I recently picked up a copy of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, out last month from Henry Holt, to find a favorite passage. It appeared at the beginning of the novel’s fifth act, or at least it had in the first copy I had read, a Canadian version published by Anansi in September 2010. But flipping through this new edition from Heti’s American publisher, I couldn’t find it. I felt disoriented and wondered if my memory was failing me, and as I looked more closely at the American version, I saw that much else had changed: passages had been deleted or transposed; new characters appeared; objects changed value and form.
After a few minutes of searching, I found the passage I was looking for. It hadn’t changed much between the first publication and the second, but its new placement left me confused, and surprisingly disappointed. I wanted to find the book exactly as I’d left it, and felt the same as Jonathan Franzen, who recently expressed his misgivings about e-books: “When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing—that’s reassuring.” Books often feel like restorative, reliable old friends—and although Heti’s book hadn’t forfeited its material qualities, my assurance of its fixity had been shaken.
Thumbing through my two editions, I looked to catalogue what else had changed. The transcribed conversations—one of the unique structural elements of the novel, from conversations Sheila had recorded of her friends talking—remained largely intact; ditto the e-mails, often written in numbered lists, with loose punctuation and lowercase I’s. But throughout, choppy transitions in the Canadian version—from e-mails to sex scenes to parties to Sheila’s ruminations—had been smoothed into something more fluid; scenes were connected and sequenced, with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. Objects transformed and became more precious: rather than drinking champagne from “two coffee cups” to celebrate her best friend Margaux’s birthday, in the first version, they now sipped from Margaux’s “very best cups.” The cumulative effect was of something more carefully crafted, more rounded and finished. Heti had prettified a raw and occasionally ugly text, and this new version seemed declawed, even buffed to a shine, and had lost of some of the rough edges that seemed so novel when I first read it.
For some writers, a completed book is a discrete, inviolable object. For others, the urge to reread their work with the proverbial red pen is too strong. The prose needs to be trimmed here; a transition snags there. Subsequent iterations can offer a different resolution or style. James Joyce, fashioning his image of the genius-artist, famously reworked Stephen Hero, from an overwrought romantic text into a modernist touchstone. Herman Melville, writing about Moby-Dick, declared, “For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.” I wondered whether Heti, like Joyce and Melville before her, was wont to revise again and again, glorying in the hard work of her craft—if she imagined many and evolving answers to her book’s evocative question, or if she had finally fashioned a suitable copestone to answer it.
I asked her. Between sips of blood-orange soda, Heti explained that, even when How Should a Person Be? went to press in Canada, she had a niggling sense it wasn’t finished, but assumed she would always feel that way: that the question of how a person should be could always be revisited, always answered anew. Attempting to answer my question, Heti reflected that the book, after all, is “about questioning, it’s about not really knowing the answers and it’s probably right for this book to never be done.” (Later, at her book launch in Brooklyn, when asked to answer, in person, the book’s prompt, she replied, “I wrote a book called How Should a Person Be?, not How a Person Should Be. It’s a question.”)
This kind of equivocation seemed to square with an author who had written a book by turns aimless, episodic, and confessional. In our conversation, Heti not only ignored the notion of a proper answer, she also admitted her own limitations in ascertaining any sort of answer, either to my question or to the novel’s titular question. In the book, she pointedly exhibits Sheila’s shortcomings—her uncertainty about herself, her delusions of grandeur, her susceptibility to others’ influence—and presents these conflicting tendencies unapologetically, almost boastfully. As she considers how a person should be, Sheila’s concept of a genius ranges from one who ends world hunger to one who is a modest celebrity to the best blow-job giver of her day. Here was no genius revealing pearls of wisdom, but a questioning writer offering something far more provisional and far more honest.
“The story of twentieth-century male genius is that art is more important than people. I wanted to see if I thought that, too,” Heti told me. Both Heti and Sheila wanted to take their art seriously, but weren’t yet sure how seriously or at what cost. Heti cited Stephen Dedalus’s defensive tools. “That exile thing, that’s so classic,” she told me, eyes focusing. But unlike Dedalus, that revised portrait of a young artist who declares that he will express himself “using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning,” both Sheila and Heti, by involving friends in the process, work socially, collaboratively. “What does art become if exile is not an option?”
I began to reconsider my disappointment as I understood more why Heti refused to answer the question she so provokingly poses. Perhaps it’s not that her edits aimed repeatedly to find the perfect form for her ideas, as Melville suggested, but that these changes were yet another way that she mirrored the moving parts of her characters, of herself, and of her artistic process. How should a person be?, Heti found, is not a question that concerns just one person but often two or more; it is, in part—and especially for one whose characters draw from real-life friends—a question of how one should treat those we cherish.
And what about the betrayal I felt? Had she abandoned the book as a finished product? What about me, her reader? Heti’s choice—to make the revisions, to let them be public, to have the “messy” problem, as she put it, of having two versions of the same book—was a display of uncertainty, but also of earnest searching and reconsideration. The two-book problem was another provocation to consider what it meant to make something ugly or sincere or true. I was willing to accept that in place of a reliable object of genius.
Anna Altman is a writer, editor, and translator and a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Frieze, Art in America, Triple Canopy, and Art Asia Pacific, among others.
Last / Next Article