For reasons that people are now trying to determine, this weekend the internet turned its collective gaze to a short story called “Cat Person.” Published in the December 11 issue of The New Yorker, and now the publication’s most-read short story of the year, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian follows the short relationship between a 20-year-old college student named Margot and a 34-year-old man named Robert. Told in close third-person from Margot’s perspective, the story deals with how emotions can be conveyed and hidden and misinterpreted, especially through texting. The story hinges on an awkward date that ends in the central pair having consensual sex, despite Margot having been turned off along the way. Later, when she ends things between the two of them—over text, of course—Robert reacts poorly.
Response to the story has varied from praise for its relatability to flat dismissal to jokes about how everyone is talking about a—Who’da thunk it?—short story of all things, with much of the conversation focusing on who is the more sympathetic character between Margot and Robert. On Sunday, someone created a “Men React To Cat Person” Twitter account, compiling screenshots of responses to the story, wherein some men express confusion over its merits, others defend Robert as the story’s victim, and one wonders if the story should exist at all, stating that the events depicted don’t just happen to women:
It’s the same kind of thinking that, after hearing a real-life story of a woman being catcalled or harassed or worse, prompts some to declare, “Not all men.” As though that’s what a woman were trying to prove—that all men are horrible—when she shares such an account. She is instead saying, “This happened, because this kind of thing happens.” So it goes with this story: This is but one depiction of one instance in which one fictional man and one fictional woman fail to relate to or understand each other, a depiction that nevertheless aligns with very real contemporary gender dynamics.
Debating over who’s the bigger jerk in this, or any, work of fiction misses the point. Neither character is perfect, and what drives Roupenian’s story is how their flaws rub up against each other. Robert lets his insecurities overtake him, and Margot, who, again, is only 20 years old, cannot yet vocalize what she wants or needs, having come of age in a society that expects women to perform a great deal of emotional work to protect others’, especially men’s, feelings. “Cat Person” illustrates how such a gendered scenario might play out, but again, it must be said, in this one very specific imagined situation.
And yet because so many people came to the story through social media, as opposed to having the print issue delivered to their mail boxes, they clicked through and read without seeing its “fiction” designation. This no doubt encouraged some people to read the story not only as nonfiction but also as something that was up for debate, something they should or should not agree with. “Ours is an age where the reductive aesthetics of the broadsheet prevail, so it’s inevitable that some readers view ‘Cat Person’ as weighing in on a timely issue and offering up lessons, the way personal essays are so often inclined to do,” Laura Miller writes in a piece for Slate. This has, for better or worse, become the way we read nearly everything on the internet, as texts that must engage with a predominant conversation, then be fought over and nitpicked ad nauseum, as though each article, tweet, or Facebook post might somehow be the last word on a subject.
But even those who knew the story was fiction might be forgiven for treating “Cat Person” like an essay. Subverting the old maxim of show don’t tell, the story explains itself as it goes along, in a way that can make it feel overly determined and like the author is indeed trying to argue something. Consider this sentence, which comes during the pair’s date after Margot is refused entry into a bar and Robert kisses her: “With the drinks in front of him and the kiss behind him, and also maybe because she had cried, Robert became much more relaxed, more like the witty person she knew through his texts.” Not to Gordon Lish this thing, but what if everything but “Robert became much more relaxed” were deleted? Presenting the characters’ actions without the attendant interpretation would have required readers to come to their own conclusions about what those actions mean. The prose’s “when this happened, it made Margot feel this” one-two rhythm conjures the kind of confessions one finds in personal essays. Claire Fallon goes further in a piece for HuffPost, saying, “Roupenian’s story is the fiction version of ‘It Happened To Me: I Had Bad Sex Because It Felt Awkward To Say No.’” Snark aside, Fallon is onto something. “Cat Person” feels familiar, just not as a short story.
Both the prose style and the social media context in which many people arrived at the story may help explain why “Cat Person” was treated as both an essay and as an argument about how men and women relate to one another. But “Cat Person” is not an argument. No short story is. And if it were an argument for anything, it would be an argument only for itself, for its existence as a work of art—which, in this case, is both reinforced and diluted with each click, opinion, and share.