who has sex, it’s called 'navel-gazing,' even though it’s the exact same question humans have been asking forever."
"Girly" stories may still not be taken as seriously as manly ones, but with the success of How Should A Person Be? and Girls (which Heti says she watched religiously and admires), they're becoming increasingly high-profile. Whether that means that authors who write about girly subjects will be canonized alongside male authors of the past and present remains to be seen. For her part, Heti now finds herself liberated from the need to copy others. She said that while she was once concerned with how a person should be, "working on the book has the transformative effect of making me feel like I already 'am.'" "I was going for a model to emulate," she said, "but what I achieved was better than that — greater freedom."