As It Happens

Cat Person 'blurred the lines of fiction,' says New Yorker editor

The fictional characters in a New Yorker story that went viral struck a nerve with men and women alike, and the story dives into the often murky topic of consent.
Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, says Cat Person blurred the lines between fiction and reality because so many women could relate to it. (Jack Parker)

It's not often that a short story goes viral, but a piece of fiction published in the New Yorker has struck a nerve. 

Cat Person, written by Kristen Roupenian, tells the story of a short and excruciatingly uncomfortable fling between Margot, a young college student, and Robert, a 34-year-old man. Their relationship, which starts with weeks of exchanging texts and ends in a sexual encounter, has sparked conversations about the murky lines of consent.    

As well as blurring the lines of consent and not consent, it's also blurred the lines of fiction and reality.- Deborah  Treisman

Since it was posted online Monday, it's been mistaken for a non-fiction article or essay, and has inspired thinkpieces and even a Twitter account documenting people's outraged responses to it.

Deborah Treisman is the fiction editor at The New Yorker. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why this story received so much attention. Here is part of their conversation.

Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian has been widely shared and discussed since it was published in The New Yorker on Monday, Dec. 11. (The New Yorker )

Deborah, what were your impressions of this story when you first read it?

It was a story that had been sent to me by a writer I had never heard of and who had published very little, and so I went in expecting nothing really. I had no expectations. And the experience of reading it was so uncomfortable that I considered putting it aside. And then I thought, "That's the worst reason to put something aside." If it's making you uncomfortable, it's doing its job.

It's not a rape. It's not a date rape of any kind. It's not consensual. It's this murky area in between, that we are talking so much these days, aren't we?

Well you know, it is consensual in that she never says no to it. She purposely puts them in the position for it to happen. But then [she] changes her mind, loses her attraction and is very put off — but feels unable to get herself out of the situation.

And you know, what's interesting and what the author Kristen Roupenian picked up on in an interview I did with her, is the fact that this woman feels she needs to be tactful and gentle and that many women go through life feeling they need to protect the feelings of those around them.

She's told you that the story of Margot and Robert: "It speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people's emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy."

Yeah, and you know that's certainly what's at play. What's also at play is on the woman's side — on Margot's side — is a certain amount of narcissism. The moments when she's engaged in this encounter or the moments when she imagines this man looking at her in adoration. Those are the things that drive her sexuality. So it is murky territory.

What's so interesting about a short story, especially one of such complexity, is how it has gone, as they say, viral.  A short story from The New Yorker has gone viral. What is it about this story that has gone so deep and wide?

I think the reason that people have responded in the way that they have is that this is a moment in which women are talking about sexual experiences they regret or didn't want. All of that is so much in the news. And I think women are feeling empowered. So for them, seeing perhaps some part of their own experience embodied in the story and dealt with, with such subtlety and insight, I think, came probably as a relief.

What are some of the reactions you've heard from men, who are angry about this story or don't like it or have reacted in a very somewhat aggressive way?

Many have reacted positively. Some have reacted in a defensive way and felt that this female character was at fault as well, which I feel the story fully acknowledges and the author fully acknowledges. It's a difficult thing to do with fiction, to have this kind of conversation, because people respond as though the character's point of view is the author's point of view. That's very much not the case.

But as this story has made the rounds it seems to, in some cases, have struck people as being some kind of an essay by Kristen Roupenian and that this is her point of view and that men have reacted saying. "This is wrong, this is unfair."

It's a completely unfair reaction because it is a piece of fiction. But this particular story has extended well beyond the boundaries of the typical weekly fiction readers. So there is some confusion in that. I think it's partly a response to so many women saying how real it is, how familiar it seems.

As well as blurring the lines of consent and not consent, it's also blurred the lines of fiction and reality.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.