Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday! The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.
Because this week is my university’s finals week, leaving little time for me to read anything but textbooks, and because this week also contained the incredible viral phenomenon of “Cat Person,” this week’s post won’t be a roundup, but rather a collection of my thoughts on Kristen Roupenian’s firecracker of a story, instead.
Ready? Buckle in.
“Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian
- genre: literary fiction
- publication: The New Yorker
- date: published online Dec. 4, published in print December 11, 2017
“Cat Person” belongs to my new favorite mini-genre: “bad sex and its consequences.” Bearded loner Robert hits on sophomore Margot while she’s working at a movie theatre, and their relationship quickly gets complicated. Robert’s hot-and-cold texts and Margot’s hot-and-cold responses culminate in one spectacularly terrible date and a last word that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever online-dated, ever.
The internet went nuts, both because it’s a “lowbrow” story published in the “highbrow” New Yorker (a characterization I think is debatable), and because it’s a story that hits a nerve in the midst of acrid conversations about sexual harassment and assault.
I absolutely loved this story. I can see and even agree with many of the criticisms leveled at it–I saw several tweets that compared it to the internet’s craze for photorealistic art, which is criticized for capturing reality without actually commenting on it–but “Cat Person” pushed my emotional buttons regardless, and it put a college-age female protagonist on the pages of the New Yorker–something I thought could only happen on a frigid day in hell.
I loved Roupenian’s characterization of Margot and Robert as selfish people going through the motions of something that can bring out the worst in people: dating. I didn’t see it as condemning men–though, predictably, some men have taken it that way–but rather, as condemning a system that treats women (particularly white women like Margot) as prizes, and men as entitled to those prizes after certain mechanical motions have been performed.
Shameless plug: I explored similar themes in my short story, “Attention,” which was recently published in Cat on a Leash Review. In “Attention,” closeted lesbian Ingrid dates a man because it’s easier than articulating her own desires; in “Cat Person,” Margot dates Robert because it’s easier to be pursued than to pursue. That exploration of the self-preservation and selfishness that women cultivate in a sexist world is bottomlessly interesting to me.
Perhaps most importantly, as I mentioned above, the thing I loved most about “Cat Person” is the tantalizing promise of the New Yorker opening itself up to new kinds of fiction. I’ve devoured the New Yorker’s nonfiction sections for years, but I often find their fiction suffocating in its sameness. “Cat Person” isn’t boundary-shattering, but it’s certainly boundary-pushing, and I hope it opens the door for more women writers and particularly more women of color writing about experiences deemed “lowbrow” because they aren’t happening to the white upper-middle class. (It’s rarely admitted, but you know it’s true.)
And one last note: Can we talk about how ridiculous it is that there’s wonderful realistic fiction for children and teens, and wonderful realistic fiction for older adults, but rarely anything for people in their early 20’s? And that the stuff that is out there is usually about ridiculously wealthy Brooklynites and not ordinary folks? If you’re 18-24, “Cat Person” is worth reading for its demographically-appropriate protagonist alone.
What were your thoughts on “Cat Person”? What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!