Last week, a New Yorker short story went viral. But, despite the “fiction” tag at the top of the article, many people didn’t read “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s first story for the magazine, as such — on Twitter, readers referred to it as an “article,” “essay,” or, simply, “piece.” When I tweeted out this observation, the consensus came rolling in:
“I didn’t realise [sic] it was a piece of fiction rather than journalism until I reached the end and it just ended without some summing up/moral,” one user posted. “I honestly thought it was an article at first because I just associate New Yorker pieces linked around with newsy stuff,” wrote another.
What, exactly, is happening when so many people mistake literature for “newsy” confession? It’s easy to see why “Cat Person” struck a chord: It’s zeitgeist-y, relatable, and written in an approachable, everyday vernacular. Its narrative is unsettling, the characterization of its protagonists keenly observed in a way that feels piercingly real to a millennial readership. But “Cat Person” seems to have transcended its form as a short story — or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the discourse around it reflects how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction has collapsed in recent years. In short, we are failing as readers.
“Cat Person” centers on two characters: Margot, a twenty-year-old college student, and Robert, a socially awkward man in his thirties. Written in a realist style, and largely from Margot’s perspective, the story follows the development of their nascent relationship, conducted primarily over text message, after they meet at the movie theater where Margot works part-time. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Robert is not the man Margot has been largely projecting onto his texts, nor is he actually someone she wants to date — and the relationship sours in a climactic, revealing ending.
When “Cat Person,” which appears in the New Yorker’s December 11 issue, was first published online a couple of weeks ago, some read it as a feminist text, and scorned anyone who didn’t reach the same conclusion. Others derided the story’s apparent fat-phobia, in the way that Robert’s body (“his belly thick and soft and covered with hair”) is repeatedly described. Still others commented on the sheer relatability of the narrative, which seemed to flow right out of the dating misadventures of so many millennial women — and so many millennial personal essays. In fact, on Twitter, many readers expressed surprise that the story was fictional because of its relatability — after all, as one reader tweeted, most women in their twenties or thirties have had similarly degrading experiences with sex and dating. Even the right-wing National Review weighed in, with a piece called “Dear Cat-Person Girl,” written in the form of a letter to Margot that chides her for having slept with seven men by age twenty: “You’re only a fictional character, Margot, but at the same time, you’re not.”
These readings engage with “Cat Person” on a sociocritical level, as a kind of fable with a moral that pops off the page and into our personal lives. This isn’t a particularly new approach to criticism — consider the multitude of “Is X Feminist?” or “Why X is Feminist” think pieces that regularly clutter our newsfeeds, a mode of interpretation that was popularized on the pop-culture blogs of the early Tens, and that lives on in most new media properties. As the language of social justice began to enter the media sphere, and our daily lexicon, it was easy — and profitable — for online outlets to push out this kind of low-maintenance, high-energy, easy-to-digest criticism that examined pop culture for its superficial adherence (or failure to adhere) to liberal politics, in a kind of battle of the wokest. What became a reliance on click-y, social media–friendly headlines further collapsed any hint of nuance in this kind of analysis. The online response to “Cat Person” is evidence of the damage this mode has done to our collective ability to separate the realm of art from the realm of reality.
When we treat a short story like a personal essay, we end up, like Margot, projecting our own ideals onto the characters. Instead of viewing fiction as an opportunity to enrich our view of the world, or as a way to explore emotional and philosophical themes — in the way that a painting, for example, explores color — we’re asking it for lessons on how to live. When we cannot even understand that a short story is fiction, and that a writer has carefully chosen how to construct her world, with its own architecture and a universe separate from our own, we flatten it completely, and we also flatten our own ability to think critically.
There’s a larger pattern here. We look to novels, TV shows, and movies to teach us political lessons instead of engaging with their critical frameworks; consider, for example, recent reactions to Wonder Woman and the backlash against the all-woman casting of Ghostbusters. But when we read a text looking for ways to live, instead of looking for ways to consider the world, we don’t develop the moral and ethical compass that we need to make decisions of our own willingness and accord — not at the behest of some other, woker character or writer. If the extent of our critical-thinking skills is a Harry Potter metaphor comparing the Death Eaters to the Republican Party, we’re fucked. Our politics must be living, and they must derive from moral and ethical standards that we hold within our own hearts — and that we glean from the world around us, not the world of a fictional universe.
Our ability to be critical readers is important for writers, too. Fiction allows us to say things that we cannot say in life — to embark on trajectories of experience that we might never have access to in reality. To take this power away from artists — their very ability to create and construct, to use the material of life in the way that a painter uses oil colors or an illustrator a pen — is, as the author Tanwi Nandini Islam put it, “suffocating.”
When we look to our texts to teach us not how to think, but what to think, we suffer for it — as artists and consumers of art, but also as citizens. We further collapse the distinction between truth and lies, fact and fiction, which is something we cannot afford to do at a time when Donald Trump’s cries of “fake news” are being taken up by despots around the world. We cannot give in to easy reading. We simply must be better readers of the texts we encounter — especially now, when so much is at stake, and when so much of our daily lives takes place in the world of words.