Cat Person Discourse or Writing as Betrayal
On hybrid art in the age of the internet
Cast your minds back to December 2017. Trump’s been in office for just over a year; the Me Too movement, originally started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, has exploded across mainstream media in the wake of the Weinstein allegations. As its aftershocks ripple across the following months, the New Yorker publishes a short story called “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. Are we all there?
What I remember most about Cat Person’s publication is how quickly it exploded. It was arguably the first viral short story – I say ‘arguably’ because, as any of my fellow teen tumblr addicts circa 2010 will tell you, the real first viral short story was “The Egg” by Andy Weir.
Depicting the brief relationship between a twenty-year-old college student named Margot and an older man called Robert, Roupenian’s story appeared to articulate many of the thornier, more nuanced issues brought up by the Me Too movement – about coercive consent, about power dynamics between young women and older men, and about what is right or wrong in a sexual encounter. Indeed, many people responded to its matter-of-fact prose style as though it was non-fiction. It seemed eerily realistic, recognisable. It was almost sickeningly mundane.
Last month, an article was published on Slate. It was published under various names, but the one I first saw it under was “I’ve Always Suspected ‘Cat Person’ Was Based on My Life. Now I Know It Was.”
It was written by Alexis Nowicki, who recounted how, when Cat Person was first published, she received a flurry of messages from friends and acquaintances asking if it was based on her life. When she read it for herself, hyper-specific details seemed to match up: the independent cinema where she had worked during college, the string of fairy lights over her ex’s porch, even the name of the town she was from. It was unsettling, but she wrote it off as a strange coincidence.
When the ex-boyfriend in question unexpectedly died, Nowicki discovered that her life had indeed inspired some elements of Cat Person, as Roupenian had also known and dated him. In the article, she grapples with what it is like to have your intimate experiences warped through fiction by someone you don’t know, and how that is made additionally challenging when navigating loss.
Much like the short story that occasioned it, the article instantly trended on Twitter. As is wont to happen in these situations, two polarised camps quickly formed.
On one side, there were those who thought that what Roupenian had done – basing characters recognisably on people in her life at all, but especially using hyper-specific details – was transparently unethical, even cruel.
On the other, there were those who propounded the view that Roupenian simply did what all writers do: she took the raw material she found in her own life, and she transformed it into fiction. It wasn’t great, but them’s the breaks.
Like any anxious people-pleaser and aspiring novelist who constantly worries that all her friends are mad at her, I fall somewhere in the middle of this debate.
I confess I recognise Roupenian’s magpie impulse in my own writing. Casting my eye back over it I have wondered, if my writing reached the kind of fame Cat Person did, would people I’ve known see a funhouse image of themselves reflected there? I’d like to think I’d change the identifying details – but still, would that be enough? Would it even be the point?
Rereading the short story for this article, I was struck once again by how searingly real it all seems. So much of its success relied on the way that Roupenian guts her characters: she turns them inside out and exposes their deep insecurities, the way that their shorn nerves are exposed to one another and jangled in the mess of their human interactions.
In fiction, this is masterful. But confronted with the ways in which this story is tethered to reality transforms the reading experience into something altogether more uncomfortable. I thought what it must have been like to be Nowicki or the pseydonymous Charles, aligned with these characters out of their own control. Seeing elements of their lives attached to them and thinking, is this me? Is this what I’m like?
The most heartbreaking part of Nowicki’s article was this paragraph:
“The story is so confident and sure, helping the reader to see things Margot herself does not. In December, David told me that Charles kept his old iPhone even after he got a new one so that he could look back at his old messages with Kristen from time to time to see whether he had actually been an asshole. Sometimes it feels easier to believe the story that everyone knows than the one they don’t.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel conflicted about the nature of the story, or a little distressed by the private toll that the story’s success had on Nowicki and Charles.
However, I also have to tell you that this scenario is nothing new. Writers have been plundering their lives and the lives of others for as long as there has been writing; I guarantee you that any author you love will have left behind them a trampled path of people whose characteristics they have pilfered, perhaps even a few who, like Nowicki, were unnerved by its closeness to life.
What does it mean to say that a person “inspired” a piece of fiction, particularly if that person is around to complain of the alignment? We are often not the best judges of our own character. Reading fiction – reading anything – can be like reading a horoscope: you identify what you feel applies to you and discard or disregard the rest, both in bad faith and in good. If the goal of fiction is to make a stranger think “I feel seen”, it is perhaps no surprise that an acquaintance or a friend would think “I feel exposed” – but does that mean that they are the fictional person, or have more right than any other reader to object to that character’s treatment?
Yes and no. Personally, I think the lesson here is that Roupenian – and all writers, really – should give themselves and the people they borrow from some plausible deniability in their work. Does keeping such specific identifying details add anything to the story besides the hurt and confusion of the people you borrow them from? Probably not.
That said, I understand why this didn’t happen. Cat Person had an unprecedented level of exposure, even for a New Yorker story. If you ask most people to name three New Yorker short stories published in the last five years, I would be willing to bet that most (myself included) would only be able to name one, and that one would be Cat Person. It is a piece that lives online, that was borne along on the zeitgeist of confessional stories and was swept up in it. That’s not Roupenian’s fault – it’s more a function of timely magazine editing than anything else – but it means that the explosion of interest was unprecedented and pervasive.
It also means that when it came into contact with Nowicki’s piece, also online, they seemed to face off against one another on the flat plane of the screen, visually and tangibly almost interchangeable. It’s almost like a parable of online forms, designed to illustrate the difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction on the internet, from distinguishing them at all.
Ultimately, I feel that this is a personal drama disguised as a broader one. It reveals things about the nature of art, but not necessarily new ones – perhaps the newest thing is how these things operate in the context of the now-ness of the Internet. It’s a cautionary tale for writers who are lazy about disguising their influences, and a terrible complication for Nowicki, who is already navigating the minefield of loss.
We will likely see many more such dramas in the age of online literature. The interesting thing perhaps, then, is the choice of those to come forward and claim the shadow self they see on the page. This act of triangulation pulls the fiction further into life than it would have been otherwise; everyone may have known the character before, but know they will ‘know’ its alleged counterpart, or counterparts. In the story of Cat Person I think this is the most interesting thing: Roupenian warped the image and Nowicki claimed it; between them they have created a hybrid story that hinges on the question of how fictional fiction can really be.
As far as the nature of this creature or the answer to the question, as far as I can see, the jury is still out.