The Writing “I” and the Reading “I”: Sheila Heti and the New Frontiers of the Personal

In her latest, Sheila Heti embarks on an inverted Oulipian experiment, producing content in a fundamentally unrestricted manner.

Why do we love to read life writing? The answer seems to have as much to do with others as ourselves. At its best, life writing offers a heady compound of insight into other minds alongside intermittent glimpses of our own thoughts and feelings refracted through someone else’s experience. It’s this combination that enables us to find common ground in the alien, to digest challenges to the way we view the world. It’s easy to look down on the search for similarity—what critics like Rebecca Mead have called “the scourge of ‘relatability’”—to suggest that we’re interested only in flattering reflections of our own selves. But the most powerful life writing shows us that these dual pulls are a distillation of the reasons we read literature at all.

The strain of autofiction that has come to dominate the literary scene over the last two decades can feel hostile to this reciprocity. At its worst, this kind of semifictionalized life writing is claustrophobically self-absorbed and uninterested in other people, exploring individual distinctiveness at the expense of looking beyond the self. But despite how omnipresent it feels today, autofiction is only the very latest development in a long history of exploitation of the relationship between the name written on the title page and that which appears within its pages. From its earliest days the novel has riffed off the fecund if untrustworthy illusion that the two are aligned. Christian Lorentzen’s argument that modern autofiction is first and foremost an exercise in branding would have been equally apposite three hundred years ago, when Robinson Crusoe, often heralded as the first modern novel, pitched itself upon publication as a true autobiography. Its actual author, Daniel Defoe, was hardly less elusive, adopting at least 198 pen names throughout his life.

The present relationship between the writing I and the written one can be even harder to parse. The abundance of different kinds of life writing and the extent to which they have encroached on the category of the novel warps any straightforward correlation between the two. There are the literary forms—autofiction, confessional poetry, the tell-all autobiography, the straight memoir, personal letters, political diaries, the künstlerroman—but also the more pervasive and ubiquitous strain of life writing that happens in every blog post, tweet, and Instagram caption. For Jia Tolentino, the two are intrinsically connected: the internet is what has “trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public.”

One strand of recent criticism implies we have reached saturation point in our consumption of the ever more scandalous, ever more revealing life writing epitomized by the early internet’s premier literary genre, the personal essay. This critical agitation responded to a glut: many of the critiques originated as epitaphs for a form that had fizzled after all the secrets had been told. It’s not so wild to imagine we might soon tire of autofiction’s kicks, which draw on the same repertoire of shocking self-exposure and radical transparency. But as a brief glance at the long view of literary history shows, we can’t escape the volatile relationship between life writing and fiction. All we can do is think about what could be next.

Something the modern reader rarely gets credit for is the sophistication they bring to their encounters with contemporary life writing. Anyone who has sat in a high school English class on either side of the Atlantic knows they ought to separate speaker or protagonist from author, to respect T. S. Eliot’s division between “the man who suffers” and the “mind which creates.” But as the recent excitement about Eliot’s own real-life muse has ironically shown, our New Critical lenses, meant to filter out all but the text, are prone to slip from their place. We suspend this cynicism to engage with characters, personas, and—yes—authors’ biographies as we read. But we can sustain these opposing positions and dip between them, using each mode of reading to enrich the other. Fiction and life writing exist on a spectrum, and these different modes of reading allow the reader to make use of its full range. This paradox is one we’re used to: it’s not so different to the parasocial relationships that characterize our consumption of social media. We feel we know an author, but at the same time all but the most deranged know that we don’t: on the page as on the phone screen, we suspend our disbelief in favor of the more tempting illusion of intimacy cultivated by acts of public self-exposure.

