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?

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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.

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.