A few days ago I lined to a story in the New Yorker by Kristen Roupenian called "Cat Person." I enjoyed the story, and identified to some extent with both characters. My takeaway was that being 20 sucks, and some guys are dicks.
Apparently the story got a lot more heated reactions than I imagined:
The story has run the gamut of viral reactions – from the initial chorus of sharing "this story is important", "everyone should read this", "it's almost too real"; to the inevitable backlash (over the fat-shaming descriptions of Robert's body, the focus on white middle class experience, the clumsiness of the prose, and of course the "not all men" contingent); to the inevitable defences against the backlash.
Many would now say we've reached the thinkpiece-overload stage.
Although the protagonists in 'Cat Person' have a real-life "meet cute", their relationship starts out mostly via text message. They only meet in person twice. Perhaps because of this, their interactions involve projection, suspicion and performance. At more than one point on their "date", Margot wonders whether Robert will murder her. Yet she also gets into his car, goes to the movies, invites him to have a drink and then sleeps with him.
Margot's underlying self-loathing and narcissistic gaze (she's attracted to the fact that Robert desires her, rather than Robert himself); the soul-deadening banality of their attempts to create magic through banter; the discomfort and obvious risk involved when interpreting a stranger's motives; her willingness to do things she doesn't really want (including have sex) to avoid hurting Robert's feelings and "seeming spoiled and capricious" – and likewise, her inability to bluntly reject him ... these aspects of the story speak to many young women on a deeper level than outrage over the final dump of abusive text messages.
New Republic thinks pieces like Jenny Noyes' (above) comprise a new form of literary criticism:
In this case, the media has been thrust in the position of the literary critic, drawing lines between the artwork and the broader culture. This isn’t a bad development, exactly—it’s great that a short story is making headlines. But it is also worth noting that the boundaries of literary criticism, at least as they are traditionally conceived, are being exceeded across the internet. The response to “Cat Person” is the latest evidence that we have entered new territory for online criticism, and no one quite knows what to make of it.
“Cat Person” is a short story, not a book, so until Roupenian publishes her collection it is not eligible for a review in one of the influential old literary criticism hubs. Instead, it has been treated as a quasi-news story, to be caught before its moment on Twitter has faded. It is being digested by critics whose job it is to digest cultural news, then regurgitated to readers as more fodder for the news cycle.
So when a literary phenomenon happens on social media, readers get the story-about-the-story, a commentary on how the conversation played out before it’s even finished. It’s the “Here’s Why You Can’t Stop Talking About ‘Cat Person’” style of take, and it treats you—the conscious and collaborative reader—like a consumer. This state of affairs is horribly unfair. It does no justice to the richness of literary conversations online.
I'm not even going to quote some of the less-formal criticism the story received on Twitter, because ew.