Future of Fiction

How Should a Person Be?: A Novel BY Sheila Heti. Picador. Paperback, 320 pages. $16.

The cover of How Should a Person Be?: A Novel

I was visiting Brooklyn last month, and my bag was stolen out of the back of my friend’s car on Bedford and North Fourth Street. The bag was heavy, and the thief discarded much of its contents, including my passport (thanks) and about a dozen of my books. He (she?) made off with my old and failing laptop, my clothes, and four books by Ben Lerner (whose novel 10:04 I reviewed in the last issue of Bookforum). Clearly a robber with taste. Perhaps even a poet him/herself. I was surprised that among the books discarded was Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012).

Earlier that day I had run into a friend of mine, a poet, who’d recently landed in a prose-fiction workshop at a residency where she’d been told what she was writing was referred to in the wider MFA world as “fictional essay,” the exemplars of which were Lerner, Heti, and Tao Lin (whose Taipei was also discarded by my thief). You know a genre is hardening when it suddenly enters pedagogical jargon. All of these writers employ documentary methods, transcribing life from its electronic traces: e-mails, instant messages, and, in Heti’s case, voice recordings. Inscribed on her novel are the sexual mores of the early twenty-first century, the arc of a friendship between young women, and a portrait of Toronto bohemia.

The argument we’d been hearing was that fiction had reached a dead end (yet again), and that the solution was for the essay to sacrifice a bit of its facticity in the quest for—here comes the paradox—something more real. But why not instead bring the essay over into the novel, where it can be put in the mouth of a narrator, or just a character, at some distance, near or far, from the author? Nonfiction (in America, as opposed to, say, France, where it’s a recent discovery) has been robbing fiction blind for decades: Count the conclusions reached via epiphany in the next piece you click on tagged #longform.

Of course, there’s an essay in disguise lurking in a good many recent American novels. In Don DeLillo’s books essays are often cloaked in dialogue; each novel is a Trojan horse for art criticism, arguments about the national-security state, terrorism, celebrity culture, technology, and so forth. These worries aren’t alien to writers like Lerner, Heti, and Lin, but unlike DeLillo they deploy protagonists who bear resemblances to themselves. They’ve got a touch of Renata Adler to them in their diaristic directness. How Should a Person Be? is the sort of diary where the private is put to public service. I’ve always on opening it wanted to hear it blasted from a loudspeaker.

Christian Lorentzen is an editor of the London Review of Books.