Where is the line the between literature and life? Between identity and performance? Between style and substance? Is there a line at all?
Those are some of the questions that engage our newest member of Top Ten Land, the Canadian writer Sheila Heti. An acclaimed and productive author – more prolific than Eugenides but no threat to Oates – the 38-year-old has published seven books that have been translated into more than a dozen languages, written a full-length play, served as Interview Editor for The Believer, and co-created a barroom lecture series, Trampoline Hall, that has been running monthly in Toronto since 2001.
For more about her development as a writer – her turn from writing plays to short stories, her fascination with Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, her commitment to process rather character and plot – watch this wonderful Paris Review interview.
Reviewing her 2012 novel, How Should a Person Be? – “a vital and funny picture of the excitements and longueurs of trying to be a young creator in a free, late-capitalist, Western city” – James Wood offered broader insight into her body of work:
“She has an appealing restlessness, a curiosity about new forms, and an attractive freedom from pretentiousness or cant (a freedom not always typical of original or avant-garde writers, for whom a Tom McCarthy-like self-solemnity is more the norm). Her first book, “The Middle Stories,” published when she was twenty-four, was a collection of brief postmodern fables, glittering if slight narratives that often proceed as if they were rewriting canonical fairy tales (a plumber and a princess, a girl who keeps a mermaid in a jar, a woman who lives in a shoe, and so on). Her first novel, Ticknor (2005), was not an obvious successor. Where The Middle Stories are spiky and fantastical, Ticknor is velvety and diplomatic. It is a gently compassionate portrait, a dramatic monologue, delivered by a man who considers himself a failure, about his unequal relations (imagined or true), with an old friend, who is now a famous man of letters. Based loosely on the friendship of the nineteenth-century American historian William H. Prescott and his more obscure biographer, George Ticknor, Heti’s account is a historical novel, but it is held together not by its historical accuracy but by its smoothly involving prose and by the melancholy intensity of its narrator. That it is the work of a postmodernist rather than a conventional realist can be felt in its compact and bold autonomy. It creates a singular world of prose, a discrete unfurling address, not unlike, say, the fictions of Steven Millhauser.
“Heti’s new book is different again, and takes a new set of risks. It is subtitled “A Novel from Life.” Most novels, of course, are “from life” (Tolstoy often borrowed verbatim from his own experience), but “How Should a Person Be?” takes its place in a contemporary literary movement that is impatient with conventional fiction-making. “Increasingly, I’m less interested in writing about fictional people,” Heti said in an interview with the art critic Dave Hickey, “because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just—I can’t do it.” Her new book has a blurb from David Shields (who has written an anti-fictional manifesto, “Reality Hunger”), and the publisher says that it uses “transcribed conversations, real emails, plus heavy doses of fiction,” and is “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part bawdy confessional.”
The result is a work that defies categories as it wrestles with age-old questions. As we welcome Sheila, we also say thanks not only for her own writings, but for her "run to the bookstore now" list that adds six - count 'em six - new titles to our growing postage stamp of greatness, including the next novel I am going to read, Two Serious Ladies,
- Visit Sheila’s official website.
- Read an excerpt from How Should a Person Be?
- Read her Paris Review interview.
- Watcher her speak at York University.
Sheila Heti’s Top Ten List
1. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1891).
2. Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (1943).
3. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942).
4. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of a Lost Child (2015).
5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866).
7. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Part One, 1806; Part Two, 1831).
8. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life by Soren Kierkegaard (1843).
9. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (1977).
10. The I Ching (Book of Changes).