What “Cat Person” Taught Me About Fictive Truth, the Potential of Fiction, and The Future of The Short Story
When I decided to become a writer, spurred on in my junior year of high school by my hard-nosed but absolutely encouraging AP English Language teacher as well as If You Want to Write, a little known book of writerly wisdom by Brenda Ueland that I rescued from the throw-away pile of my high school’s theatre library, I felt like I had opened a portal to a world of expression so vast I couldn’t have imagined it until I had tasted it. I devoured poetry anthologies and emulated my favorite poets; wrote essays, interviews and book reviews for my school paper; even tried crafting folk tales and fables just like the ones I had grown up loving.
But not fiction. Never fiction.
Once I had been a girl who read fiction voraciously and indiscriminately, picking up novels by authors like Isabel Allende and Barbara Kingsolver, Ray Bradbury and Phillip K. Dick, Carson McCullers and Alice Walker, with no thought to the wide gulf between their styles and subjects. I knew the classics by heart, but was always willing to try something contemporary if I flipped through the pages and found the prose compelling. A good story was a good story, no matter what it happened to be about.
By the time I decided to become a writer, that girl had practically disappeared, because in the time that I decided to become a writer, I was living in a society in which literary fiction had become nearly irrelevant.
To understand why that is, we must first acknowledge this: the past decade has been a period of unprecedented social upheaval in America.
We elected our first Black president, and watched as what we thought would usher in a new era of racial progress devolved into the exact opposite.The combination of ill-advised military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the War on Terror, and the revolutionary attempts of the Arab Spring have made conflict in the Middle East as well as North and West Africa seemingly intractable, not to mention nearly incomprehensible to the average American. We slogged through one of the worst economic depressions in the history of our country, and faced a gridlocked and ineffectual Congress that eventually became infiltrated with fringe groups that paved the way for the toxic conservatism and white nationalism that rule our country today.
We’ve witnessed senseless mass shootings, waves of police brutality against people of color and organized resistance to said brutality. Taken part in debates over gentrification, monuments to the Confederacy, and the meaning of freedom of speech. We’ve experienced watershed moments in the public perception of and consequences for sexual assault and harassment, and suffered through the absurd yet sinister phenomenon of Donald Trump and the white supremacists who feel emboldened by him.
In such a decade, people want to know the facts, to help make sense of a world that no longer seems to make sense. We want explanations and charts and statistics and calls to action in the midst of a chaos with no end in sight. We long for the assurances of journalists and activists and pundits to help us form opinions and make decisions about how we should live in the real world. We also long for escape, and artists who manage to feed this desire by creating work that lets us sink into a paradise of pure sensual and aesthetic pleasure, a world of happy endings, have had and continue to have great success due to the democratized nature of social media. This is the content we want, the stuff we want our lives to be made of.
In this world, the storyteller-artist who is difficult and ambiguous, who provides neither immediate answers nor immediate pleasures, who illuminates the complexities of the real world through prisms of symbolism and creative imagination without the luxury of high production value, who is not cool or in the know or of the moment, doesn’t seem to stand a chance.
I was — and am — a product of my time. Much like the tumultuous 60s and 70s gave rise to the popularity of New Journalism, literary essays, true crime, critical works born out of social resistance movements, and confessional literature, the past ten years have been marked by the dominance of true stories. From the short first-person essays born out of blogging culture and popularized by new media sites, to memoir-manifestos like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, to more recent culture-shifting opuses like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations”, Greg Lukianof and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind,”, Netflix’s documentary “Making a Murderer,” and perhaps the most heartbreaking true confessional of the decade, the open letter written by the rape survivor in the now-infamous Stanford Rape Case, it is clear that the spirit of our age is a hunger for facts carefully crafted into narratives that resonate with us. And social media, the ultimate conversation forum, makes the impact of these pieces even greater, as they make the rounds of Twitter and Facebook and spur more writing in response. When it comes to social media, true stories have taken to these platforms like ducks to water.
