'Cat Person' and the Impulse to Undermine Women's Fiction

Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker short story is not an essay—but many have seen it as one.

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In fiction-writing—before characters can be developed, before plots can be sketched, before tensions can be introduced, and attendant arcs molded and stretched—the author must first make a series of much more basic decisions: How will the story be told? Who, in the context of the story itself, will tell it? Who will be given a person and a voice within this hermetic little universe? Who will not? Why? Why not? These are the defining cosmological questions of every work of fiction, the ones that will shape everything else that comes to exist in the author’s—and the story’s—manufactured world.

Kristen Roupenian, in “Cat Person,” the New Yorker short story that has been, and continues to be, going viral, selected as her storyteller a classic, third-person omniscient narrator: the Godlike entity, seeing all and telling some. And then Roupenian—the subsidiary, and yet much more complicated decision—focused that narrator’s attentions on her protagonist, a 20-year-old college student named Margot. It is from Margot’s perspective—her perspective as filtered through this particular story’s author-God—that Roupenian’s story unfolds: Margot meets a man named Robert, several years her senior, and then successively flirts with him, texts with him, goes on a date with him, sleeps with him, and, finally, breaks up with him.

(Robert, for his part—the name is appropriately bland, especially next to that of Roupenian’s Tenenbaum-reminiscent protagonist—functions, through all this, as something of a cypher: Readers come to know him only through the refractive lens of Margot’s mind.)

“Cat Person” is a good and striking story. Rather than hovering in the realm of high-brow escapism, it dives down into the messy muck of life: the confusion of social signals, the cheerful ambiguity of a heart-eyes emoji, the self seen through the eyes of the other, the sex that is bad but not quantifiably Bad. The story is so resonant with the current moment, indeed, that many people, receiving and then sharing the viral story on social media, seemed to interpret Roupenian’s work of short fiction not as fiction at all, but rather as a personal “essay”—a factory issue of the first-person industrial complex. It Happened to Me—even though, manifestly, it did not.

Memoirs, essays, the sharing of true stories: These are good literary forms. They are not, however, the literary form that Kristen Roupenian chose for the telling of “Cat Person.” The story, as a general work, has been widely interpreted as a literary adjunct to the latest #MeToo moment: something that, in its insistent emphasis on the sexual experience of a woman—in its exploration of the gray areas of sexual consent—conveys something new and urgent and profoundly true. The category error assigned to Roupenian’s crafted story, however, also has something to say about #MeToo.

So many of American culture’s creaky misogynies have a way of leaking into fiction. There’s the wearying, and longstanding, mandate for writers to create female characters who are likable. (Claire Messud: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”) And the common tendency to dismiss the literary products of women writing about women’s lives as “chick lit.” But there’s also the fact that women writers’ characters are often simply assumed to be autobiographical, as if their authors are not possessed of enough moral imagination to create characters who are fully fictionalized. While male authors tend to be given the luxury of fiction—Jonathan Franzen will say what he wants in a New York Times op-ed, and his work will still be evaluated on its own terms in that paper’s Book Review—women are often not afforded that basic professional courtesy. Wallace Stegner, in a 1990 interview with The Paris Review, noted that “the kind of roman à clef reading determining biographical facts in fiction is not a good way to read. Read the fiction.” Jami Attenberg put the matter more personally, and more bluntly, in The New York Times earlier this year: “Stop Reading My Fiction as the Story of My Life.”

Roupenian is an author who is, apologies to Barthes, very much alive—and available for interviews that are charming, intelligent, and illuminating. She has been explaining the story—its genesis, its creation process, its point—as it has gone viral around her, annotating “Cat Person” even as people have been reading it: a book club in real time, with the author herself. In one way this is another very internet-ish element of “Cat Person”—the author of the text and the reader of the text, flattened into each other—but in another way it serves as a kind of insistence on Roupenian’s part: She has emphasized, in interviews, the labor of the story, the craft of it: “The story was inspired by a small but nasty encounter I had with a person I met online,” she notes. And “I liked writing Robert’s side of the conversation ... in part because I felt like I was his analogue as a writer.” And “the first draft of the story came fairly easily—I wrote it in a feverish burst.” Fiction, fiction, fiction. I, I, I.

All of that is its own kind of subtle pushback against “chick lit” and “it happened to me.” “Cat Person,” as a story and then as a story-about-a-story, insists that something can be fiction and feminine at the same time. Here, after all, is a deeply flawed woman—Margot is as withholding of empathy as she is eager to receive it—created by a woman author. Here is a sex scene that plays out with Updike-ian cringeiness, told from the woman’s point of view. Here are so many small subversions, among them the simple fact of a work of fiction gone viral. And among them, too, the author of that fiction talking about her craft in a way that claims the craft as literature. The story didn’t happen to Roupenian, she insists. She happened to it.

So while “Cat Person” is a story about so many things related to #MeToo—the way dating, a marketplace that relies on economics and romantic fantasy, encourages both gauzy illusion and brute calculations; the affordances and limits of digital communication; the meaning of sexual consent, especially in a culture that encourages women to be compliant and politic; power in general; power within heterosexual couplings in particular; power as a refraction of sexual desire; the pernicious influence of pornography; empathy as both a possibility and a limitation—the story is also about something less directly related to #MeToo: its limits. Its impediments. This is a moment in which (some) women’s voices are finally (tentatively, occasionally, unequally) being heard. But it is one, as well, in which women’s claims about their own lives, their own experiences, their own truths, are—still—undermined at every turn.

And here, with “Cat Person,” is a story written by a woman that is, in some corners, misunderstood. At the level of the narrator, which is to say at the level of the foundation. Slate’s Laura Miller notes that “some of the readers who mistook the story for an essay or ‘thinkpiece’ say they overlooked the New Yorker’s ‘fiction’ heading because, following a shared link, they read it on their phones.” That makes some sense: The internet is its own framing device, its own narrative decision. It can sometimes mislead those who reside within its world. Still, though, the thinkpiecers’ mistake is revealing—and not just about phones or Facebook. Americans live in a culture that often celebrates literary fiction as one of the highest forms of artistic expression: one of the few remaining fields to which terms like genius and transcendent are still unironically applied. Yet some readers of “Cat Person,” even those who appreciated it, looked at the story and saw—not because of malice, but because of the stubborn inertias of cultural assumption—not a story at all, but something else entirely. An essay. A memory. A woman, dreamy and sad, telling the internet about her bad date.