Monday, July 23, 2018
Books

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

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. 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.

Comments
Review: Kent Wascom's 'New Inheritors' a novel of love, power on the gulf coast

Review: Kent Wascom's 'New Inheritors' a novel of love, power on the gulf coast

When a woman looks at the hands of the toddler who will become the main character of The New Inheritors, she sees "written in the lines of his palms a bird’s vision of the rivers and creeks that fanned across the region of his birth, the upper ...
Published: 07/20/18
After writing ‘Squeezed,’ about the economy, Alissa Quart reads poetry

After writing ‘Squeezed,’ about the economy, Alissa Quart reads poetry

Alissa QuartYou might find brand-new information in Quart’s book, Squeezed; however, you might also find she is providing a simple answer to your question: No, you are not crazy. Even with your college degree and full-time job, it is extremely diffic...
Published: 07/19/18
Review: Ace Atkins’ ‘The Sinners’ a bloody, and funny, trip to the altar

Review: Ace Atkins’ ‘The Sinners’ a bloody, and funny, trip to the altar

There’s always so much to deal with in the weeks before your wedding. For Quinn Colson, there’s his mother’s threat to sing Elvis karaoke if he doesn’t hire a band, the question of whether his long-gone stuntman daddy will show up at all, his bride-t...
Published: 07/18/18
Tampa Bay Rowdies player Hunter Gorskie is reading about better nights and mornings

Tampa Bay Rowdies player Hunter Gorskie is reading about better nights and mornings

Hunter GorskieBecause soccer fans around the world will be watching the FIFA World Cup’s crowning game today, we decided to touch base with one of our own soccer players: Hunter Gorskie, the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ No. 27. Gorskie, a defender who played c...
Published: 07/13/18
Lori Roy’s novel ‘The Disappearing’ draws from Florida’s Dozier and Ted Bundy

Lori Roy’s novel ‘The Disappearing’ draws from Florida’s Dozier and Ted Bundy

TIERRA VERDEAuthor Lori Roy has lived in Florida since 1996, but it wasn’t until her fourth novel that she wrote a story set in the state. "I just wrote an essay for CrimeReads on the intersection of Southern Gothic and crime fiction," Roy says. "You...
Published: 07/12/18
Review: St. Petersburg author Gale Massey deals a winning debut with ‘Girl From Blind River’

Review: St. Petersburg author Gale Massey deals a winning debut with ‘Girl From Blind River’

Life has dealt Jamie Elders a lousy hand. The 19-year-old wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible from her hometown, a bleak little corner of New York state called Blind River. But she’s stuck there. In the opening chapters of ...
Updated one month ago
‘Barracoon’ editor Deborah Plant on discovering Zora Neale Hurston, reading Alice Walker

‘Barracoon’ editor Deborah Plant on discovering Zora Neale Hurston, reading Alice Walker

Deborah PlantWe caught up with Plant, the editor of Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo," a newly published book by Zora Neale Hurston, after her recent appearance at the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center. The book is based on Hurs...
Updated one month ago

Book events: John Cinchett to discuss ‘Historic Tampa Churches’

Book TalkJohn Cinchett (Historic Tampa Churches) will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.Teacher and author Rob Sanders reads from his new children’s book, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and...
Updated one month ago
Poet Donald Hall’s ‘A Carnival of Losses,’ to be published after his death, offers essays on his life

Poet Donald Hall’s ‘A Carnival of Losses,’ to be published after his death, offers essays on his life

Donald Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, died on June 23 at his home in Wilmot, N.H. He was 89. An influential poet for more than 60 years, the prolific Hall published more than 20 poetry collections as well as memoirs, fiction, essays, biographies,...
Updated one month ago
Review: Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ a powerful portrait of urban Indian life

Review: Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ a powerful portrait of urban Indian life

Every American is a child of immigrants.The only difference is how long ago your forebears came here from another land, by sail or steam, on foot or by jet engine, by choice or by enslavement.The clear winners of that contest, of course, are Native A...
Updated one month ago