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Short story ‘Cat Person’ a viral sensation in the conversation about sex, consent

By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
Published: December 27, 2017 Updated: December 27, 2017 at 11:51 AM
Shutterstock Woman holding a cell phone, texting.

Usually, bad sex in literature is unintentional; few things are more difficult to write about convincingly. But author Kristen Roupenian did it on purpose — and has seen her short story Cat Person go viral.

Not only has the story become the second-most viewed item on the New Yorker’s website for 2017 and drawn a huge number of responses on social media, it’s garnered Roupenian a seven-figure book contract. Not bad for a writer who had fewer than 200 Twitter followers before this month.

All this because of a story about an awkward date and even more awkward sex.

Timing, of course, is everything. Cat Person has made such a splash not just because it’s a splendidly well-crafted story — although it is — but because it touched a cultural nerve in the era of #MeToo, revelations of sexual harassment and assault by a growing lineup of public figures, and heightened awareness of the issue of consent.

Cat Person appeared in the New Yorker’s Dec. 11 issue. (Read it at bit.ly/2zMJqKU.) It rapidly received so many views that it ended up in the magazine’s No. 2 spot for the year, between Ronan Farrow’s expose of Harvey Weinstein at No. 1 and Anthony Scaramucci’s scaldingly profane interview at No. 3.

On Dec. 20 came the announcement that Roupenian had signed a contract to write two books for Simon & Schuster’s Scout Press. Salon reported the estimated price tag at $1.2 million for a short story collection, You Know You Want This, to be published in 2019, plus a novel.

That is, to put it mildly, a staggering amount for a debut fiction writer. At 36, Roupenian has been writing for five years, after working as a Peace Corps volunteer, teacher’s aide, bookstore cashier and nanny before receiving her doctorate in English from Harvard, then earning a master’s from the University of Michigan’s writing program.

She’s a talented writer, but the size of that paycheck has a lot to do with the viral response to one story.

Cat Person is told from the point of view of Margot, a 20-year-old college sophomore, who makes a desultory connection with a customer while she’s working at a movie theater concession stand. She’s only mildly attracted to Robert, who’s in his 30s, but gives him her phone number, which leads to a blossoming relationship — via text.

In electronic space they get along great, cracking jokes and flirting. In real life their encounters are all missed signals, culminating in a dreary date that leads to sex that Margot describes in all its clumsy detail.

Their encounter is consensual, not a sexual assault, but what might be striking a nerve with many readers is Margot’s play-by-play of her emotional confusion once she realizes she really isn’t attracted to Robert but doesn’t know how to exit the situation: "(S)he knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared, but that she would carry through with it until it was over."

It’s a reaction many women recognize. Margot is the product of a culture in which women are often taught that managing men’s emotions is their responsibility, whatever the cost: "She was starting to think that she understood him — how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded — and that made her feel closer to him, and also powerful, because once she knew how to hurt him she also knew how he could be soothed."

Margot, of course, doesn’t know Robert at all, any more than he knows her. The story ends with a gut-punch twist that leaves no one looking good.

The viral reaction to Cat Person has, predictably, split along gender lines. Many women have reacted on social media with another round of "me too" — at some point in our lives, many of us have been Margot. Some male commenters, on the other hand, have interpreted the story as an attack on men, defending Robert and slut-shaming Margot.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the response is how many people comment about Margot and Robert as if they were real people, rather than fictional characters. Many posters called Cat Person an "article" or "essay," rather than a short story. In the Twitter thread
@MenCatPerson, one man wrote, "I was really bothered for and by Robert. ... he was ultimately the victim." Dude, he’s not real.

Media outlets have pounced on Cat Person as well. The BBC website posted a version retelling the story (pretty badly) from Robert’s point of view. No author is credited with it, and whoever wrote it should not hold his breath for a million-dollar book deal. The National Review published an unintentionally hilarious, mansplaining column, "Dear Cat-Person Girl," by Kyle Smith, who does sound like Robert, or maybe Robert’s preachy brother.

Even the photograph that illustrates Cat Person in the magazine, an extreme closeup of a misaligned kiss by photographer Elinor Carucci, has roused enough discussion for the New Yorker to post an interview with her about the shot.

The confusion about the story’s "reality" is born in part of Roupenian’s skill in creating such believable characters. But it’s also, ironically, of a piece with a phenomenon the story explores: how we construct identities for ourselves in the digital realm that might not have much to do with our real lives. The line between fictional and real people is getting blurred, and not just in Cat Person.

During that disastrous sexual encounter, Margot is dismayed to find herself feeling like "a prop for the movie that was playing in his head."

But her version of Robert is equally unreal. After she drops him, "she’d realize that it was Robert she missed, not the real Robert but the Robert she’d imagined on the other end of all those text messages."

Of course, human beings have always constructed favorable versions of themselves to attract partners. And none of us ever truly knows what’s inside anyone else’s head; it’s one of the running jokes of the human condition.

But for Margot and Robert all those clever texts that seem to bring them close have created distance instead, a distance they can’t cross to talk about their real desires, their real selves. Maybe that fictional divide, and all the viral chatter it’s provoked, might lead to real conversations.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.