Deeply impressed by the impact these true stories could have, I enrolled in a creative nonfiction workshop class, where I wrote memoir essays, immersive journalism (a direct offshoot of New Journalism), and hybrid forms like prose poetry and lyric essays. Along the way I discovered authors like Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, and Yiyun Li, visionaries who were forging new frontiers in nonfiction by combining elements of reportage, philosophy, history, memoir and cultural criticism with the lyricism of poetry and the symbolism and reliance on theme found in fiction. But no matter the genres they drew from, their works were rooted in direct experiences or observations of the real world. Reading their works, and the works of the media environment I was embedded in, fiction became not only unnecessary but undesirable to me. Why waste time on a made up story when I could have just as satisfying a reading and writing experience with the abundance of nonfiction, of fact, of truth that surrounded me?
Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” isn’t what ended up bringing me back to fiction. As I became more serious about writing, I began to both read and submit to literary journals. I also got a subscription to the New Yorker. I generally skipped over the fiction in the magazine and the literary journals I read, diving right into the essays and journalism and poetry that I much preferred, or at least I thought I preferred. But I realized with no small amount of shame that it was pretty ignorant and close-minded of me to ignore an entire genre if I really wanted to consider myself a part of the literary community.
Tentatively, due to years out of practice, I followed my old habit of flipping to any story that hooked me with its prose. Though I found much more that I didn’t like than I did, I became less and less afraid to follow authors into their imagined realities, and came up with some sparkling, gleaming gems of narrative. And I remembered something that, somewhere along the line, I had chosen to forget: that fictive truth allows one to explore possibilities and dive into motivations that literal truth can only speculate about. Rather than simply reflecting reality, fiction can reach into its mysterious, hidden, contradictory depths and bring them into the light. In a way, it becomes truer than the truth.
As I began to collect these jewels of short fiction like a magpie from the pages and websites of journals and magazines, I found myself getting attached. I found myself getting invested. These stories — along with difficult, ambiguous works of nonfiction and poetry — were sitting in niche (fantastic, but niche) literary journals or stuck, out of context, in the pages of the few magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s that still publish literature alongside their journalistic mainstays. This struck me as not only unfair for the writers, many of whose works would do well with broader exposure and a chance to be a part of ongoing cultural conversations, but a detriment to the relationship between the literary world and the general public. To put a bit of a spin on Shirley Jackson, We Have Not Always Lived in the Castle. Literature has not always lived in an obscure world apart. There have been periods in American history, particularly during the 19th and 20th century, when works of fiction both short and long held a sway so powerful in public opinion and imagination that we can hardly imagine it in our fiction-impoverished mainstream culture. In turning away from the difficulties and complexities of the literature of our times, we leave behind an essential part of how we as Americans have grown and changed and come to better understand ourselves as a people.
Of course, I wasn’t the only person in the literary world lamenting this state of affairs. Over the years, I’ve read countless rationales as to why fiction, especially the short story, is becoming less and less relevant in mainstream society. Some say it’s the fault of the literary establishment, for glorifying works that are too obscure for the average person to take an interest in. Others blame creative writing M.F.A. programs for producing a generation of writers who can produce nothing but navel-gazing, insular work that lacks originality. Still others blame social media — a type of democratized conversational forum our forebears couldn’t have even dreamed of — for shortening attention spans and making it impossible for literature to be given any of the attention it needs to be properly absorbed and appreciated.
Then “Cat Person” was published, and everything changed.
“Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, is exactly the sort of difficult, ambiguous, prismatic text that only a few weeks ago would have been predicted to be dead in the water as far as mainstream appreciation goes. First and foremost, it is a story about the elaborate ritual that so many women go through in the dating world, a ritual that involves looking past men’s faults and subtly abusive behavior, feeling the need to bolster men’s egos by downplaying our own intelligence and independence, and trying to negotiate conflicting desires in the era of sexual liberation — wanting to get laid, but not being able to grasp the scepter of choice and self-determination that gives us full reign over who we want to fuck, and when, and how, due to decades of social conditioning that have taught us to be accommodating, to not hurt people’s feelings, to not “lead a man on.” This layer of the story is pretty straightforward in its verisimilitude, and its address of important feminist concerns.
