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What It Felt Like When “Cat Person” Went Viral

11 January 2019

From The New Yorker:

In the fall of 2017, I was finishing up lunch at a Noodles & Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I saw that I’d missed a call from a 212 area code. I thought, I bet my story just got into The New Yorker. This was an unusual assumption for me to make, given that, at that point, I’d had a single story accepted in a print literary magazine; the rest of my published work was available only in online genre venues, like Body Parts Magazine and Weird Fiction Review. The story I’d submitted to The New Yorker had already been rejected, politely, by every other publication I’d sent it to, but, a few weeks earlier, my agent had received an e-mail from Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, which read, in its entirety:

Hi Jenni,

I just want to apologize for holding onto this one for so long. It’s an intriguing piece and I have it circulating here now, so should be able to get back to you in the next week or two.

Sorry to keep you waiting,

Deborah

If you are not in the habit of submitting short stories to literary magazines, this might not seem like such a big deal to you, but, when I learned that the fiction editor of The New Yorker knew my name, I was so thrilled that I forwarded the e-mail to my mother.

. . . .

On Monday, December 4th, my story “Cat Person” came out in the magazine and online. I posted the link on my Facebook page, at which point nearly everyone I’d ever met either liked it or sent me a message saying “congratulations,” and I responded “thank you!!!” Then a bunch of my friends took me out for drinks at a local cocktail bar and, after that, it was pretty much over.

Except that it wasn’t. Three days later, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my girlfriend, Callie, trying to write, when she looked up from her computer and said, “There’s something going on with your story.” Callie is also a writer, and she used to work in publishing, so she was much more connected to the literary Internet than I was. She seemed slightly unnerved. “It’s just Twitter,” I said, with the smug dismissiveness of a thirtysomething late millennial who had tweeted a grand total of twelve times in her life. Callie tried to explain what was happening; I failed to understand. Then I went home, fired up Twitter, and saw that I had a bunch of notifications from strangers. I was reading through them when my mom called about something unrelated. I tried to explain to her what was happening, and then she went online herself and, at some point, she said, “Oh, my God, Kristen, someone Barack Obama follows just retweeted your story.” Then she burst into tears.

In brief, “Cat Person” is a story about two characters—Margot, a twenty-year-old college student, and Robert, a man in his mid-thirties—who go on a single bad date. The story is told in the close third person, and much of it is spent describing Margot’s thought process as she realizes that she does not want to have sex with Robert but then decides, for a variety of reasons, to go through with it anyway. When the story appeared online, young women began sharing it among themselves; 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.

. . . .

I remember the e-mails coming and coming—first, fan letters from people who’d discovered my story and liked it, then anti-fan letters, from people who’d discovered my story and didn’t. I received many in-depth descriptions, from men, of sexual encounters they’d had, because they thought I’d “just like to know.” I got e-mails from people I hadn’t talked to in years who wondered if I’d noticed that my story had gone viral.

. . . .

I’d wanted people to be able to see themselves in the story, to identify with it in such a way that its narrative scaffolding would disappear. But, perhaps inevitably, 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.

. . . .

So what was it like to have a story go viral? For a few hours, before I came to my senses and shut down my computer, I got to live the dream and the nightmare of knowing exactly what people thought when they read what I’d written, as well as what they thought about me. A torrent of unvarnished, unpolished opinion was delivered directly to my eyes and my brain.

. . . .

I want people to read my stories—of course I do. That’s why I write them. But knowing, in that immediate and unmediated way, what people thought about my writing felt . . . the word I keep reaching for, even though it seems melodramatic, is annihilating. To be faced with all those people thinking and talking about me was like standing alone, at the center of a stadium, while thousands of people screamed at me at the top of their lungs. Not for me, at me. I guess some people might find this exhilarating. I did not.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and here’s a link to Cat Person.

Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Social Media

4 Comments to “What It Felt Like When “Cat Person” Went Viral”

  1. She had the bad luck to write a story that fit the #METOO movement, and we will see if that negatively impacts her career.

    That’s the problem when you write Fiction with no obvious fantastic elements, people are all too ready to assume that it is autobiographical. Her article goes into my story folder as a cautionary tale.

    I have a number of stories that will feel all too real and cause similar problems. To me the stories are fantastic enough, I don’t know how to add elements that will make that clear to the Reader.

    I’ve been reading Hayden White lately. I discovered him when he died.

    Hayden White, Who Explored How History Is Made, Dies at 89
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/obituaries/hayden-white-who-explored-how-history-is-made-dies-at-89.html

    The concept that all History is Fiction lends itself to what I am doing. I see no difference between a Story that the Reader considers to be Real, and the Story that has what the Reader would consider fantastic elements. To me, both are equally fantastic. HA!

  2. A million bucks in one dip? All I can say is: Congratulations! I liked the illustration better than the story, but so what? I’m not her audience anyway.

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