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12/12/2017 7:03 AM IST | Updated 12/12/2017 6:47 PM IST

Why A New Yorker Short Story About Bad Sex Went Viral

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We’ve developed a pretty clear idea, by the Year of Our Lord 2017, of what should go viral on social media. Body-positive clapbacks. Video clips of hamsters eating tiny burritos. Bizarre optical illusions. Searing takedowns of Donald Trump (bonus points if published by unexpected outlets like Teen Vogue or Outdoor Magazine). Invitingly tone-deaf first-person essays.

Fiction? No, fiction isn’t on the list of things to go viral. At least until this weekend, when The New Yorker dropped “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian on the internet and sauntered away like an action star silhouetted in front of an explosion. What happened? Why did “Cat Person” catch fire while so many other great New Yorker stories have, comparatively, fizzled? 

In scouting the story, before reading it, I’ll admit I thought that all the kerfuffle was because The New Yorker had published a daring genre romance about a shape-shifting cat/person and a human. (I blame the creepily ambiguous image of a kiss attached to the story.) It turns out “Cat Person” fascinated people for something else: the uncomfortable, unflinching realness with which it depicts a murky, troubling sexual encounter between a young woman and a man she recently began dating.

Twitter screenshot
It's alarming.

Roupenian’s story, if you haven’t read it, is about a college student named Margot who starts texting with Robert, a man who frequents the artsy movie theater where she works. Eventually the two go on a date; it goes rather poorly, but she still ends up back at his place. Once there, her sexual desire for him starts to fade, but she decides she’d rather have sex with him than face an awkward and involved conversation about why she doesn’t want to anymore. She has the sex she doesn’t want to have, she leaves and she stops texting with Robert ― who, spoiler alert, does not handle the rejection gracefully.

The story hit at just the right moment ― amid the #MeToo reckoning, as our society has been consumed by questions of sexual discomfort, misconduct and the toxic state of our scripts around male-female interactions.

This particular story doesn’t concern sexual abuse or harassment, it doesn’t concern workplace abuse or rape, but it does take a look at people’s inability to read each other, inability to read each other sexually,” New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman told HuffPost in a phone conversation on Monday. 

The fortunate timing, by the way, was no accident. “We had [the story] in hand for a few weeks, and yes, the subject is topical,” Treisman said, “so we felt it would be a good time. We didn’t want to hold on to it for months.”

To people who frequent certain neighborhoods of Twitter (Book Twitter, but also Feminism Twitter and Media Twitter), the story seemed to be everywhere, along with that unsettling image. Nor was its ubiquity an illusion. “Of all the fiction we published this year, ‘Cat Person’ was by far the most-read online,” Natalie Raabe, the magazine’s director of communications, told HuffPost. “It’s also one of our most-read pieces overall for the year.”

So it was timely ― but there have been timely short stories before. What is the special appeal of “Cat Person”?

For one thing, it reads quite similarly to another viral-friendly form: the first-person confessional essay, as propagated by outlets like xoJane and Jezebel. Plenty of Twitter readers, rather tellingly, referred to it as an article or an essay, rather than a short story. “Cat Person” unfolds in a sort of transparent prose that’s not demonstratively artful; it’s easy to lose oneself in, and to get wrapped up in Margot’s neuroses and imagined realities, much as one focuses on the psychological revelations in a New York Times Modern Love column rather than the structure or the use of adjectives. Roupenian’s story is the fiction version of “It Happened to Me: I Had Bad Sex Because It Felt Awkward to Say No.”

The ubiquity of these essays, in a slightly earlier Internet Age, owed a great deal to the economic considerations of web media, as they require no reporting or expertise and yet tap into the reptilian click-and-share node of our brains. Though The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino bid farewell to the form earlier this year, it will never entirely leave us. We will always be interested in how other people find love, break up, find balls of cat hair in their vaginas. (Sorry, that happened.)

In fact, “Cat Person” specifically tapped into a need that those xoJane personal essays also fulfilled: honest, vulnerable narration of women’s real-life experience. So much about women’s lives and bodies is framed as shameful, embarrassing. We’re taught to hide our periods, fake orgasms and say yes to a date so as not to hurt a guy’s feelings. How liberating it can be to share what we’re hiding with each other and find out that other women aren’t clean, kind, gentle paragons ― they’re complicated, shallow, misguided and sometimes gross, just like us.  

That “Cat Person” dove deep into a young woman’s consciousness, narrating the female side of a messy, disappointing sexual encounter between a man and a woman, struck many readers as refreshing. (That the young woman was a college student, and her experience a familiar one to the predominantly white, well-educated, financially well-off women who likely make up much of The New Yorker’s readership, could only have helped the story strike a nerve among the target audience.) There’s a wealth of short fiction by men, about men’s desultory sexual doings. Then again, there’s also plenty of great short fiction by women, about women having sex and relationships ― Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill are just a couple of classic examples.

