Illustration by Fiona Ostby.
This debate contains spoilers for “Cat Person,” as well as discussion of rape and sexual abuse, which may be triggering to some readers. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and to get rid of all our little verbal tics, because we uh, um, like, I think, used a lot of them, you know what I mean?
Frankie: When I pulled this up on the New Yorker website, I had to scroll very quickly so as not to see it.
Peyton (in a traumatized whimper): I know.
Frankie: There’s no escaping it. I saw it anyway.
Peyton: It’s pretty bad. The whole experience of reading “Cat Person is pretty viscerally gross, but the cover image really…
Frankie: I really think that art played a major role in why the story went viral. People saw that picture and they just had to know what this was.
Peyton: Yeah, it’s a brilliant choice of cover art for sure. Whatever nasty things I may say for the next little while, that photo is untouchable.
Frankie: ‘Photograph by Elinor Carucci for the New Yorker,’ so whoever she is, I hope she’s having a great day.
Peyton: Congratulations, Elinor Carucci.
So, I think we should again introduce ourselves, if you want to go ahead.
Frankie: Me first! Okay. I am Frankie Thomas. I am just a few weeks away from getting my MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Frankie: And for the last year, I have been teaching creative writing to undergraduates here at the University of Iowa. I have taught “Cat Person” to students twice, and so has a lot of my cohort here. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last year thinking about how young people read this story, and how older people read it. We all love it here in the Workshop — many of us do, anyway — and sometimes we find that our students do not love the story as much as we expect them to. And so I’ve had a lot on my mind about this story lately, and I’m just excited to discuss it with you.
Peyton: Yes! We had a very productive pre-debate chat about it, so I’m looking forward to this as well. My name is Peyton Thomas, no relation to Frankie, and I am a young adult writer. My writing’s appeared in Vanity Fair, Billboard, Pitchfork, and a number of other outlets, and I’m the creative director here at the Niche. This is our second debate for the “Is This Bad or Good?” literary debate series.
Frankie: But we’ve switched places now!
Peyton: Yes, we’ve switched places. Today, I’ll be arguing that “Cat Person” is awful, and Frankie will be arguing that she loves it. So, shall we get started?
By the way, I’m talking to you while painting my apartment, so if you hear noises or anything, that’s what that is.
Frankie: Oh, I have such a vivid image now, thank you. What colour are you painting it? I really want to know the colour.
Peyton: Green, like a nice leaf green in the main area.
Frankie: Oh, interesting. I’m picturing you in your green room. Okay, take it away.
Peyton: I’ll post a picture with the debate.
Okay, so, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian debuted in the fall of 2017, in the midst of a number of high-profile accusations of sexual abuse against various celebrities. Perhaps due to the context that it was released in, it immediately went viral in a way that is very, very unusual, I think, for fiction, and for short fiction in particular. When I first became aware of it, it was receiving universal praise. Literally everyone I knew who had read it loved it. But as time has gone on, and more and more people have read it, that initial adulation has been called into question.
I remember that whole period, the fall of 2017, being very difficult for me. I didn’t see this acknowledged enough: when the headlines every single day, day in and day out, are all graphic stories of sexual abuse, that can wear on a person. So, perhaps for that reason, my reaction to “Cat Person” was fatigue more than anything. I just didn’t think that it was doing anything particularly groundbreaking. I didn’t think that it handled the subject matter especially sensitively. And I really didn’t feel that Margot, the protagonist, read like a real person. So, those were the big things for me.
Frankie: I had a similar experience, first encountering this story. For future generations reading this debate, I cannot even convey to you how viral this story went. No literary fiction has ever, ever gone internet viral the way “Cat Person” did. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you would go to jail if you didn’t read “Cat Person.” It was obviously on everybody’s mind. People were sending it to me and talking to me about it before I had even heard what it was. That was how viral it was. And because everybody was talking about “Cat Person,” it was hard to form an objective opinion about it at the time. I felt a lot of pressure to generate a take about it, one way or the other.
But now that over a year has passed, I think it holds up. Now that the virality of it has died down, I still find it is a wonderful literary short story, and that’s why I use it as a teaching tool in my classes. It is a really good story to teach the concept of close third person narration. I’ve also used it very successfully to teach my students the concept of time in fiction, and how, in prose writing, you have this wonderful control over how much time you allow to pass on the page. Most of “Cat Person” is paced very quickly, and a lot of action is summarized very quickly, but once we get to the excruciating sex scene, it slows down to just an unbearably slow pace. And I love taking my students through it. I coined the expression “literary bullet time” to talk about how slow that sex scene is.
Now, that said, there is one complaint I do have about this story, which is the ending. And we can talk about that later. But other than that, I am a strong defender of “Cat Person” as just a simple, classic literary fiction story.
Peyton: It’s interesting that you mention the ending, because the very first thing that I saw about it was someone — I think it was the journalist Jessica Hopper — tweeting: “the last line of this thing, wow.” So I was kind of rushing through the story, excited for that last line to hit me, and then it really didn’t. It didn’t make the impact that I’d been bracing myself for.
