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Cat People (Putting Out Fire)

Women's voices in storytelling need to be accepted into the mainstream literary canon without the burden of too many caveats

Is ‘Cat Person’ actually about David Bowie? Photo: @meowbox
Is ‘Cat Person’ actually about David Bowie? Photo: @meowbox

In all the analysis about Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story that I’ve read this week, there has been, sadly, no mention of David Bowie.

I was alerted to read Roupenian’s Cat Person, published in The New Yorker’s 11 December issue, by an iMessage from a former intern who flagged it as “the story that is shattering the internet". Soon it was trending on Twitter, with semi-spoilers like this one by fantasy-fiction writer Samit Basu: “To the person who told me not to miss the Cat Person story because it had a person turning into a cat: well played."

I agree. One would think that with a title like that, a short story about a relationship would involve at least one person turning into a cat, exhibiting cat-like behaviour or having a sexual fetish involving cats. Instead, the story is about a 20-year-old student, Margot, who falls into a flirtation with an older man Robert (my personal theory about the title is that “Cat Person" is how Margot saves Robert’s number on her phone because he tells her he has two cats).

Our fantasy-fiction expectations had roots in the David Bowie song Cat People (Putting Out Fire), the title song of the 1982 American erotic horror movie Cat People. The Paul Schrader movie involved a brother, a sister, sex and a leopard.

The popularity of Cat Person has led to hyper-dissection. While the story is striking, the discussion around it in everything from zeitgeist-y websites like to prestige media such as The New York Times and The Guardian, has made for even more engaging reads. The thread that is perhaps most interesting is the assumption that it is a personal essay rather than a work of fiction. In The Atlantic, Megan Garber points to the tendency to dismiss the literary products of women writing about women’s lives as “chick lit": “But there’s also the fact that women writers’ characters are often simply assumed to be autobiographical, as if their authors are not possessed of enough moral imagination to create characters who are fully fictionalized. While male authors tend to be given the luxury of fiction," she says.

What is The Great Gatsby if not lad lit?

In the past, the writer Anne Enright has spoken about how books by women are infrequently reviewed by men, while books by men are written about by critics of both genders. The implication is that literary editors believe books by male writers express universal concerns while those by women are narrower in scope.

I asked Namita Devidayal, co-director of the ongoing Times LitFest in Mumbai, for her thoughts, given that one of the highlights of this year’s edition is the British fashion journalist Plum Sykes, whose latest book, Party Girls Die In Pearls: An Oxford Girl Mystery, has been broadly described as a chick-lit thriller.

“Both Bachi (Karkaria, her festival co-director) and I very consciously programme our festival to disrupt labels and silos because we strongly believe that people have different sides to them and sometimes those sides can even be somewhat contradictory. Labelling someone as a ‘chick-lit’ or ‘feminist’ writer is lazy and presumptuous. A writer like Plum Sykes may be addressing important social spaces, but in a light voice," she says.

Adding to the backlash that is par for the course for anything that has achieved unprecedented success is the idea that the narrative of Cat Person is fat-shaming. Margot first realizes that she does not want to have sex with Robert when she sees “his belly thick and soft and covered with hair". Roupenian has been accused of using his physicality as shorthand to underline his inadequacies. But this is linked to the principal debate about personal essay versus fiction. Fiction has no burden to be politically correct. The protagonist of a story can most definitely be a 20-year-old who dislikes a date for being fat. And the protagonist can be an imperfect, unlikeable female.

It is easy to read Cat Person in a #MeToo context; to read it as a young woman’s confession. Roupenian has said in interviews that the story was inspired by a person she met online. But she did not choose to write it as a personal memoir.

Just as the #MeToo campaign is important for women’s non-fiction accounts of coercive sexual encounters, so is Cat Person to be seen as fiction. Women’s voices in storytelling need to be accepted into the mainstream literary canon without the burden of too many caveats. They needn’t be autobiographical to be powerful. As Garber writes, something can be fiction and feminine at the same time.

Anindita Ghosh tweets @aninditaghose

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