When Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story “Cat Person” became a five-alarm sensation late last year, critics rushed to explain its popularity in terms of its relatability and quality. In its outlines, the plot seems standard enough: Twenty-year-old college student Margot begins a brief, frustratingly hot-and-cold relationship with the older Robert, vacillating between affection and revulsion as she tries to read his motives; when she finally gives up and breaks it off, his reaction exposes him as a boring misogynist. But “Cat Person” soon became the most-read piece of fiction ever on The New Yorker web site, prompting the blooming of a thousand takes and landing its author a million-dollar book deal.
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Fiction’s not supposed to go viral. The poet Rupi Kaur’s huge following makes sense to me; her brevity, simplicity, and hyper-earnest aesthetic play well on Instagram. But why did “Cat Person” cause such a ruckus? Did its page views reflect its objective superiority over all other contemporary fiction? Or was it, as some critics argued, mistaken for a fictional think piece about “our political moment,” shared more as an expression of political membership than of genuine appreciation? If it was, you’d expect comparable success for stories like Lynn Coady’s “Someone Is Recording” or Sana Krasikov’s “Ways and Means,” explicit responses to post-#MeToo gender politics, or Madeleine Schwartz’s “Collusion,” which is doubly timely in addressing both sexual misconduct and Russian politics.
It may be better to consider “Cat Person” a well-timed (though no-less-well-written) contribution to an existing genre, a high-water mark in the tide of righteous 2010s literature grappling with male entitlement and abuses of power. You can read