Frankie: I mean, I’m really undermining my own side of the debate here, so we could save this for later, but I do think that last line of the story is a major reason the story went so viral. Because it’s such a gut punch. It’s just so powerful and strong on the first reading. But on subsequent readings, I think that it flattens out the story.
Peyton: I’m sure we’ll get to that, and I do know what you mean. What character work is being done here is made less complex by that last line.
There’s actually one more thing I wanted to talk about before we get into it. You said that you’ve taught this to students, freshman college students?
Frankie: Yeah, college kids.
Peyton: And you and all your friends at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you all put this on your syllabi, and you were very excited about how it would resonate with your students. And the students really didn’t connect with it at all and didn’t like it. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you and your fellow teachers were very surprised by that.
Frankie: That’s a bit of a generalization, but I’ve definitely talked to multiple friends here who were so excited to share “Cat Person” with their students and then were totally blindsided when their students just didn’t get excited about it. The common complaint was that it was boring. It’s hard for me to imagine a less boring story, so that was really surprising feedback. There was also criticism along the lines of “the main characters are unlikeable,” which is a very common 101-level way to look at this story. And then there was at least one incident of a girl refusing to read it at all, because she claimed to have been triggered by it. The negative reactions ran the gamut from boredom to trauma.
Peyton: So, quite a lot of blowback there. There may be generational difference in the way it’s perceived and who likes it. I’m sure we’ll get into this.
But let’s go back to what you said about the concept of time in this story. I would concede that that’s one of the most effective things that “Cat Person” does. Now, why do you think it is so effective, and do you think there’s anything related to the specific time period in which it was announced that made her technique particularly impactful?
Frankie: To answer the first part of your question, there are many reasons this story went viral, but one of the key reasons it retained its readers from the very first sentence onward is that the first half of the story moves very, very quickly. I talk to my students a lot about the concept of scene versus summary. The first half of the story is very summary-heavy, but in a very breezy way that never makes you feel bogged down or confused. If it were a physical book, it would be a page-turner, you know? Every sentence very quickly leads you to the next one, and it’s very easy to just follow the plot and want to know what happens next.
And that is why, when she decides to just slow down and really inhabit the moment of the sex scene, the reader — at least, this reader — feels the way Margot feels in that moment. Sometimes, in real life, when you don’t want to be where you are, it feels like time has slowed down. I love that the story literalizes that on the formal level and actually slows down the pacing just when you wish that time would pass more quickly. One thing we can all agree on is that the sex scene feels like it’s never going to end.
Peyton: That’s a plus for you, but not for me. I just re-read it this afternoon, and when I got to the sex scene, all I could think about was that awful, awful photo, and the way the story calls back to it, like, “the hairy shelf of his belly.” I just, like… full-body cringe.
It’s interesting that you bring up the point of timing, and how it kind of clicks along summarizing until it gets to the sex scene, and then it slows down, and then we get every detail. It mirrors the style of the #MeToo journalism that was being published at the time. There was a certain point in that whole cavalcade of bad news about sexual abusers where I had to make a deal with myself and say: okay, you can look at the headline, you can read the summary, but don’t actually go into the matter of the article and read the blow-by-blow of the sexual abuse. I’d noticed after a couple weeks of these exposés that I was constantly on edge all the time, and it was like, hello, you’re reading graphic accounts of sexual abuse all day every day. And I found that “Cat Person” mirrored the format of those articles. The conventional structure of the #MeToo report is a very efficient summary — who the person is, his career, how he met the accuser — and now we’re going to get into every single excruciating detail of what happened between those two people. When “Cat Person” arrived, it wasn’t doing anything structurally that I hadn’t already seen forty times in the past month.
Frankie: Right, like that Aziz Ansari exposé. It’s structured a lot like that.
Peyton: I heard “Cat Person” compared to the Aziz Ansari exposé a lot, maybe because it was the closest accusation in content.
Frankie: I never thought about that before, but you’re right. I seem to remember that “Cat Person” was met with something like relief by people who had been following the #MeToo moment. And I think even though “Cat Person” looks a lot like the Aziz Ansari exposé, I think even though it superficially resembles the structure of articles like that, what made this one come as a relief is that, unlike in those articles, we’re not expected to litigate in “Cat Person.” Whether Robert did a good thing or a bad thing. Whether Robert is a good guy or a bad guy. Until that ending, which we can talk about later, again.
When that story went viral, I remember people pointing to it with a kind of exuberant relief and saying things along the lines of, “See, this is what it means to have bad sex that is still consensual.” I don’t recall there being much of a move to position Margot as a victim in this story. She has agency in this story. She is so, so making choices. “Cat Person” is very much about how one choice leads to the next choice. I think it was a comfort, at the time, for people to read a story that was about terrible sex between a man and a woman that was actually not a rape story. It was a reminder that sometimes people just have a bad time together, and it’s not someone’s fault, and it’s not someone getting hurt. And whether you like that aspect of the story or not, I do think it’s a significant factor in why it went viral when it did.
