How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

heti

Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

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The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.

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