Philly writers on 'Cat Person,' the short story that's got everyone in a tizzy
On 'fraught intimacies,' the difference between a personal essay and a work of fiction, and how 'Cat Person' feels a little like your favorite indie band getting discovered by the mainstream.
If you're in the internet know, you're already over the viral New Yorker short story "Cat Person."
And if you haven't yet come up with an appropriate take or (gasp) read the story yet, you still have some time. Just not a lot. Or, you can do that very of-the-moment thing, and instead of reading the story, soak up these smart takes from Philly writers and readers. (But we recommend you read it! And think thoughts for yourself!)
When Kristen Roupenian's short story about the brief life of a romantic (and sexual) affair, told from the point of view of the young woman involved, was published late last week, many flocked to Twitter to share how real and relatable the story felt.
While some men got angry, crying "sexism."
Enough men were upset that the @MenCatPerson Twitter account was born.
While others said, "Um, not my experience at all."
In other words, Twitter was in full freak-out mode.
Per playwright, ELLE senior writer and overall known funny Philly human R. Eric Thomas (who just moved to Baltimore):
Alina Pleskova, poet and coeditor of a Philly literary journal focused on desire and intimacy called Bedfellows, said "Cat Person" is resonating because of the cultural moment — #MeToo, the Silence Breakers, questions around consent — but also because of the story's ability to name and explore these types of unsatisfying, confusing and often regrettable sexual experiences.
"If I can paint in super broad strokes, our generation seems to be pretty sex-positive, but I think sometimes the rush to assert ourselves as sexually open and liberated can mute discussion around moments where we aren't quite so sure how to react or how to process something. Like, being open means you should somehow have all the answers, and always know how to communicate your needs, and can mitigate feelings of shame or confusion," Pleskova said.
"What has been interesting to me as a writer and editor lately is thinking about fraught intimacies: ways in which sex can be weird, fraught, complicated, and traumatic. Where perhaps there isn't a marked instance of physical assault, but there is a communication breakdown somewhere and one (or both, or more) parties leaves feeling like something was off. This is part of what 'Cat Person' seems to address, and it brought me back to experiences in my early 20s with sleeping with strangers from dating apps, with BDSM culture, with polyamory, with other spaces where, as someone who was just beginning to assert their sexual agency and identity, I didn't always know how to proceed, or how to process things. I can't speak for everyone, but this is why it resonated for me."
(Read more about that in this essay by Ella Dawson that was inspired by the story: "Bad Sex or the Sex We Don't Want But Have Anyway.")
Then there's the whole issue of readers interpreting the story as a personal essay.
"Some of the negative reactions to the story seem to me to be negative reactions to the main character herself, either because readers find her fatphobic (valid) or because they find her narcissistic (I don't agree but will put that aside)," wrote Liz Moore, a writer in residence at Temple University's creative writing MFA program. "Either way, there is a fundamental misunderstanding at play: the protagonist is not the author, nor are her thoughts the author's thoughts, necessarily."
Communications strategist and writer Jill Ivey pointed out — the way The Atlantic's Megan Garber did — how gendered that misunderstanding felt.
"I think that's something that happens to women writers more than men — the need to believe they're only writing what they know, so everything is biographical or at best secondhand," Ivey wrote.
While Karen Rile, a writer and Penn creative writing professor, chalked it up to people not being familiar with literary fiction.
"I've seen this happen repeatedly when something crosses over," Rile said.
There was that time in 1994 when the now-defunct Inquirer magazine's fiction issue published a short story of hers about a woman running a cottage industry around yogurt made from breast milk. Rile got several letters from readers asking if they could buy some.
"Fiction can be powerful," she said. "In an era where people can't tell truth from fiction, [the story] has this sort of weird reverberation."
Still, many writers seemed to agree, it's a positive thing when nonreaders engage with fiction.
Here's Philly-based Mic writer Tirhakah Love:
Lee Klein, a fiction writer, essayist and translator in South Philadelphia, said all the hype put him off: "The story has its merits, sure, but now that the Internet's Eye of Sauron has turned to it, my natural reaction is to look away from the slew of reactions — and maybe just reread the story in silence and keep any further reactions to myself (imagine!)."
And yet: "For those who do read fiction regularly/primarily/daily/always, the story's reception is a little like your favorite unknown band hitting it big. Oh, yeah, right — fiction exists!"