Peyton: And I’ll concede that “Cat Person” was a valuable addition to the conversation at that time. We hadn’t really figured out how to define that kind of grey area sex, where something that you did want turned into a very unpleasant experience midway through the encounter. At one point, Margot explicitly thinks, “Any chance of enjoyment had gone out the window.” So it was useful in that respect. But again, I think anything interesting or useful that the story was trying to do with ambiguity was undercut at the end by making Robert unambiguously scummy.
Frankie: Yeah, I’m of two minds about it, because that ending was definitely what made such a splash at the time. I don’t think people would have remembered the story if it weren’t for the shock of that last word — which is, for those of you who just tuned in, “Whore.”
It’s a sacrifice that the author chose to make, I think: to have a huge punch on the first reading that would diminish the pleasure of subsequent readings.
Peyton: And that line, the way it flattens some of the complexity in the earlier character work, brings us to the point of characterization. To me, these didn’t feel like human characters as much as stand-ins for moral ideas. We didn’t learn anything about who Margot was, or what she liked to do, or what she looked like, or anything like that. She just seemed to be an archetype. Though we got a more vivid description of Robert, it always felt like he was a stand-in for a scummy guy rather than being a unique personality whose scumminess would reveal itself. Even on a narrative level, it felt like Margot was removed from her own circumstances, observing and judging the situation in real time. My initial reaction to it was: I don’t feel like I just read a story about a real person. I didn’t get a sense that the characters had exceeded their roles in the story to become actual people.
Frankie: This is the thing on which you and I diverge most dramatically. I can’t be objective about this. I’m always scolding my students not to call things relatable, but this is the word I have to use here — so I’m sorry, students, I’m being a bad role model here — but I related to Margot so much reading this story. And I think many, many readers did, as well. I felt like I was Margot. As I read her thoughts and her reactions to what was happening, I didn’t need to know who Margot was, because Margot was me. I projected myself into her body and her shoes, and I felt like I was reading a story about myself. I guess it’s up for debate here, whether the story is only enjoyable for people who can see themselves in Margot? It sounds like you don’t enjoy it because you can’t.
Peyton: I actually can, but I don’t know that I like that about the story. Maybe that’s what I was picking up on. Maybe this was all a very deliberate effort to make the main character a cipher, and I don’t like that! I don’t like that you’re assuming these things about me, Miss Kristen, by trying to make your main character a stand-in for anyone who might read your story!
Frankie: I think it sheds some light on why older readers enjoy this story and college students don’t. You used the word “cipher,” and the fact of the matter is that when I look back on my much-younger self, I think, in many ways, I was a cipher. Which is not to say that I had no personality or no mind of my own. But when I think about how much I have grown and changed since I was, say, twenty — which I think is Margot’s age in the story — I’m like, “Oh my God, twenty-year-old Frankie didn’t know what she was doing. She had no moral values. She had no awareness of the feelings of others.”
So maybe older readers enjoy this story because they are looking at Margot through older eyes and thinking, “Yes, that is what twenty-year-olds are like.” And they think it with compassion for their younger selves, but recognition that a twenty-year-old is just not as mentally sophisticated or as developed as we all like to think we are now. And that actually explains a lot why current college students do not enjoy this story. Because, of course, no one thinks of oneself as a cipher in the moment. It’s only in retrospect that you can see yourself as a cipher. I use the word “cipher” to mean, basically, brainless, mindless — which I don’t think Margot entirely is. But I wonder if college students feel insulted and feel that it’s impossible to relate to this much older person’s idea of a college girl as someone with nothing going on in her mind.
Peyton: It’s funny that, again, a positive for you is a hard negative for me. What you just said reminded me of something I read about Elif Batuman writing “The Idiot.” When she was writing the first draft of that novel, which is about an eighteen-year-old girl in her first year of university, she was in her early twenties. But she ended up abandoning the manuscript, saving it to her hard drive and leaving it there. She came back to it much later, decades later, because she was writing a different novel about an adult journalist, and she wanted to incorporate some college flashbacks. So she said, “Oh, I wrote that manuscript when I was, like, 22, I bet that’ll be good to draw on for these parts of the story.” And so she pulled up the manuscript and she found that there was, throughout, this kind of implicit judgment of her 18-year-old protagonist. Her 22-year-old self was looking down on her 18-year-old self, and going, “You were so stupid, how did you think that was a good idea?”
Frankie: With all the wisdom of a 22-year-old.
Peyton: Exactly. And so, when she eventually abandoned the novel about the adult journalist altogether and went back to rehabilitating that early manuscript, the most important revision she made was getting rid of that judgment and allowing herself to just fully inhabit the 18-year-old character with a lot of empathy, without casting aspersions on any of the dumb or questionable things she did. And that really comes across, I think, when you’re reading “The Idiot.”
But I don’t get that sense from “Cat Person.” It does read as the judgmental 40-year-old judging the hell out of the 20-year-old college sophomore. We’ve talked about today’s college students having a very sharp bullshit detector and being able to point out which specific details didn’t ring true. But more than that, she’s treating Margot’s perspective as inherently immature.
