Kristen Roupenian, author of the stellar 2017 short story Cat Person about a 20-something college student named Margot who engages in an undesired, unsetting and far-too-ordinary sexual encounter with a 30-something misogynist named Robert, has written a new piece for the New Yorker describing her experiences with viral fame in the days after her book-deal-scoring piece of fiction was published.
“This is it. This is the happiest I will ever be,” Roupenian writes, about the euphoria of having a piece of work accepted by a prestigious publication. She describes the young women among whom “Cat Person” seemed to most immediately resonate, and how the conversation evolved from there:
They said it captured something that they had also experienced: the sense that there is a point at which it is “too late” to say no to a sexual encounter. They also talked, more broadly, about the phenomenon of unwanted sex that came about not through the use of physical force but because of a poisoned cocktail of emotions and cultural expectations—embarrassment, pride, self-consciousness, and fear. What had started as a conversation among women was then taken up and folded into a much larger debate that played out, for the most part, between men and women, its flames fanned by the Internet controversy machine. Was what happened between Robert and Margot an issue of consent, or no? Was Robert a villain for not picking up on Margot’s discomfort, or was Margot at fault for not telling Robert what she was feeling? The lines hardened, think pieces proliferated, and disagreements were amplified to the point of absurdity, until the story threatened to become the blue-dress/white-dress moment of the #MeToo era. Men read “Cat Person” this way! Women read “Cat Person” that way! Why can’t we all just get along?
Most interestingly of all, she describes an all-too common consequence of writing as a woman: Many readers assumed her work of fiction was diaristic, even though Margot and Robert’s experiences did not mirror her own:
...As the story was shared again and again, moving it further and further from its original context, people began conflating me, the author, with the main character. Sometimes this was blunt (“What, The New Yorker is just publishing diary entries now?”) and other times it was subtler: the assumption was that I’d be happy to go on the radio and explain why young women in 2018 were still struggling to achieve satisfying sex lives—in other words, the assumption was that my own position and history would be identical to Margot’s. I was thirty-six years old and a few months into my first serious relationship with a woman, and now everyone wanted me to explain why twenty-year-old girls were having bad sex with men. I felt intensely protective of Margot, and of the readers who identified with her, and, at the same time, I felt like an impostor. I felt as though if I were truthful about who I was, I would let everyone down.
Regardless of how far removed the reader is from her work (and I think Roupenian is being generous with that qualifier), women are often conflated with their art. A quick look at any solo musician/lyricist will verify that fact. And that conflation, often read as nothing more than the outpouring of feelings, runs the risk of overshadowing the identity of the artist and their work, oversimplifying it, and them, to the point of erasure.
Read the full piece here.