But the characters complicate the more straightforward interpretation. The main character, Margot, a 20 year old college student, is bound within tropes of a woman’s existence in a patriarchal world that give her a streak of cruelty. She has a deeply disturbing relationship with appearance, which shows itself in her constant appraisal of Robert’s fat as repulsive — in fact, it seems as though this is the primary thing that makes him undesirable to her — as well as her arousal at the idea of her own body turning Robert on during their sexual encounter. Both of these spring from a culture in which she is judged by the male gaze, a culture where how she looks on a man’s arm — or in his bed — is embedded into how she sees herself as a sexual being, and how her sexual desires play out. Though Robert’s character is drawn with much broader strokes, his cruelties towards Margot also stem from being a man bound within a patriarchal society. Robert sees Margot through the virgin/whore dichotomy, fantasizing about her youth and seemingly untouched beauty, then projecting crude fantasies and petty jealousies onto her when he finds out that she’s sexually experienced, and finally denouncing her as a whore when she rejects him. Moreover, his anxiety about her intelligence and educational attainment stoke within him a toxic masculinity that leads him to undermine her through subtle and not-so-subtle negging. All of this takes place within the context of modern dating,which is deeply reliant on virtual communication and encourages the presentation of exaggerated selves, as well as projecting identities onto people that have little to do with the actual substance of their personalities.
When I first read the complex story about two humans seemingly fated to harm each other as they uncritically play out the scripts of patriarchal sex and romance, I knew it was another gem. It did what the best fiction does —dove into the depths of reality to create something that, somehow, gets at the truth better than any factual account. And readers responded — oh boy, did they. “Cat Person” became the first literary short story to go viral, ever, making the rounds of Twitter and Facebook with lightning speed, producing a plethora of think-pieces from a bevy of media outlets including some of the unlikeliest sources, such as an insightful take from The Economist , and an absolutely horrible one from The National Review. To quote Laura Miller, Slate Magazine’s books and culture columnist, “The last time I can remember a short story in the New Yorker being as enthusiastically talked-about as Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’ was when Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was published by the magazine in 1997.” And on December 20th, a little more than two weeks after the story was published on the New Yorker’s website, The New York Times reported that Ms. Roupenian landed a seven figure book deal for her first short story collection, You Know You Want This. Any argument that literary fiction could not be relevant, that it could not withstand the pressures of the attention economy, that social media was bringing about the death of the author, was blown out of the water with one short, strong gust.
When fiction strikes a chord, it can electrify a culture like a bolt of lightning, rattling us from confused slumbers and sparking waves of conversation that only continue to build. “Cat Person,” with its perfect capture of the current zeitgeist of our society, has managed to do just that. But “Cat Person” is not the only short story out there that does the same thing. Its success was both organic and contrived — while its relevance to the watershed #MeToo movement pretty much guaranteed that it would take the American reading public by storm, it was also handled with great care by the New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who chose to publish it not earlier this year or later next year but during this precise moment, this movement, when it could have the greatest possible impact. Not all short stories have this political urgency running through them — in fact, one of the great things about fiction is its ability to deal with a variety of concerns, from the very social to the very interior and everything in between. However, no matter what kind of story it is concerned with telling, literary fiction always has a context, a root of experience from which it blooms. When we divorce literature from its context, cutting it off from its roots, we impoverish it. We keep it from revealing its unique truths.
The steadily waning influence of fiction in this country — the thing that made me turn away from reading and writing it for so long — isn’t due to MFA programs or overly elitist tastes or the sinister nature of the attention economy, but the simple fact that the hubs of literature — and us as readers — don’t place fiction in context. In order for a story to flourish, publishing it is not enough. Reading it is not enough. We must do the work of connecting the dots, highlighting themes and their parallels in real-life events and other forms of art. We must maintain literary spaces that allow our authors to speak, our readers to respond, and our literary and cultural critics to analyze, all of which gives literature the opportunity to exist within an ecosystem that nourishes it rather than isolating it.
A short story doesn’t have to go viral to be worthwhile. But when we give short fiction a chance to be part of our broader cultural, artistic, and societal conversations, our reliance on just the facts, please just might give way to a better understanding of truth —and an appreciation for the deeper revelations only the fictive imagination can provide.