The unlikability of the characters, their privilege and disconnection from the real world are frequent critiques leveled against How Should a Person Be?. That the figures in the book are narcissistic, privileged artists who spend too much time thinking about themselves is not the subtext of the book, however, it is its text. There is certainly a danger in closing the circle too tightly around your loved ones to the exclusion of the rest of the world, and the political and moral demands it makes on us. Sheila and her friends seem to be guilty of this type of solipsism – their devotion to artistic ambition and the minutiae of their lives precludes them from thinking about much else. In one representative scene, Sheila and Margaux meet up with friends of theirs, two playwrights who have just returned from a visit to Africa. Sheila is simultaneously dismissive and defensive about her failure to participate in the larger world:
“All the white men I know are going to Africa. They want to tell the stories of African women. They are so serious. They lectured me about my lack of morality. Sure, I said. Sure, if they would like to present themselves as role models for teenage girls, what have I got on them? Only a natural empathy that no one could guess at from the way I have been living.”
This disconnection between the ways we understand ourselves to be and the reality of our lives may be hauntingly familiar. Sheila talks in somewhat tongue-in-cheek terms her desire to ‘lead the people’, both through her work and as part of her project to become the ideal person. Yet this desire is totally separate from any sort of political or deep community engagement, instead coming from the enormous demands of ego. In this way, personal ambition and political ambition can often find themselves at cross-purposes, particularly within radical movements which require collectivity and an immense amount of work and devotion. Surveying the history of art, the text seems to make the claim that the making of art requires all of one’s time and attention, and that the artist only truly engages with their work. As a matter of time and attention, then, are art and politics at odds with one another?
Margaux’s approach to art and artistic success provides a counterpoint to Sheila’s bare and classic ambition. Speaking of the MacArthur Fellowship “genius grants”, which are awarded for potential in a field, she describes them as “a more beautiful illustration of ambition. Or a better kind of ambition. Like not to be a genius…. Just to do good work…. To have potential… to be recognized in your field among other people, as though you’re progressing somewhere collectively, rather than competing.” It is directly following this message that Sheila stops working on the play she has been attempting to write and begins work on the piece that eventually becomes the book itself: the story of her life and world. The book begins and ends within Sheila and Margaux’s artistic community, a small group of friends who work together and support one another’s projects. This mirrors Heti’s real life friendships: outside of this novel, Heti has pursued a number of collaborative projects, including a book co-written with her friend Misha Glouberman, Margaux’s boyfriend. In an interview, Heti explains that “collaborating is like friendship. […] You’re talking and you’re making something together. Even in a normal friendship where you’re not making something like a work of art, you’re still making something, which is the friendship. So a collaboration should feel like a friendship with an objective.” This way of working together provides one way out of the solipsism of the artist or the individual creator. The community that Sheila and Margaux work within is a deeply interrelational one, and recognizing and valuing these relations affects the work they produce.
This is an artistic community, of course, and specifically not a political one. The concerns of struggling artists don’t necessarily constitute a feminist issue. And yet the ways that we work together, and work to challenge the myth of the individual genius, have ramifications for the ways we work in the world, in all of our projects. A challenging, supportive community can provide a basis for action in the world.
How Should a Person Be? works in the tradition of the bildungsroman, with the author looking for a way to be human in the contemporary world. Sheila investigates sex, art, hairdressing, religion, drugs and friendship. She doesn’t dismiss any of these aspects of life as unimportant, but finds that some ways of being, and of being with others, are more engaging, liberating, or honest than others. Art and friendship, for her, are sites of possibility and power, places where one can continue the project of development in an open way. For most of us, the question isn’t whether to retreat into the world of art or to engage in the political world – we’re always already doing some of both. But part of the work of the novel is to open up a space in which we can think about what it means to live well now.
Considering the enflamed tone of popular discourse surrounding the bodies of contemporary women, reproductive options, labour and family choices, it is necessary to take a step back and reflect. By giving ourselves the time to think about those questions with the depth they deserve when taking into account the complexity of our world, we do no disservice to politics or to our political projects. Indeed, it is crucial, as GUTS has articulated in its mission statement, to have an honest conversation about the distances between feminist theory and practice: the fissures and gaps between how we want to be living and the reality of our situations. If we can see what forms of relationship make us stronger and more capable, and which ones distance us from ourselves and what’s important to us, we can discern our allies more clearly. In exploring these distances, both in our own practices and in dialogue with others, we can begin to see the work that needs to be finished and the work that hasn’t yet begun. ♦