Over the weekend, I noticed something unusual on my timeline: people who are usually tweeting about Trump or TV or homelessness or drinking or video games or the contents of their refrigerator were tweeting, instead, about a piece of short fiction. A brand new piece of short fiction. It went online on Friday, and if I'm not wrong, it's in the issue of The New Yorker that arrives in people's mailboxes this week. When was the last time a good old-fashioned short story went viral? And the author was someone no one had heard of.
Usually, no one is tweeting about short stories on my timeline, or at least very few people are. (Hello, grad school friends!) Alice Munro could land another devastating sucker-punch of a short story, the kind that won her a Nobel Prize for Writing Short Stories in The New Yorker, and no one would tweet about it. I'm only barely exaggerating. Short stories just don't cut through the noise. "Reality" is more important to most readers.
Anyway, it was Saturday, midday, and I was sitting in my apartment. I was supposed to be writing. I was reading Twitter. This tweet popped up, because it had been retweeted by the magazine, which I follow:
I haven't read a short story in a long while, but this was a really great return back into the genre for me. Perfect Saturday reading.
“Cat Person” https://t.co/0QhgEu9A8u
— Charlotte Abotsi (@CharlotteAbotsi) December 9, 2017
I clicked it, even though it had a title that didn't draw me in, and something happened that also happened to a whole bunch of people at the same time: another world opened up.
If you've missed all this and you don't believe this happened to a bunch of other people, too, well, The New York Times just published a piece about this short story and the woman who created it (which never happens). The Atlantic also just put up a piece. Go on Twitter and type in #catperson.
The Times points out that there has been a backlash to "Cat Person" online (among men, mainly), but also from activist types who say, for example, that it's "saturated in anti-fat bias." (That tweet chillingly goes on: "If you liked it, if you shared it, please read it again," as if there's something wrong or defective with you if you enjoyed a story about two not-perfect people.) The Times also points out there's now a backlash to the backlash, with a Twitter account called Men React to Cat Person. Some of the, um, brilliant male commentary includes such category errors as: "How are articles like this not viewed as sexism?" Articles? Here's a guy who doesn't even know what a short story is.
How did the world of "Cat Person" get so big? It's just the story of these two people, a 20-year-old woman working at a movie theater and a guy who's a bit older (he turns out to be 34) getting to know each other.
Here's a paragraph about what it's like to flirt successfully with someone over text—this is great writing:
From that small exchange about Red Vines, over the next several weeks they built up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, riffs that unfolded and shifted so quickly that she sometimes had a hard time keeping up. He was very clever, and she found that she had to work to impress him. Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did. A few times, she got distracted for a day or so and wondered if the exchange would die out altogether, but then she’d think of something funny to tell him or she’d see a picture on the Internet that was relevant to their conversation, and they’d start up again. She still didn’t know much about him, because they never talked about anything personal, but when they landed two or three good jokes in a row there was a kind of exhilaration to it, as if they were dancing.
There's also great writing about what it's like to be newly infatuated with someone:
On the walk back to her dorm, she was filled with a sparkly lightness that she recognized as the sign of an incipient crush.
And what it's like to hang out with someone you are newly infatuated with but barely know:
Robert came to pick her up in a muddy white Civic with candy wrappers spilling out of the cup holders. On the drive, he was quieter than she’d expected, and he didn’t look at her very much. Before five minutes had gone by, she became wildly uncomfortable, and, as they got on the highway, it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.
And eventually—I don't want to give too much away, so I'll stop quoting it after this—there's a fantastic description of the guy's face the first time he sees the young woman naked in his bedroom:
He looked stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex—a guy revealed like that.
I'm not going to quote it any more, and thus rob it of its power to surprise; you really should just go read the story. It's not hype. It's not overrated. It's a fascinating piece of art. And it's fascinating the way it strikes readers so deeply that people are talking about it as if it's not art, as if it has jumped out of the art category and become journalism, as if it's mineable information, as if it's data, as if they need something from it and it's something they haven't been able to get anywhere else (in the case of some readers [*cough*women*cough*]), or as if the thing they can't get from it is driving them crazy (as in the case of other readers [*cough*men*cough*).
As someone who loves short stories, is super gay, and thinks heterosexual mating rituals are nuts for all kinds of reasons not addressed in the story, I'm just happy the whole world is talking about literary art.
Who is the author? The New Yorker also has a Q&A with her on its website, where we learn that this writer has never published a book and that the story was inspired by an "encounter I had with a person I met online" and that the "incident got me thinking about the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off." In the Times piece, she admits she wrote the story in a few days, but says it's not autobiographical.
(My favorite question the Times posed to her is: "Do you hate cats?")
Personally, I think Cat Person went viral for three reasons. First of all, it's a witty, insightful, unpretentious short story. Second, it addressed a taboo issue that felt timely: a type of terrible sex that isn't rape, but is tied to sexism.
— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) December 11, 2017
do you think don jr read cat person
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) December 11, 2017
my entire feed is just the kissing image from cat person
— Adam Serwer 🍝 (@AdamSerwer) December 11, 2017
Honestly, if you read submissions for a literary magazine, by the end of a year, you'll have read a version of Cat Person where the man is the protagonist at least twenty times.
— Megan Giddings (@megiddings) December 11, 2017
Women: "All men should be required to read #CatPerson, it's something all women have experienced."
Okay, well I read it and I think I'm gonna go ahead and swear off women now. Embrace my gay side, ya know?
— Fo (@sihttonem) December 11, 2017
I made CAT PERSON BINGO! Reflect on past mistakes or print one out and keep it in your purse so you can stay wary of dating red flags. You're welcome xxx #catperson pic.twitter.com/sfaGNezSEv
— Emma Hope Allwood (@emmahopeall) December 11, 2017
Somewhere out there right now, a paunchy middle-aged neckbeard is staring misty-eyed at the New Yorker website before saying "She IS thinking about me!" out loud. #CatPerson
— Nib Oswald (@niboswald) December 11, 2017
The best things about today was how many people actually read a short story.
The worst-ish thing about today was how many people don’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. #CatPerson @NewYorker
— Erik Patterson (@erikpatterson) December 11, 2017
Looking forward to next weekend’s debate over Dog Person.
— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) December 11, 2017
Am I the only person to feel sorry for the guy too in #CatPerson ? They’re both trapped in a dysfunctional way of relating to other people sexually that’s partly biologically and partly socially created. The human condition is problematic for everyone.
— Carol Thind (@CarolThind) December 11, 2017
As for that creepy image of the kissing mouths accompanying "Cat Person," I can't help but think that (beloved, dearly missed) Stranger art director Aaron Huffman did it first back in 2009: