February 6, 2013

How Should a Fan Be? On attending a Sheila Heti reading at McGill University.

This is almost old news now, but two Fridays ago I went to see Sheila Heti give a reading at McGill.  I was a little apprehensive because I’d already been to hear her read from How Should a Person Be? many months ago at Concordia, and quite often writers end up reading the same selection.  The section I’d already heard her read, from the very beginning, was hilarious and amazing and made me go straight out and pick up the book, but I remembered it well enough that I could still hear the passage in her voice in my head when I read it.

Anyhow, I needn’t have worried, and I was glad I attended.  She read from a few of her books, including The Middle Stories and The Chairs are Where the People Go, neither of which I'd read before, in spite of the fact that I have a few friends who have been obsessed with The Middle Stories for years (and the fact that we have not one, but two copies at home). 

The ever-growing to-read pile.

I wish there had been a way to take a surreptitious picture of the crowd.  Stylewise, it’s a relief to spend time in the Faculty of Arts (compared to science and medicine, where fashion is pretty much absent)  Everyone was young and interesting-looking.  Actually, ninety percent of the attendees looked like they’d walked straight out of a Girls episode.  I was worried enough that I had to ask the young woman next to me if it really was the Sheila Heti reading, or if I’d accidentally walked into an undergraduate class.  (I hadn't.)  Then, as I waited for the reading to begin, I overheard the girl behind me explain to her friends in a somewhat bored fashion about how something she did for the PR company she works for had turned into a freelance job writing for HuffPoCanada… which is a drag because her agent is totally waiting for her to finish her novel!  I listened while her just-barely-containing-their-seething-jealousy-and-awe friends duly expressed sympathy.  Meanwhile, I texted my own friends in an amazed and nervous fashion about the terrifying ambition and productivity of the next generation.

Sheila Heti was funny and smart and winning.  Apparently, there had been a request for her to read "the dirty parts" from How Should a Person Be? so she read the "Interlude for Fucking," which is extraordinary in the real sense of the word.

Another reason I was glad I went was because she mentioned this Paris Review interview with Jean Cocteau that she said had once made a big impression on her. 

Tiens, mon ami, it takes great courage to be original! The first time a thing appears it disconcerts everyone, the artist too. But you have to leave it—not retouch it. Of course you must then canonize the “bad.” For the good is the familiar. The new arrives only by mischance. As Picasso says, it is a fault. And by sanctifying our faults we create.
She cited it in response to a question from the audience (“Are you preoccupied with the ugly in your work?), and the way she described the impression it had made on her was that there may be things in your work that other people criticize or find ugly – and those are the things that make the work unique and which ought to be cultivated the most.  (Cf. the first Impressionists who were despised as making ugly works that we now consider beautiful.) 

I like this notion, though I don’t think that this principle would work ALL the time – I think it would depend a good deal on who’s giving the criticism – but I think it is very interesting nonetheless. 

As someone who also took a long time to write a novel, I was also relieved to hear that she had a lot of unused material leftover in the end. The other thing she said that I thought was interesting was that she wanted HSAPB to be more like a person and less like a book, and I think that she did a good job of achieving that.  (Well, except for the part where it is actually a book, but it is unlike quite a lot of other books.)

Still a book, but a good one!

I stayed afterwards to ask her to sign my copy (nobody else did this...maybe they all have the e-book?), in spite of the fact that I can have superfan qualities that definitely make me sheepish and awkward. (Nevermind that I’ve met her before, or that we share a publisher....there was no mitigation there.) But I love getting my books signed, which was enough to make me determined that we would both just have to endure my awkwardness and Sheila signed it in a really cute way:

Irresistible signing gimmick!  Love it.

There are lots of good profiles on Sheila and reviews of this book, but here is a recent worthwhile U.K. article which convincingly compares her to Philip Roth.


Alice Zorn said...

Good post! Though--sorry--still not a fan of meta-fiction.

saleema said...

Thanks, Alice. Though you know...I wouldn't call it that. If you forget what the author's name is and that it is based on real people and that on some level it grapples with the meaning of art, there's not really anything especially meta about it in terms of the reading experience.

Alice Zorn said...

Um... you've touched the tender spot there. Grappling with the meaning of art is my version of your version of historical fiction, if you follow me. But we can discuss that over a pint one day.