Online as in print, it tends to be women who feel the sharp edge of this relationship and who have consequently put their minds to exploiting this readerly sophistication. Philip Lejeune’s notion of an autobiographical pact, in which the name on the page corresponds to the name of the author to signify autobiography, seems hopelessly naive when considering, for example, Elena Ferrante’s novels, where the name of the author corresponds to the name of the protagonist but the person of the author is deliberately obscured. Merve Emre calls Ferrante’s anonymity itself an “expressive strategy” intended to “multiply and muddle the distinct egos of the author,” so that the Elenas who write and the Elenas who live are both the same and separate. The outcry that accompanied her attempted unveiling in 2016 encapsulates the complexity with which we have come to read life writing. Justifying his investigations, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, who traced her identity using leaked financial records, invoked a language of legality that echoes Lejeune’s. He insisted that “by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” The outrage that followed the piece undermines any sense that the mystery surrounding Ferrante’s identity was merely a tease to leave readers wanting more. As one reflection put it, readers felt they had a right not to know, as much as Ferrante had a right not to be known: “Elena Ferrante is really Elena Ferrante. Anita Raja is really Anita Raja. Domenico Starnone is really Domenico Starnone. Claudio Gatti, unfortunately, is really Claudio Gatti. Three of these are actual people. One of them is not, and has never claimed to be.” Life and literature constitute each other, and there is no indisputable law that governs their relationship, as modern readers are well aware.

The real compulsion of Elena Ferrante’s novels is not in the search for the “real” Elena, whoever that might be. It’s in the vivid picture it paints of midcentury Naples, and in the resonance of the fraught relationship between two friends trying to make their way in the world. Theorists of autobiography have for decades directed our attention to the hidden third in the triangulation that autobiography requires—namely the reader, who mediates between text and author. Writers haven’t been slow off the mark either: in the introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, which represented a pretty risky venture for its author, Oscar Wilde presciently warns that “the highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” These writers point to the ethical and aesthetic gains to be made from exploiting the overlap between the other and the self in life writing, rather than adhering to illusory divisions between them.

This neat two-step substitute of reader for writer in life writing lies behind some of the most electric developments in contemporary autofiction. Rachel Cusk wrote her universally acclaimed Outline trilogy partly to recover from the overexposure that came with her controversial memoirs of motherhood and marriage, A Life’s Work and Aftermath. The trilogy stakes out new autofictional ground, telling the story of the central, Cusk-like protagonist, Faye, through relating the narratives that other people tell about themselves. Her own story can be discerned only in the shadows that others cast, in her responses and reactions to their lives. In her elision of the self, Cusk confronts how life writing is really about other people.

It’s a parallel turn outward that lies at the heart of Alphabetical Diaries, a book-length version of the project Sheila Heti serialized in New York Magazine in 2022. Heti is another writer whose success is habitually associated with the rise of autofiction: her previous books have seen her bracketed with Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, and Karl Ove Knausgaard himself. Frank Guan called her one of a clique of writers “who intentionally reduced the distance between author and protagonist to a bare minimum: their first-person narrators, too, were endowed with the same prodigious sensibility as their authors and their narratives also tracked, in an aimless, journal-like fashion, the details of their authors’ lived experience.”

Alphabetical Diaries may be a journal, but aimless it is not. As the title of her debut, How Should a Person Be?, implies, Heti is a novelist (and sometime self-help writer) fixated by the question of how literature can act on a life. This latest attempt to answer these questions feels like it could only come after decades of writing autofictively, its scope and effect emerging out of the fraught relationship with the genre that those decades seem to have instilled in Heti. Like Cusk, Heti has long been aware of the frustrations of a hegemonizing autofictive turn, claiming that already in 2010 “I was never interested in this as a genre or thinking about this genre … It doesn’t have to be ‘autobiographical’ to talk about life. All novels are basically saying, ‘This experience is also human,’ or ‘This life is no less of a life.’” More recently, she emphasized the genre’s expansiveness to resist attempts to pin down the auto in the fiction: “I just call it fiction, though. All writers use their lives. Look at Proust—it’s all fucking autofiction.”

If secrets are the engine of narrative, and contemporary autofiction has given all its secrets away, Heti takes on this formula from the other side, questioning why we need singular narrative to capture a life at all.

Proust is a favorite touchstone of those who want to undermine the genre of autobiography. In his well-known 1979 essay, Paul de Man similarly swivels to Proust to prove his argument that autobiography is not a genre but a mode of reading. Elsewhere in that essay he famously pronounced prosopopoeia, the act of addressing an absent person or object, to be the central trope of autobiography. It’s no coincidence that Heti’s more recent writing—her 2018 novel Motherhood and 2022 series of short stories for the Paris Review—bristle with the device. In the first she converses obsessively with a coin, in the second with a conversational AI called Eliza. Alphabetical Diaries completes this trajectory in its turn to the reader, framing them as the absent interlocuter.