Frankie: This is a question that I would answer differently now that Kristen Roupenian has published an entire book of stories. It’s so funny how my feelings about “Cat Person” have evolved now that I’ve read more of her work. Earlier, I would have argued that the story has compassion for Margot. And I do think that it has some compassion for Margot, at least insofar as it is so relentlessly stuck in her head that it’s impossible, in my view, not to humanize her somewhat.
But having just read the first story in Roupenian’s collection… I believe the first story is called “Look What You’ve Done” or “Look What You’ve Made Us Do,” something like that.
Peyton: “Bad Boy.” (TW: Rape, murder, sexualized violence, necrophilia.)
Frankie: That story is so cruel and so contemptuous of its characters. And once you see that strain in her work, you can’t unsee it in “Cat Person.” So I think maybe you’re onto something when you say that there is a certain sadism in the way that the story revels in Margot’s suffering and humiliation. Both these things can be simultaneously true: it can be very meaningful to people who find it relatable and it can also be coming from a place of cruelty.
Peyton: If this story had been deliberately written to extend empathy to the Margots of the world and make them feel seen and heard, it would read very differently than it presently does. It certainly feels honest and raw and detailed, particularly the sex scene, but I don’t know that Margot comes out of it looking very good. I just think that 20-year-olds are more sensitive and in tune with their feelings than Kristen Roupenian makes them out to be.
Even though Robert is eventually made out to be the villain of the story — and it’s not the traditional victim/villain thing, which I actually appreciate — the story also isn’t particularly nice to Margot. It does revel in her suffering and humiliation.
Frankie: And this is another thing that comes down to that ending. I think if it ended with that funny image of her seeing him at the bar and then her friends rushing her out of there as though she’s the president and they’re the Secret Service… Do you remember that image? I love that, that’s one of my favourite moments in the story. I think if the story had ended on the image of Robert sitting sadly in the bar, alone with his beer, and Margot freaking out and being Secret Serviced out of there, I think the story would not feel as cruel as it does. It would end with Margot being, in some way, the perpetrator, and Robert being the victim. Not quite that starkly, but it would end on this ambiguous note of, “Who was actually in control in that interaction?” Maybe Margot was the mean one all along, and Robert was the victim, or maybe not. I always enjoy ambiguity, and it’s disappointing that, with that last word of “whore,” Margot inarguably becomes the victim.
Peyton: I feel like if that Secret Service scene had been the ending, there would have been room for… well, I don’t think it would have gone viral.
Frankie: It definitely would not have gone viral, even if that photo was just as gross.
Peyton: It would have been criticized for extending empathy to Robert, right? Even though the immediate feeling I got from that scene was red flags popping up everywhere. I felt scared for Margot when she saw him in that bar, even though he wasn’t doing anything but sitting and drinking and moping.
Frankie: Me too. I get so scared for Margot in that moment.
Peyton: If I were in the same situation, I would also want my friends to Secret Service me the hell out of there.
But the ending, as it stands — it’s not subtle. It insults Margot’s intelligence as well as ours. We’ve been talking about how she isn’t a victim up to that point, when he calls her a whore in a series of texts asking if she’s been having sex with the friend he saw her with that night. Earlier on, when Margot’s friend stole her phone and texted him, “i’m not interested in you don’t text me anymore,” he replied, “Oh well, I’m sorry to hear that, you’re a very nice girl and I wish you the best.” Like, the mature, reasonable reaction we would want from that person. And I guess her intent with that ending was to say, “There’s always some evil lurking under that fake niceness, watch out!” It felt a little bit heavy-handed. It banged us over the head with that message to the point where I wonder if it was even her original ending at all.
Frankie: I wonder about that, too. You’ve made me think of this line from the writer Andrea Long Chu. I believe it was in her appraisal of The Matrix. She wrote, “Nothing ruins a question like an answer.”
Peyton: Yes, oh my God.
Frankie: In the context of “Cat Person,” the pleasure of “Cat Person,” is the question, the driving question of the story: is Robert a creep, or is he just a nice, misunderstood, awkward guy? And that question is so juicy and interesting to me that I actually enjoy it as a question — and to have that question answered at the end of the story with the “whore” text ruins the question, because I didn’t want to know the answer to the question. I just wanted to bask in it.
Peyton: Exactly. Exactly. And as long as we’re comparing it — we both read that other short story by Kristen Roupenian, where there’s the couple and they have sex with their friend and abuse him?
Frankie: Yeah, I keep thinking it’s called “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Peyton: “Bad Boy.” It definitely doesn’t have the mainstream appeal…
Peyton: …to say the least, of “Cat Person.” And I also did not enjoy it. I don’t know how you felt about it, necessarily, but for me, after reading her less “mainstream” work — terrible word, sorry — I feel like I have more context for her approach to writing.
