sheila heti: we can hate literature
Sheila Heti’s most recent novel Pure Colour is about grief, mythology, criticism, and finding the holy inside the profane. Summarizing a plot for a book this daring and idiosyncratic seems trivial, but here goes: Mira is a young student torn between her love of her friend Annie and her father. Mira’s father dies, a chest of trauma is unleashed. Then, there’s God. This world is a first draft of God’s and he’s unhappy with how many flaws it contains. God is most, “proud of creation as an aesthetic thing. You have only to look at the exquisite harmony of sky and trees and moon and stars to see what a good job God did, aesthetically.” The novel is less autobiographical than her last two, more akin to her first book, The Middle Stories.
I spoke to Sheila on Zoom, on a wet Thursday afternoon.
Keegan: I read Christian Lorentzen was an early inspiration for a character in the book. Does literary criticism excite you?
Sheila: I just read a review of Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus by Nathan Goldman this morning. The review says it’s not a good book. But it says this in a very intelligent way. For me, reading that sort of thing is delicious. That’s the feeling I get from it. It doesn’t teach me anything. It doesn’t broaden my view of the world. I don’t mean Nathan’s piece specifically, but criticism in general— it reads to me like gossip. It certainly doesn’t teach me how to write books. Whereas reading philosophy or art history or novels themselves, those things teach me how to write books. Criticism is about the critic’s relationship to that book. I’m just observing their relationship.
Keegan: The word hate is interesting. You say in Pure Colour that hate “seems to well from the deepest core in our beings.”
Keegan: Is there something productive in hating?
Sheila: Hate is a pleasure. I’m not against pleasure, there’s all sorts of pleasures. I really enjoy it sometimes. I wouldn’t want it to be my only pleasure, but it’s among the pleasures. To see a book that you don’t like – in a very fine grained way – being broken apart by a critic. It’s like seeing someone being publicly stoned. I don’t think I would want to see someone being publicly stoned, I don’t have that bloodlust. But criticism draws on something deep in our nature. Do you not feel that?
Keegan: It scares me a bit, the emotional reaction I have. I’m a little freaked out by enjoying it. A lot of criticism feels a bit salacious right now, a little post-Gawker.
Sheila: I think there’s always been that tone. One of the things I thought about when I started this book were the early reviews of Manet’s paintings. So I don’t think this tone is new or sprung up with the internet. One of the human responses to art is to hate it. There’s a really good book called The Hatred of Literature by William Marx. It’s a wonderful book. I like that we can hate literature. It means that it’s important. It touches us. Literature is a presentation of what our world is. If people can be so against a world as presented by a writer, then they are arguing for what the world is.
Keegan: Do you think about form a lot? Did you think of Maggie Nelson or Patricia Lockwood — with all their white spaces —when you were writing this book?
Sheila: No, it was more intuitive. I try to only put the passages in my book that I like, and that’s going to be not very many. Most of the stuff one writes is not very good. My standards for what I put in a book are quite complicated. Everything I put in has to resonate with everything else in the book. The final form is a function of that process more than anything else.
Keegan: Is it shocking or weird to do the post-hoc press interview? I’ve often felt dishonest when talking about my work after the fact.
Sheila: It’s called storytelling. You can’t encapsulate years and years of staggering in the dark. And any story winds up making it sound more purposeful.
Keegan: I was thinking a lot about surrealism when reading this. Does Batialle factor in here at all? Let’s say surrealism is both a symptom and a fix for a loss of meaning. Does that resonate with Mira turning into a leaf?
Sheila: I love Bataille and Artaud. I loved reading Dali’s dairies. After you’ve written several books in a certain vein, you feel burnt out. In Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? I was trying to get as close as I could to life. But one of your jobs as a writer can be to make symbols. Sometimes you forget that you can also make symbols.
Keegan: How online are you?
Sheila: I don’t have any accounts. I don’t post. Sometimes I go online and read. I just opened up a twitter account to see what articles people are posting.
Keegan: Just to lurk?
Keegan: Have you read Angelicism01?
Sheila: No, who’s that?
Keegan: It’s like schizophrenic academic philosophy. It’s pretty beautiful. Now, there’s a writer that evokes a lot of strong emotions.
Sheila: I think that’s what you want. You want to stir things up—to be something alien that comes in, that messes with the order. I like the idea of smashing the idols; that the iconoclast is the one who smashes the idols, which allows the Gods to roam freely. The idea of what the novel “should” be is an idol. Once that’s smashed, the roaming of the Gods is the conversation.
Keegan: It can get scary though. If we have an overabundance of meaning and idol smashing, I start to crave construction.
Sheila: That’s what the novel is! It’s the stable thing. That’s where new symbols can come from. But it’s also the individual's responsibility to decide how much they can take in.
Keegan: I love how you write about friendship. What do you value in a friendship?
Sheila: I just recorded a new episode of Podcast with Raisins with my friend Margaux. With her, it's an on-going, never ending conversation. I like the feeling that we would never want to stop talking; a friendship that’s alive. I just can’t stand any relationships that are no longer alive. I can’t be in them. I can’t have a friendship based on nostalgia.
Keegan: Did the podcast change the dynamic between you and Margaux? Did you feel the weight of a recording device?
Sheila: Yes, it made our conversation so much more exciting! A tape recorder makes you feel very alert.
Keegan: The recording device is a bit of a God's eye. Is there a religious impulse in recording podcasts?
Sheila: I don’t know. I’m interested in all this self-documentation, but I think there’s a different impulse behind recording audio than behind taking photos to post on Instagram. They seem to have different consequences for the self.
Keegan: I’ve never thought of that. Maybe it’s a durational thing? Because both have performance in them.
Sheila: Yes, but with Instagram you’re inevitably in relation to a standard of beauty. But with an audio conversation, there isn't a model you’re trying to emulate. Or, I don’t know, maybe you want to sound like Norman Mailer on some talk show.
Keegan: You did an episode of Our Struggle. How was that?
Sheila: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, but I enjoyed it. The reason I read the Joshua Cohen interview this morning was because I listened to his interview on their show. It was so crazy.
Keegan: It was combative in the beginning.
Sheila: The fact that the host told Cohen that she didn’t like his book! I’ve never heard that before in an interview. He handled it so graciously.
Keegan: And what did he say in response? I live and die by these words? Maybe I should have started this interview saying how much I hated Pure Colour.
Sheila: Listen: I live and die by these words.
Sheila Heti is the author of ten books, including the novels Pure Colour, Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? She is the former Interviews Editor of The Believer magazine, and appeared in Margaux Williamson’s 2012 film Teenager Hamlet, and in Leanne Shapton’s book, Important Artifacts. She lives in Toronto.
Keegan Swenson is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the reviews editor at Maudlin House. His fiction has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Expat Press, and the Denver Quarterly.