With a nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a place on the New York Times’ “Notable books of 2012” list you would be forgiven for thinking that How Should A Person Be? must have exclusively 5* reviews under its belt. On the contrary it's a divisive book with no mediocre reviews: it’s either wonderful or dreadful, and nothing in-between.
Sheila, a twenty-something playwright, has been commissioned to write a feminist play. Except that she can’t. Still recovering from her recent divorce, she leaps into intense relationships: her first female best -friend Margaux, and Israel, the most beautiful man in the city. She finds herself unable to write about characters anymore and instead uses her real life relationships as inspiration. Transcripts of conversations, emails, letters, and anecdotes replace the play she is commissioned to write and instead form the book you are reading as Sheila searches for the answer to the question which has plagued her life: how should a person be?
In choosing to write with a mixture of transcripts, emails, and prose the line between a self-conscious fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred. These are real people whom Heti has written about; Margaux, her best friend, is Margaux Williamson – a Toronto based artist. The truthful quality of the book, however, does not derive from the characters being real people, but rather from the subject matter. We are lucky enough to be living in an era which allows women to write openly and honestly about their experiences of being a woman; something which Heti has longed for since her youth.
Aged sixteen Heti, inspired by Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, began making zines; she wanted her writing to directly contradict the cookie-cutter stories in teen magazines at the time, to prove that “We CAN be political, we CAN be intelligent and edgy and emotional without the requisite angst, etc.” Heti met with a publicist at Random House and began work on a book which would collect the writing from girls all over North America; it was rejected by her publishers, Heti says because it was too risqué, as a lot of the submissions dealt with sexual violence which the girls had encountered. This would prove to be an invaluable experience for Heti, however, as she feels she would not have been able to write How Should A Person Be? without reading about the sex relations, feminism, and body image issues which those girls had experienced.
The cover, unsurprisingly, features a quote from Girls creator Lena Dunham, who calls the book an “amazing meta-fiction”; presumably because reviewers repeatedly liken it to Dunham’s creation. There are similarities, of course, Hannah is trying to be a writer just like Sheila; they’re both narcissistic and generally not particularly likeable characters as such. But for me it’s more like a reality TV programme as your curiosity overwhelms you, you feel the need to keep reading this thoughtfully engendered reality. The words you read might be fake but the people are all real.