Frankie: For sure. I also did not enjoy “Bad Boy,” but I disliked it in a way that forced me to keep thinking about it and unpacking why I disliked it. I think I disliked it for the reason that I now dislike the ending of “Cat Person,” which is that “Bad Boy” sets up a power dynamic and then never complicates that power dynamic. And I was thinking, after I read it: what’s the point of writing a story about a power dynamic if you’re never going to flip it or reverse it or complicate it? It’s about a couple that bosses around and dominates their more submissive friend from the first page to the last, and all that happens is they get bossier and bossier and he gets more and more submissive. And, as with “Cat Person,” there is a sense of reveling in the humiliation of this poor guy, who’s being dommed in a not-fun way by his mean, bossy friends. And it’s the same thing — if “Cat Person” unsatisfyingly answered its own question, I felt that “Bad Boy” didn’t even have a question.
Peyton: It just felt like shock gore, like, hurtling towards, again, this violent, horrifying ending.
Frankie: The other thing about “Bad Boy” was it seemed to me, just in terms of its premise and its concept, to be erotica, but it didn’t have any sex scenes in it. And that is something “Cat Person” has that “Bad Boy” doesn’t. I think a lot of Roupenian’s ideas work best when they are investigated in a slow, meaty scene, where you can see things happening in bullet time, and that’s why “Cat Person” works for me and “Bad Boy” doesn’t, because “Bad Boy” is narrated entirely in summary.
Peyton: It is. And, now, spoiler alert: “Bad Boy” ends with this couple essentially ordering their friend to murder his ex-girlfriend. They force him to strangle her to death while he has sex with her.
Frankie: Was it a murder? I couldn’t tell if it was a murder or a rape. I was a little unclear on that, but either way, it was very ugly.
Peyton: It was both, if you really want to be technical about it.
Frankie: A rape-murder.
Peyton: A rape-murder. Which is interesting, because if she seemed to take great pains in “Cat Person” to say, “This is not a rape.” We get lots of insight into what Margot is thinking and feeling at all times, how she’s consenting to go ahead with this sex even though she isn’t enjoying it.
Frankie: Right, it has interiority.
Peyton: It has interiority. Whereas we never learn anything about the characters in “Bad Boy.” Anyway, any charitable feelings I had about “Cat Person” before I read “Bad Boy,” any willingness to give “Cat Person” the benefit of the doubt… after reading “Bad Boy,” I was just like, “Oh, no, you just get off on sexual humiliation. That’s what this is really about.”
Frankie: I really don’t believe in judging an individual work by the other work of the author, but on the other hand, we can’t read things in a vacuum. And as I said before, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Peyton: I think it can be useful to judge one work against another work if the works are similar. Shortly after we had our debate on “A Little Life,” I read “The People in the Trees,” and that contextualized a lot of “A Little Life” for me, because it’s essentially about the same issues but from the perspective of the abuser. So I got a greater sense of what Hanya’s feelings are about the issues she was writing about, and it threw some of that into sharper focus for me.
But getting fully back to “Cat Person,” I graduated in 2015, which distances me from today’s college kids. I think we have different enough experiences that I’m out of the loop. So neither of us can speak to exactly what your students may have been feeling, but based on your own experiences of college — I mean, you said you related to Margot quite a bit, did you feel that it was a realistic portrayal of college life?
Frankie: I can’t speak to the college thing. My college experience was pretty nontraditional, so it wasn’t as a college kid that I saw the resemblance between myself and Margot. Like, my prime slutty years were in my early twenties when I was a college drop-out, being a young working woman in New York.
But I do want to say, during my prime slutty years, I spent a lot of time at the library, because I was that kind of slut. Between sexual encounters, I spent a lot of time at the library, and I just sort of accidentally discovered the work of Mary McCarthy, who is this wonderful, wonderful 20th-century writer. Her most famous novel is “The Group,” which I highly recommend. It’s one of my all-time favourites. But during my early twenties, I came across this very early book of hers called — I’m so sorry, the title’s so much like “You Know You Want This” that all I can think of now is “You Know You Want This.”
Peyton: It’s called “Look What You Made Me Do” by Mary McCarthy.
Frankie: Okay, I just looked up the title: “The Company She Keeps.” It’s a short story collection, and most of the stories feel very autobiographical. The most famous and most memorable story in this book, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” is so similar to “Cat Person” that it’s actually been commented on. Not in a “you plagiarized it” way, but this is just a genre of story that both “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” and “Cat Person” are in.
“The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” published in the 1930s, is about a young woman in her twenties who finds herself on an overnight train with a middle-aged man. He’s gross. He’s a lot like Robert. He’s a businessman in a Brooks Brothers shirt. The story follows them chatting and getting drunk together, and it’s entirely in her head, in the close third person. Then, at some point in the night, something shifts, and the way it’s narrated, she understands that this night will end with the two of them having sex on the train, even though she’s repulsed by him and doesn’t want to. And it’s really very naughty for the 1930s. It’s very graphic. Actually, it’s in some ways more graphic than “Cat Person.” So they have horrible, horrible sex on the train, and he spanks her — it’s just such an interesting view into how people had sex in the 1930s — he spanks her, she wakes up in the morning with her butt all bruised and is mortified and regretful.
