Cherwell

‘Cat Person’ — how does literature survive in a viral age?

“Cat Person”, Kristen Roupenian’s ubiquitous short story about the difficulties of modern relationships and unwanted sex, has captured the internet consciousness with a speed and virulence unlike any other piece of literature that has emerged online. The piece feels entirely germane to the current zeitgeist, released within the ongoing discourse on sexual harassment and abuse within the media.

Its is a piece of fiction that resonates with online dating experiences, where people are constantly contactable, and the resulting ease at which the actual people involved can be overlooked. Roupenian states in an interview: “our initial impression of a person is pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection”. Being online only magnifies these projections, where personal profiles signify superficial images of individuals. Social media has helped to craft this story from within and without. People and content are so easily consumable on the internet, and thus, especially given our current cultural moment, “Cat Person” is suddenly everywhere, and everyone has an opinion on it.

The purpose of fiction in the internet age has entered the keyboard battlefield. Emily Temple writes that the problem with many reactions to “Cat Person” is the rhetoric of relatability that it is criticised or praised with. “Cat Person” is about the pressures facing women who find themselves in situations where they feel threatened. The positive reaction to the story, driven by young women, is largely a gut-sense of ‘I know how this experience feels’.

Temple’s point is that it becomes problematic when people are using relatability as the sole way to gauge whether this story has meaning. Is literature more important when it stimulates conversation than when it achieves a certain degree literary quality? Internet culture has turned relatability into a currency. In the case of “Cat Person”, this seems to have happened at the expense of the piece’s innate status as literature.

As a piece of fiction, there is specific intent and creative capital with which the story is crafted and in whose experience the reader partakes. This is lost when the piece is interpreted and discussed as a relatable think-piece or essay to be toyed with.

Enter “Cat Person: What Robert (probably) thought”. Published a week later by BBC Three, the piece is an egregious attempt to produce an alternative narrative and turn Robert into a character to empathise with. Dangerously, the text isn’t presented as an accompanying short story, but as a hypothetical response excusing a character who is purposefully underwritten in the original. In doing so, the piece violently negates the validity of Roupenian’s narrative of female interior experience and her reader’s response.

The fact “Cat Person: What Robert (probably) thought” has been published without an author abuses Roupenian’s status as one. Her name and details of the original publication are not mentioned until the piece ends: its subtitle, “The New Yorker told Margot’s story. Here’s Robert’s”, nullifies the function of “Cat Person” as fiction and asks Roupenian’s characters to be real people and, thus, accountable. The criticism that “Cat Person” is biased against Robert is unproductive. It is a story of female experience, Margot’s interaction with Robert’s character is driven by his ambiguity and how she projects a persona for him to inhabit. BBC Three shatters this narrative by developing Robert beyond this projection.

Most distressingly, however, “Cat Person: What Robert (probably) thought” seems to be jumping on the fact that “Cat Person” is viral more than trying to engage in a discussion with its content. Fundamentally, this ‘developed’ Robert is an extended projection of the persona created by Margot in the original, but only this time on part of the reader. As we only have Margot’s impressions from Roupenian’s story to compare with, “Cat Person: What Robert (probably) thought” fails in its attempt to attack Margot’s accountability because it forgets that neither character is real. Fiction does not have to present rounded individuals to make a point.

“Cat Person” is a formidable cultural monument for our present political and social landscape. In the world of post-truth and fake-news, the fact that fiction is driving our current debate is pertinent. We don’t yet know how to talk about viral fiction. But the development of a critical framework online is exciting, relevant, and most importantly accessible. Literature matters, and the importance of “Cat Person” to the evolving language with which we analyse online fiction is unprecedented.