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How should a novel be? Don’t ask Sheila Heti Add to ...

Update: Sheila Heti has posted a thoughtful response to this article. You can read it here.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and CanLit fulfills itself in many ways. But certain patterns survive. Thus, Canada’s latest literary shooting star, Sheila Heti, agrees that grand dowager Alice Munro chose “the perfect Canadian title” for a collection of stories first published in 1978, when Munro was a shooting star and Heti an infant: Who Do You Think You Are? Nobody has ever come right out and asked Heti that question. But the quirky “novel from life” that has brought her international renown over the past year, How Should a Person Be?, is in some ways a direct, albeit facetious answer.

Munro’s question reverberates even in the publication history of Heti’s poppish, “pseudo-autobiographical” anti-novel – greeted with skepticism, and quickly forgotten, when first published in Canada almost three years ago; hailed as a major achievement by top taste makers upon publication in New York one year ago.

Among the sometimes sharp-edged laurels Heti has collected since then are a nomination for the world’s top prize for women writers; a place on Time magazine’s shortlist of the most influential people of 2013; and a hilarious 600-word précis of the novel, published in Britain’s The Guardian.

“How should a person be?” it begins.

“For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. And then I thought, sod it, I’ll just talk to my friends about it and try to pass it off as a novel.” Heti, The Guardian noted accurately, is “the Canadian who has become a literary sensation in the U.S.” In that, her story would seem yet again to dramatize the deficiencies of a culture indifferent to its own achievements, still reliant on imperial approval to define itself.

“It seems to be true in my case, and it has been from the beginning,” says Heti, chatting on a springish afternoon in the light-filled, book-lined firetrap of a Toronto apartment she shares with a large rabbit and a small cat.

Rejected by literary journals across Canada, her first stories found print in McSweeney’s out of San Francisco, beginning the pattern that recurred a decade later with How Should a Person Be?, her second novel. “Even though the book was published here first, the response – the real chorus – came first from the States,” she says. “That didn’t happen at all here.”

But that doesn’t bother Heti. She never applied to join Team Canada. Besides, she asks, “Who expects to be loved at home?”

In truth, Heti resistance was never exclusively Canadian. How Should a Person Be? was turned down by Heti’s U.S. publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, as well as by most of the Canadian publishers who read the first draft. And it was a Canadian publisher, House of Anansi, that first took a chance on what the author herself describes as “a weird book.”

Heti has never lacked for attention at home, according to Anansi publisher Sarah MacLachlan, even to the point of being a “media darling.” Even so, pre-HSPB, she added, Heti’s sales were scant. “But we always get excited when America pays attention, don’t we?”

How Should a Person Be? follows a familiar trajectory last traced by Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, another book “highly ignored” when first published in Canada, according to MacLachlan, but that became a huge international bestseller after being brought out in London.

Heti’s attempt to sell her novel in New York was not helped by what she called the “kind of snarky” reviews that greeted the Canadian edition. “Still, nobody wanted it,” she says.

But then the famous star-making machinery of the mighty republic finally came to life. The process began when Mark Greif of the influential online literary magazine n+1, to which Heti is a contributor, published two excerpts from the book, one of them showcasing its bravura sex writing.

“I had been reading Sheila’s earlier books,” Greif said in an interview, “and it was clear that here was a genuine artist, someone who was not run-of-the-mill, who didn’t fit the popular categories.” The fact that Heti could not sell the book in New York “made me ashamed for big-city publishing in New York, for all its literary pretensions,” Greif said.

The “Canadian problem” looked different from the south. “What was striking to me was that in Toronto Sheila is known and people recognize her for her art, not just as a personality,” Greif said.

Greif’s indignation proved contagious. Soon a long article condemning New York publishers for their timidity appeared in The New York Observer. “Jonathan Franzen can get away with things Sheila can’t because he’s a boy,” art critic Dave Hickey was quoted as saying. “Getting a blow job is different from giving one.”

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