And then, much like “Cat Person,” what really makes it horrific is that she realizes he’s in love with her now, and he thinks that they just shared a really meaningful connection. He might leave his wife for her and they might get married. He starts writing her letters. It’s so much like “Cat Person.” And I think the story ends with her just ghosting him. She never breaks it off with him, she just ghosts him. 1930s ghosting.
Peyton: An innovator. Ahead of her time.
Frankie: Yeah, it was so meaningful for me to read this in the library in my early twenties in the year 2010 and realize, oh my God, people have always done this. People, even in the 1930s, were being slutty and communicating poorly and making bad decisions and just completely failing to read each other. What’s funny is that the story went viral for its time when it was first published in the 30s, because young men were just so titillated by it.
Frankie: Some famous male writer has talked about being in boarding school at the time and passing that book around and being super turned on by it.
Anyway, this is all to say that there is real value, I think, in literature that relentlessly inhabits the mind of a woman when she is not being her best self. When she’s doing something she regrets.
Peyton: Of course.
Frankie: And that was why I loved “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” and I think that’s what so many people loved about “Cat Person,” even though I concede that it’s not a flawless work.
Peyton: In “Cat Person,” I felt like Margot was less a woman who made bad choices than a conduit for the idea that we should be able to write literature about women making bad choices. Do you feel the same way?
Frankie: No, definitely not. I would never, ever praise something that I didn’t like just for being in a category that I like. I just thought Margot’s humiliation was so relatable that it made me feel things. And I like almost any story that makes me feel things, even if those feelings are revulsion and secondhand mortification.
Peyton: For a long time, in the mid-to-late 2000s, the first-person essay really thrived as a format where young female writers could write about experiences like Margot’s in “Cat Person.” Humiliating encounters, times when they weren’t being their best selves. I’m thinking of “It Happened to Me” on xoJane, and that kind of thing.
Frankie: Yeah, that was a real genre for a while.
Peyton: Yeah, it was a blockbuster genre, and then it died out.
Frankie: Lena Dunham kind of built her career on it, right?
Peyton: Yeah, Lena Dunham came out of that era, a whole bunch of other artists. The biggest voices of that era are now making more high-falutin’ art, like TV shows in a similar mode. So it’s interesting to me that something that had been a fairly banal component of internet writing for so long became a sensation when the New Yorker threw this gloss, this patina of literary fiction on it. “Cat Person” felt like something I’d seen before, on xoJane or Jezebel. It didn’t feel exactly innovative.
Frankie: That really is a provocative question you’re asking: how is “Cat Person” different from that early-2010s genre of confessional essays? Is it just the fact that it’s fiction? Is it the fact that it was in the New Yorker and we never saw that kind of literature in the New Yorker?
Peyton: I think “Cat Person” has a lot in common with the first-person essay. I also think it reads like a fictional mock-up of the typical #MeToo story, as I’ve said a few times now. You’re familiar with the genre I’m talking about. Why do you think it made such a splash, with that in mind?
Frankie: I mean, I’m sure the New Yorker editors are hiring scientists to answer that question, so they can replicate it. In some ways, I think it’s just a mystery why some things reach people and others don’t. Who knows, if it hadn’t come out in the fall of 2017, if it had come out a year earlier or a year later, whether it would have had the same effect? Certainly, it benefited a lot from coming out at the height of #MeToo mania.
Peyton: I think the timing was absolutely deliberate.
Frankie: But at the same time, even if it might not have gone viral outside of the #MeToo moment, I do think that “Cat Person” has a quality that makes it compulsively readable no matter when you’re reading it. As corny as this sounds, it is just the story of two people and the relationship between them. Really, that’s what literary fiction has been about since it was first invented. It’s what Sally Rooney is making such a successful career for herself doing. Just novels about two people figuring out their relationship to each other, and the misunderstandings and disappointments along the way. For whatever reason, people who like literary fiction cannot get enough of that shit. And I speak for myself: I can’t get enough of that shit. I could read forever fiction about two people whose relationship is unclear to themselves and each other. And “Cat Person” is written so clearly, and the language is so simple, and that’s so satisfying to me. It’s just easy to read.
Peyton: I guess my question there would be: is it just compulsively readable in the same way that “It Happened to Me: I Found Cat Hair in My Vagina” is compulsively readable?
Frankie: I would recommend you return to the “It Happened to Me” archives, because many of them were actually not that well-written. I don’t mean to be meritocratic about viral essays. I don’t think that the viral ones were necessarily the ones that were the best-written. But I really think there’s something to be said for editing, and “It Happened to Me” suffered from not being edited at all. If you remember the ones that went viral for the wrong reasons, like for being incredibly ill-advised, that would really highlight their lack of editorial oversight.
Peyton: It often felt like the editors just wanted to throw writers to the dogs for the hell of it.
Frankie: Right, exactly. The priority was not beautiful structure and readability, just shock value. And I do think that “Cat Person” has value beyond shock value. I think it has value in its readability and its smoothness and its careful attention to detail and time. And even if you don’t like the characterization, I think there’s plenty to immerse yourself in.