But how does it do this? As the title suggests, the book does (or ostensibly does) comprise Heti’s real-life diaries. After keeping a written record of her daily life for over a decade, she imported those 500,000 words into a spreadsheet and sorted them alphabetically by the first letter in each sentence before editing them down to the version that makes up the book. Stripped of their chronology, they unpick the narrative structure that modern life writing promises us in one fell formal swoop. There is art to this rearrangement—she claims she “blurred the characters and cut thousands of sentences, to introduce some rhythm and beauty.” Some sentences unfold according to intricate internal rhyme, as when she recalls “the diversion of the air of a love affair”; others give us striking metaphors, for example when she tells us “The book closed up like a scab over a wound.” Others make memorable punch lines, like her observation, “I was watching those Bob Dylan press conferences from the sixties and I was thinking, this is who Goethe would have been if he had been living in the sixties”.

We can enjoy these as lapidary one-liners, but the real thrill is in how these nonnarrativized fragments ask us to read the whole book differently. Stripped of context, the sentences that supposedly make up Heti’s innermost thoughts gain an intriguing anonymity: unmoored from the narrative details of another’s life, they ask to be read aphoristically, like transferable tags rather than elements belonging to a story. If secrets are the engine of narrative, and contemporary autofiction has given all its secrets away, Heti takes on this formula from the other side, questioning why we need singular narrative to capture a life at all.

The results make for a bewildering but exhilarating reading experience. Ten years are flattened into every page, though certain places, ideas, and debates become increasingly familiar as we move from A to Z. Her method of indexing by the first letter of the sentence often clusters observations around characters, emphasizing obsessive relationships (“Lars doesn’t answer my emails. Lars doesn’t listen to you or pay attention to you or even let you speak. Lars doesn’t love you in that way. Lars doesn’t want a life with you”), before letting them fade out into the next letter and the characters it will bring with it. Discernible themes emerge: a tug-of-war between New York and Montreal, men, motherhood, writing. Some sentences chime so perfectly that we can’t help but construct stories around them: “A quiche and then an apple pie for dessert?” she asks, and then only half a page later, as if it couldn’t quite leave her mind, “A savory pie followed by a sweet pie?” Or when she writes, “Fucking someone solves nothing. Funny how I didn’t see this at the time.” But the specter of arbitrariness always lurks beneath those positings, reminding us not to pursue takeaways that are nothing more than a momentary alphabetical coincidence.

The diaries suspend us between different ways of reading, moving between statements unapologetically universal—“Checking my email felt so vomitous”—and so precisely sketched they feel cinematic: “I finished a chapter of The Sheltering Sky, sitting on the porch and came in to find that it was 8:21, time to go down for the dinner which had been prepared downstairs,” or “When we got up after a long night of drinking, we had chocolate, madeleines, oranges, scotch and tea.” This friction between the particular and the universal makes visible the overlap in how we experience life as much as the differences. At the same time, the lack of chronological order disrupts any readerly attempt to settle into the rhythms of one or the other way of reading: identification and differentiation usurp one another constantly.

The section of “I wants” especially underlines the communal construction of so many of our desires: “I want to be able to afford to get haircuts, and to wear make-up and nice clothes. I want to be healthy, but then right away after thinking that, I had a cigarette and some wine.” What these sentences teach us is that we mostly aren’t really very different at all, a realization that we see Heti herself come to at various points as we read. Even our differences feel similar: the juxtapositions cultivated by alphabetical ordering often revel in whimsical inconsistency, as when she writes, “To give up on the idea of children, which was becoming the next thing to race to. To have his child and soon.” One of these oppositions cuts to the heart of the project: she attempts to write a book “About humans in general” while thinking, “We are unique little planets.”

The question of who this book is talking to is raised on every page. Heti magnifies the ambivalent address of the diary in the ease with which she shifts between pronouns and positions. Many of her decontextualized sentences fall unknowably between observation, self-reflection, and hypothetical: when she writes, “A young and attractive woman feels it should be otherwise, in her head,” it’s possible to read it as describing herself, someone she knows, someone she has made up, a type, or to flit between all of these. Some of the sentences lapse into self-help, a danger that becomes pronounced in the “B” section: “Be optimistic, for you know how steady application always gets you somewhere. Be patient … Be peaceful … Be thoughtful and wise. Be very quiet, very humble, very grateful.” Of course, when written, this was self-help at its most literal: Heti the journal writer addressing Heti the journal reader. But it’s hard not to take these sentences as speaking directly to the reader, warning us to do all these things too.

