1. Slate: “Cat Person” and Me
I remember when Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” was first published in 2017 in the New Yorker and ripped across the internet. Everywhere I looked, someone was posting about it, and I had many offline conversations about the story. Since I’ve been writing this column for nearly four years, that story is always one of the first that comes to mind when I think of viral media. “Roupenian’s story was the first work of short fiction to ever go viral,” writes Alexis Nowicki.
The story “follows its protagonist, Margot, a college sophomore, as she navigates a relationship with an older man named Robert.” After flirting, the two go on a date, and throughout their relationship “Margot vacillates between feeling disgusted by him and wanting more. Eventually, when they sleep together, Margot finds herself repulsed, creating an imaginary boyfriend in her head to laugh about the awful sex with later. In the following weeks, as she attempts to ghost him, Robert sends Margot texts that become increasingly aggressive, culminating in an encounter at a campus bar that leads him to text her: ‘Whore.’”
As the story blazed across the internet, Nowicki, and those that knew her, found elements of the story uncannily similar to her own life. Some of the story’s details that overlapped with her experience included “my workplace, my hometown, his appearance, the location of our first date,” Nowicki writes. The story’s main thrust—about the power differential between a young woman and a man several years older, and the eventual repulsion Margot feels about Robert—differs from Nowicki’s experience with her ex, whom she refers to in this essay as Charles. After Charles died suddenly last fall, and after months of contemplation, Nowicki eventually emailed Roupenian about these similarities.
From Roupenian’s response, in part: “When I was living in Ann Arbor, I had an encounter with a man. I later learned, from social media, that this man previously had a much younger girlfriend. I also learned a handful of facts about her: that she worked in a movie theater, that she was from a town adjacent to Ann Arbor, and that she was an undergrad at the same school I attended as a grad student. Using those facts as a jumping-off point, I then wrote a story that was primarily a work of the imagination, but which also drew on my own personal experiences, both past and present. In retrospect, I was wrong not to go back and remove those biographical details, especially the name of the town. Not doing so was careless.”
This essay and Roupenian’s response have given a more public forum to conversations about the genre of autofiction, “writing that, in its raw and confessional style, seems to blur the boundaries between the real and the invented.” Nowicki’s essay troubles the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction, writing about what it meant to process her past relationship through a viral story. And just like “Cat Person,” this essay is blazing across the internet.