Why I Didn’t Like Cat Person
I didn’t like Kristen Roupenian’s short story Cat Person. This is not just because I couldn’t relate to the story (although I didn’t, really) and not just because I didn’t like its main character (although I didn’t, really), but because I didn’t think it was a great story. There is a contention floating around out there, held by too many people to attribute it to any one iteration, that the people who dislike Cat Person do so of because a flaw in their reading of it. Essentially, it holds that the people who don’t like Cat Person can’t abstract from their dislike of its main character to a more sophisticated position on the story as a whole. The implication is that if they were a little bit more savvy, they’d see a clever story with an imperfect hero depicting a relatable and lamentable situation. While I’m not arguing that some readers fall trap to this impulse, I’d like to argue that there are other, justified, reasons not to like Cat Person.
On one way of looking at it, the impulse to call people who didn’t like cat person bad readers arguably stems from the same anti feminist impulse it pretends to call out; the impulse to undermine women, the things that are perceived as belonging to them, and the things that they like, or in this case, don’t. Attributing someone’s dislike of cat person as a failing to understand the concept of fiction is a pretty decimating assessment of their reading capabilities, or at least their application in this case. But I’m perfectly capable of reading fiction, even women’s fiction, and assessing it on its own terms. I’ve been doing it since I was four years old, as have, give or take I assume, most of the people who do not like Cat Person. So why this attack? Partially, it must come from the same reason that encourages the black and white colour of the debate both ways — the polarising nature of online forums. The fact that this is a work written by a woman, about a woman, makes salient questions of feminism. Why also, for instance, are most people referring to the story as ‘The New Yorker story Cat Person’, as if it were penned by the magazine itself and not a living, breathing author with a name? The impulse to throw ‘that’s not very #feminist of you!’ around at basically every level of this discussion had been nearly inescapable, partially because it’s relevant, and partially because it’s the self-appointed job of Twitter to do so. But is that mistaken impulse solely to blame for the controversy surrounding its value as a story?
Roupenian’s story is framed by an omniscient third person narrator who has privileged access into the mind of Margot that it does not share with Robert. Proponents of the story attribute to this fact the load bearing weight of the blame for its detractors not being able to distinguish the story from an essay. They say that because the story is told wholly from Margot’s perspective, readers have trouble distinguishing between Cat Person as a work of fiction and Cat Person as a personal essay written from the perspective of Margot as a stand in for Roupenian, as if she were Plato having a debate through the mouthpiece of Socrates, outing her bitterness towards a one night stand in the ridiculous mien of Robert. But this doesn’t sit right with me, and not just because I’ve been accused of it. The omniscient third person narrator with privileged access to the mind of one or a few main characters is, if I take myself as an average reader, arguably the most common narrational form that we encounter growing up. We as readers are intimately acquainted with the way it works, so why should we forget so easily in only this case? I contend that the story encourages this reading, and does not take pains to invite another, partially because it’s just not that sophisticated a work of fiction.
The story depicts a number of moral failings, including the SJW anathema fatphobia and bi, homo, and transphobia in turns. Some have railed against the presence of fatphobia in the story, while others contend that just because its main character is fatphobic does not entail that the story is; representation does not equal endorsement. But these two things are an interesting case study — where Margot is consistently, repeatedly, and egregiously critical of Robert’s weight and its connection to his attractiveness, her bi, homo and transphobia is more subtle — it comes out only in hints and allusions, and sometimes is more present in the things Margot doesn’t think than in those she does. The main difference, though, is that Margot’s fatphobia is questioned in the text, while her her more subtle phobias go unnoticed and unchallenged. She asks herself if she is being a ‘mean girl’ about Robert — opening the question as to whether her her salacious relation of Robert’s inferior looks, sexual prowess, and social skill to her friends has been fair invites the reader to make their own judgment on the matter. This question is never made salient for Margot’s LGBTphobias, and it is for this reason that I see it as a feature of the story and not just a facet of Margot’s imperfect character. Drawing repeated attention to a character flaw and highlighting its egregious nature the way that Roupenian does with Margot’s fatphobia is a pretty standard narrative device for pointing out that it is, in fact, a flaw. Her vivid descriptions mirror pretty well the things that we think to ourselves when we are being exaggeratedly mean to ourselves in the mirror, or the way bullies in high school cartoons talk about their less fortunate classmates. The fact that this kind of device highlights a number of Margaret’s flaws, but is silent about her treatment of her high school ex, is what leads me to this criticism.
Of course, you may choose a different reading — you might argue, for example, that Margot is so obviously flawed as a person that her prejudices need no narrative foil, they are simply there to be read as flaws. You may choose to say that obviously the story doesn’t endorse this view exactly because it is so condemning of Margot. But a flawed narrator doesn’t necessarily make a woke story, and the story is not as obviously condemning of Margot as it is of its only other character. Both perspectives hinge on how you read the rest of the story — whether you think it is sophisticated enough to condemn in subtle ways Margot’s flaws that it does not condemn outright, or whether you think it lets them slide. Or, you can choose to say that even if there is an unchecked element of homophobia in the story, it’s still a good story, because not every story needs to condemn homophobia in order to be a good story.
My response to both of these lines of thinking is the same — the story just isn’t good enough to justify overlooking or justifying this elements. Maybe I am choosing not to see it as a piece of fictional work, with its own set of internal rules that do not align with those of the real world, or maybe, as I hold, Roupenian has not done enough in her craft to remove us as readers from the sphere of the every day and place us squarely in a work of fiction. This may seem like a big ask, and it happens all the time. A great work of fiction can sweep us up and suspend our faculties of doubt about all manner of ordinary convictions about how the world and its inhabitants should work.
Cat Person just didn’t manage to do that for me. The understanding that the story is largely about the false personas we can construct for ourselves over social media and the disparity between them and who we really are rings, for me, very false. This is because our access to the difference between the real Robert and the one that Margot has constructed is completely mediated by her internal narrative, which assessment of the situation I have a very hard time trusting. Our sense of Robert’s wit and his likability, comes entirely from the fact that Margot finds him witty — rather than a group of solid examples of things Robert says or does that might allow us to judge for ourselves whether he is, in fact, witty and likeable. Instead of replicating a conversation where we are invited to relate to Margot by developing our own feeling for Robert’s wit and attentions, and maybe a bit of our own crush on him, we are simply expected to take Margot at her word. But because her judgments in other arenas are so faulty, this is hard to do.
My inability to relate to Margot despite her obvious differences to me stems from a combination of factors; on the one hand, the fact that I as a person think and act very differently to her, and on the other, the fact that I as a reader was not successfully brought into the narrative enough to develop my own emotional response to its plotline. While I admit that the first one alone is not enough to justify a judgment that a story is bad, the second absolutely is. The fact that they are so heavily intertwined in this case stems largely from factors intrinsic to the story — namely its lack of possible agents other than Margot with whom to relate. I’d like to suggest that the people who did find the story good probably have good personal reasons for relating to its main character, and that is totally okay. But I think it’s a phenomenon made possible by the story itself — possibly the reason that people are relating to Cat Person as if it were a confessional essay is that it encourages engagement mostly at this level. Some people are just Cat Person people, and some aren’t. And that’s okay.