Though the “I” section is by far the longest, other modes of self-address interrupt, giving us oddly orientated sequences like “When will I ever change? When you are fifty-five, sixty, or sixty-five.” At other points still she adopts an even more ambiguous “one”: “One feels one’s own decay,” “One is in a relationship with something bigger than oneself,” “One could sit anywhere.” These moments stage the process of self-construction, making reference to the generalizable rule, the universal “one” in order to reprimand the own self. Read by a reader who is not Heti, though, the “one” becomes vertiginous: it’s as if our own principles are being invoked in order to chastise ourselves, reminding us of the common bonds that underlie our lives. These shifting pronouns telescope out the different egos who inhabit the same apparent persona, who make up someone called Sheila Heti, but they also enfold the reading “I” into their commands.

Can a simple act of syntactical rearrangement really have such a profound effect on how we read and write about lives? Whether Heti knows it or not, this wouldn’t be the first time. The 16th-century dawn of English autobiography, as described by Adam Smyth, reads eerily similarly:

records were shunted from text to text—from almanac to diary; from account book to parish register to diary; from commonplace book to diary to autobiography—and were reworked in the process: filled out, regularised; pruned back; reordered; revised; converted into a narrative.

The earliest life writers reorganized their texts laboriously, sans spreadsheets, feeling their way with slow and wandering steps toward the first-person narrative template that has since dominated our understanding of the form. Heti’s parallel act of reordering neatly undoes this process, beginning with the first-person prose narrative before scattering it alphabetically to take us somewhere else.

There are, of course, slightly more recent antecedents to her experiment. Parallels have been drawn between Heti’s alphabetical approach and Oulipian experiments with arbitrary formal restriction, which also drew on the alphabet. But there’s an important difference: for Heti the process of producing the content was fundamentally unrestricted—her offhand tone throughout recalls Virginia Woolf’s definition of the diary as “capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends”—and she retained artistic agency over the process of selection. A more illuminating parallel is the strand of contemporary autofiction that tends toward presenting life data, as Joseph R. Worthen has discussed: novels like LIVEBLOG by Megan Boyle, which present themselves as a continuously updated stream, mimicking a social media feed straight from the author’s life to the reader’s eyes. While Alphabetical Diaries fortunately chooses form over undigested rawness (earlier works like How Should a Person Be? do conform to an aesthetic of messiness), Worthen’s observation of the effect of this approach holds true to this book-as-spreadsheet: “When the data is brought into the foreground and presented not as a narrative, but as a database, as it is in social media, it’s not the author but other users who create provisional narratives based on their trajectories through the database.”

At the same time, Heti doesn’t puritanically forbid every anticipated thrill of autofiction. We get an intimate sense of her voice and daily habits—not to mention a lot of information about her sex life. There’s also some good gossip: not every name is artfully “blurred.” But an attempt to see these dalliances with more familiar modes of reading life writing as anything more than flirtations is, I suspect, to blame for the frequency with which reviewers have dwelt on the question of whether Alphabetical Diaries is boring. Nearly every review stops at some moment to contemplate this question, almost always deciding in the affirmative.

In the spirit of confession: the question of whether this was a boring book didn’t occur to me as I read Alphabetical Diaries, though it might have once or twice when reading Heti’s previous novels. And this wasn’t because, like Dwight Garner in the New York Times, I have a particular liking for literary autobiography. It’s because of how every odd, floating sentence of Alphabetical Diaries provokes the reader to read a life differently: to dwell on its overlap with as much as its differences from other lives. We are put to work not in reconstructing the writerly self but in noticing where this becomes a reflective surface, and where it does not. Unrepeatable it probably is (a third or fourth rendition would test even my patience), but Heti’s experiment represents a leap in a different direction within the echoing dead end of modern life writing. It looks for a new way of reading life writing as much as it does a new way of writing it: boring or not, that is a lasting achievement. icon

Featured image: Photograph by JJ Ying, 2018 / Unsplash