It’s been a long time since the Internet has been totally abuzz over a short story. It’s possible it’s never happened? But over the weekend the New Yorker’s Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian spread like wildfire on social media gaining praise and criticism. The short piece of fiction follows the brief relationship between Margot and Robert, their awkward sexual encounter, and ends with his nasty reaction to her rejection of him. It’s a quick read that’s spurred lengthy essays and a twitter account documenting men’s hatred of it.
The themes within the story fold perfectly into our current national fixation on consensual sex, especially involving older men and younger women. The accuracy with which Roupenian details the build of online (or via-text) flirtation and how reality always falls short of the heroes we design in our mind, is stunning. I often found myself while reading the piece, forgetting that it was a work of fiction and not a detailed journalistic account of my own thoughts. The veracity of her writing felt almost intrusive. One of the criticisms that found ample footing online was that the piece was fatphobic and that made it a bad story.
Margot, whose point of view the story is told from, becomes repulsed by Robert’s belly and body hair when they are about to sleep with one another. This is an internal reaction and she never chides him for the way he looks to his face our to anyone, for that matter. While I understand that it can be uncomfortable to read someone’s derogatory thoughts about another’s body, does a piece of fiction owe us comfort? If this fictional character that the author has created is someone who values, for whatever reason, a fit or hairless body is it something to get upset about? There are people in the real world who hold these things to be important. Fiction isn’t meant to pave over what we don’t like in reality. It can do that. But it doesn’t have to.
Additionally, it felt that Margot was written to be somewhat superficial and that doesn't make her a bad person. She’s a 20-year-old college student in an intimate relationship with a man in his 30s. Someone not used to the softness that comes with age and the slowing of metabolism, especially if they themselves have a thin body, are likely insensitive when thinking or talking about bodies different than theirs. Maybe Margot is fatphobic, maybe she is naive and obtuse. Characters, as well as people, are flawed. It's what makes us not be able to stop talking about them.
Is someone allowed to dislike the story? Of course! As of right now Trump hasn’t taken away free speech! Are people allowed to be uncomfortable with fat-shaming language. Again, yes! Does fat shaming language in a story render it a bad story. No! You read works of fiction all the time about murders and rapists. This is nowhere near as dangerous as that. It just feels complicated to fully relate to a protagonist whose inner-monologue is problematic and perhaps hurtful. especially when so much else about her you do see yourself in. Fiction doesn’t owe us comfort nor does it owe us moral-absolutism. What is long overdue, however, is more twitter-wide discourse about provoking short stories.