Peyton: That’s a good answer to that question. It looks like xoJane is actually offline now, so we can’t revisit “It Happened to Me” classics.
Frankie: What a loss.
Peyton: A friend of mine actually made a fanfiction meme that was like, “Thirty Days of It Happened to Me,” and you were supposed to write each prompt starring characters from your favourite fandom.
Frankie: Oh my God, what a wonderful idea. I might steal that. I might use that as a generative prompt. My students would love that.
Peyton: It would be great, yeah, even for a student exercise.
The other thing we talked about in our pre-debate was: do millennials actually have sex?
Frankie: That is the big mystery to me here.
Peyton: The big question. I was trying to get to the root of why “Cat Person” didn’t feel resonant to me. Reading Cat Person, I feel like I’m back in high school in the mid-2000s, reading “Sex and the Ivy.” I don’t feel like I’m reading about my own college experiences. And things have substantially changed since I graduated in 2015. So I guess I should say that by “millennials,” I mean today’s teenagers and college-aged students.
Frankie: Gen Z, really.
Peyton: Is Gen Z having sex? And the answer is… probably not? Or, at least, at the very least, they’re not having sex in the way that the story describes: you meet a relative stranger, you go out on a less-than-satisfying date, and then you go back to their house and have sex, even though you’re not really into it. I don’t think that’s a realistic depiction of the way that Gen Z has sex, if Gen Z is having sex at all. Did any of your students say anything to that effect? Did they bring that up?
Frankie: None of them did, actually. But maybe they just didn’t want to go there with their teacher. I would understand if none of them felt comfortable enough to say, “This doesn’t actually reflect my sex life, or lack thereof.” But it’s such a shock and such a mystery, this very real social change that’s happening in terms of how young people have sex. When I read “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” what I took away from it was that sex had always been like this; it was this way in 1931, and it was this way in 2010. But apparently, that’s no longer true. Apparently, conventions are dramatically shifting around this. Or maybe the 1930s were just a really slutty decade, I don’t know.
Peyton: The slutty, slutty 1930s.
Frankie: So I accept that conventions are shifting around this. I’m shocked by it, and I don’t understand it, and I think it’s fascinating, but I don’t dispute it either. This is a very real thing that is backed up by statistics. So the question this raises is: does it matter? Does Kristen Roupenian have an obligation to research the habits of the young people she’s writing about, or is a fiction writer allowed to take liberties and create a character who is extremely non-representative of their demographic?
Peyton: She didn’t exactly put a year on it, to be fair. It could theoretically take place anywhere in the last ten, twenty years.
Frankie: Except — I thought about this a lot — in their texting, they use emojis.
Peyton: Yeah, that would be the one thing. The emojis. People weren’t really using emojis in the mid-2000s, when I was in high school. That did not exist yet. It was an unplumbed art.
I mean, I write young adult fiction, and it’s a key priority for me to actually get the details right. You know that John Mulaney bit, about how thirteen-year-olds are the meanest people in the world? They will make fun of you, but about the things that you’re actually insecure about! So, if for no reason other than that, I want to avoid the ire of potential thirteen-year-old readers. I try to be very, very deliberate about the details I choose to include. Like, in the first draft of a book that I wrote back in 2014, there was a scene where a young woman is cyberbullied on Facebook. And I was revising it in 2017, and I was like… what teenager is using Facebook?
Frankie: God, it’s so true. It’s so hard. Because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, things feel insta-dated even if they were accurate a year ago.
Peyton: Exactly. I had to put up a message on my Tumblr and say, “Hey, teens, if you had to cyberbully someone, where would you go?” I also had my brother just, like, show me what Instagram looks like.
Frankie: Right, ’cause you’re not on Instagram. I bet you’ll be on Instagram before the year is out.
Peyton: Never ever ever.
Frankie: So there are two directions an author could go if they want to represent young people. They could do what you do, and do the shoe leather reporting and go out into the field, or they could just decide not to care about that stuff. They could make everything a period piece. That’s what I do, actually, whenever I write about young people. I set it in 1998 or whatever. Or they could just do what Francine Prose did in “Goldengrove,” which I read a few years ago. It bugged the crap out of me for the very reason that it’s about a teenager and it seems to have a contemporary setting, but the only cultural references are the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. There was just zero effort to situate it in the modern world. And I guess that’s one way to do it if you just don’t want to bother researching what the kids are into. You can just create a fictional kid who only reads Gerard Manley Hopkins. Choice. I don’t know that there’s a correct answer to this. Every author who wants to write about young people will have to solve this issue for themselves.
Peyton: It also depends on whether you’re writing about young people or for young people. “Cat Person” didn’t feel calculated to teach a lesson. One of the key things about young adult fiction is that, to some extent, it functions to teach young people how the world works, or how to move through the world. And I don’t think that was the intent of “Cat Person,” to give the Margots of the modern day a blueprint for how to deal with these situations.
