Tag Archives: Genius

Sheila Heti’s ‘How Should a Person Be’

I was told that Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be (2010) was a bit like Chris Kraus’s 1997 book I Love Dick.

This isn’t an inappropriate comparison. Both books are about defining one’s sense of self through one’s relationship to others. Kraus uses a semi-fictionalised account of her relationship with the hot shot cultural studies academic Dick Hebdige, whilst Heti draws from her friendship with the artist Margaux Williamson.

The second difference is that Heti’s book is much easier to read.

I once got in an argument with an award winning poet after I suggested Wodehouse was a better writer than James Joyce. He demanded I retract this assertion, I refused and he threatened to kill me. I am still alive, which tells you something about the conclusion of the argument.

I suspect I could have a similar debate in comparing Kraus to Heti. You could say Heti’s work reflects a younger, feminist voice. There’s an interview with her in Rookie Magazine, which perhaps gives some context. Alternately, you could say she simply lacks Kraus’s grueling self analysis and audacity. This is a matter of taste. Personally, I like an author who writes to be read.

That said, one of the things I liked about Kraus’ book was that she laid into the image of the male genius, using Hebdige as her foil. Apparently he hated the book, probably because it portrays him as a snooty jerk. Heti takes the same approach, albeit without such a clear cut target. For example, she writes:

One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be. For the men, it’s pretty clear. That’s the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time.

I thought this was a good critique, as there is a very definite model for the male genius: moody, grumpy men, usually with alcohol or substance abuse problems, stomping around their studios having brilliant thoughts, much like this:

Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac are good examples. It would be good to have a new type of genius out there, because dealing with those guys can be a bit tiring. Also, On the Road was even worse than Ulysses. I’m not sure I’d say How Should A Person Be is a work of genius, but it’s a good deal better than On the Road.