(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.