So I’m not saying Kristen Roupenian had to go out and run a survey about emoji usage among teens, but I think it’s very interesting that your students just were not feeling “Cat Person” and didn’t think it was relatable or likeable. If those are goals of yours, if you’re writing for a young audience and you know they judge their books by relatability and likeability, then you can’t skip that kind of research. You have to do your due diligence and make sure that everything seems resonant and accurate to a certain extent.
Frankie: Yeah, that’s a great point. Just because you’re writing about young people does not mean that you’re writing for young people. And “Cat Person” seems to have had the most profound effect on readers who were reading it from a place of great perspective, looking back on their young selves.
Peyton: That goes back to, like, I was making the comparison to “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman: there doesn’t seem to be any empathy for Margot. We know that she’s in the right, mostly. I don’t think the story is judging Margot or saying “look at that dumb slut, going out with random old men,” but it takes a certain pleasure in humiliating her. It really dives in her feelings of embarrassment and shame in a way that is not about validating those experiences as much as putting them under a microscope and poking at them.
Frankie: I wouldn’t have agreed with you before reading “Bad Boy.” Now I’m reading “Cat Person” through that lens, and it’s hard for me to access what I thought were the feelings of empathy and compassion that I sensed on my first reading.
Peyton: That first reading probably coincided with the #MeToo journalism boom, so you were almost conditioned to feel empathy, to feel certain things at certain points of the story. Like, you’d read so many of these things that you could sense the arrival of all the beats as the story unfolded. I really feel that, to a large extent, it was like fictionalized #MeToo journalism.
Frankie: Even if that wasn’t the intention?
Peyton: And even if the incident described wasn’t explicitly a sexual assault or a rape.
Frankie: Gosh, I wonder if that’s the correct way to read it, though. It’s so hard to know how any of us would have read it if we hadn’t read it at the height of the #MeToo movement.
Peyton: I think it’s inextricable from the time period, then, in that respect.
Frankie: But I think there is a case to be made that it exists separately from the #MeToo movement. I read it, really, as a story about Margot’s choices. The climax of the story, I think, is when she thinks to herself, “This is the worst decision I’ve ever made.”
Peyton: Yes, yeah.
Frankie: And in that sense, I don’t think that #MeToo is a helpful lens for reading it. #MeToo is so much about the difficulty of making decisions as a woman in certain lines of work, and how women’s agency has been taken away from them so much in sexist fields. And I don’t actually think that gives us much leverage into understanding “Cat Person.” I think “Cat Person” is much more about what happens when you do have agency and you use it poorly.
Peyton: Right. That’s a valid point. I was more saying that it bears a strong structural resemblance to traditional #MeToo exposés. But man, I guess, to a large extent, whether or not you like it depends on whether or not you like reading about characters being humiliated.
Frankie: Yeah, do you like cringe comedy in general? Like do you enjoy TV shows where the humour comes from the character being embarrassed?
Peyton: I mean, I love “Always Sunny.”
Frankie: That’s not so much cringe, though. I’m thinking more like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” or maybe “The Office.” You like “The Office,” right?
Peyton: I do like “The Office.” I can’t watch “Scott’s Tots,” though. That’s just nightmarish for me.
Frankie: I have a high tolerance for cringe comedy. I always have. So “Cat Person” might just be best understood as literary cringe comedy.
Peyton: Oh my God.
Frankie: And in that, it is all just a matter of taste.
Peyton: All right, so is there anything else you want to touch on before we sign off?
Frankie: Well, I want to end by saying that I think Kristen Roupenian is a marvelous writer, and I will always very much enjoy “Cat Person,” even if I came up with some critiques in this conversation. I feel a little sorry for her that her story collection was under such scrutiny when it came out, thanks to the virality of “Cat Person.” I feel like critics were very hard on her, and even though I pretty much agree with the critics, I regret that she was so pilloried, because I’m sure she never asked for any of this. I wish her the best of luck.
Peyton: Oddly, the one thing that she’s written that I actually enjoyed was the essay she wrote for the New Yorker about a year after “Cat Person” came out, talking about the impact that the virality had had on her. She described it as “annihilating.”
Frankie: Oh yeah, I remember that. That was so interesting.
Peyton: And just the mental health impact of having her story go viral and having to escape from the world just to cope. I thought it was well-written, and it also made me feel empathy for her, even though I was definitely one of the haters screaming at her in the stadium at the time. I think going viral is a mixed blessing, and certainly, once you cross a certain threshold, it is more harmful than helpful.
Frankie: It’s a real “be careful what you wish for” story, right?
Peyton: Well, I do think her story collection is selling well. It’s being made into an HBO series, which — I don’t know what that’ll look like.
Frankie: But good for her.
Peyton: Good for her. Good for Kristen Roupenian. That’s all I will say.
Frankie: There but for the grace of God go we.
Peyton: There but for the grace of God.
Frankie: My last thought is that history will judge “Cat Person” only once the power of its virality has faded, so we may have to do another debate about this in ten years.
Peyton: Yeah, I don’t know how it’ll age. For me, it really is inextricable from the cultural context of the three-month period in which it was published.
Frankie: Yeah, so we’ll have to see how future generations respond to it without that context.