But unlike so many other excellent short stories about dating, sex and female interiority, Roupenian’s story ― her first for The New Yorker ― hit at a moment when we were all primed and ready to talk about it. The specific timeliness of the #MeToo moment combined with the other appeals of “Cat Person” to create an alchemical appeal.

“I’m sure [the response] does have something to do with the nature of our discourse right now, about sex, about consent,” said Treisman. “Those kinds of issues are so much in the news and in the air right now that this was a way to look at them, somewhat away from the political sphere, and the sphere of Hollywood producers and so on.”

Though, as she points out, women having these experiences is not new, it can’t be denied that we’re talking about all of those experiences, past and present, with particular avidity now. It’s as if we all signed up for a seminar on women’s bad sexual experiences with men and we’re halfway through the semester; the early foundational reading has been completed, and now we’re all on the same page. That doesn’t mean we all agree ― on the contrary, “Cat Person” Twitter was pretty divided on even questions so basic as whether Robert or Margot deserved more sympathy ― but we all recognize this story as a clear opportunity to talk about consent, communication and women’s sexual pleasure. If the same story came out six months ago, it would have been the same story, but there wouldn’t have been the same shared understanding of its resonance.

Sad as it might be to admit, a big part of the viral success of “Cat Person” might be, simply, that a work of short fiction has never really gone viral on social media before. Early on, the online conversation surrounding it was a meta-conversation: Isn’t it cool that a short story is getting read? Why is this short story getting read? Is everyone so excited because they’ve never read a short story before and don’t realize how great they can be? How can we get more short stories to go viral in the future? No post-”Cat Person” story will enjoy quite the same novelty.

Treisman, for her part, seemed as surprised as anyone by the story’s burst of popularity ― and she couldn’t put her finger on how to replicate it with future works of fiction. “In terms of the way that word spreads through social media,” she said, “that’s still something of a novelty to me at least. I’m not sure how to game it.” 

But we’ve been here before and had these same conversations ― about poetry. When Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” blew up in the summer of 2013 (tellingly, it also drew in readers with its vivid, uncensored representation of a woman’s interior experience of an interaction with a man), many were flabbergasted that a poem could go viral. The Guardian credited the poem with having “casually reawakened a generation’s interest in poetry.” In the years since, poetry has only continued to strengthen its new readership, particularly online. Nowadays, a poem going viral isn’t all that noteworthy ― it happens often enough. Poetry has become a staple in how we respond to and process events on the Internet, providing a different angle on the world we live in than can a think piece or a breaking news item.

Why can’t short fiction be like that? There are artistic purists who leap to defend the sanctity of literature from such crass things as “messages” or “political relevance.” Any discussion of which character was in the right, or who behaved selfishly or whether the story fat-shamed Robert is framed as improperly treating fiction as nonfiction. “It’s inevitable that some readers view ‘Cat Person’ as weighing in on a timely issue and offering up lessons, the way personal essays are so often inclined to do,” sighed Laura Miller in Slate. “It’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that every imaginative literary work must be made to carry an unambiguous moral.”

But there’s a reason people read the story that way: It’s offering a very realistic narrative of a communication breakdown between two real-seeming people, teasing out the ways in which things went wrong. Of course we’ll want to take lessons from that, if we can. “Cat Person,” though written well before the #MeToo moment and worth reading outside of it, does offer particular relief and insight to readers in the grip of this cultural moment, just as an essay might. Roupenian and Treisman, who both emphasized the story’s ability to speak to our current consternation over dysfunctional male-female communication, seem to be embracing the political relevance of the work.  

In an interview with Treisman for The New Yorker, Roupenian explained that Margot’s resignation to sex she no longer wanted “speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy.” In an interview with The New York Times this week, she elaborated on the loneliness women who date men might feel, having a partner, at this moment in time, who doesn’t understand their feelings of sexual vulnerability. “That’s a pain a lot of women I know have felt acutely, especially in this past year, when all of these terrible shared experiences are becoming part of the public conversation,” Roupenian said. “Women try to talk about these experiences with their partners, and they find themselves failing. It’s an isolating feeling for both people involved.” 

And while we should certainly remember the story is fiction (no, Margot and Roupenian are not the same person) and can analyze the story as a carefully crafted imaginative work, it’s hard to see what’s wrong with also discussing it as a window into a real-world problem, as Roupenian does in these interviews. That’s exactly what makes it so appealing, and what has long been one of fiction’s strengths ― especially psychological realism.

That’s not to say that fiction should trade in simplistic moral archetypes. As Miller points out, “Cat Person” resists easy judgments of its characters and instead shows two complex, flawed people. That makes it all the more valuable of a teaching tool. Real life, too, is messy and peopled by complex, flawed humans, but real life is where we have to live.

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