Since its publication in the New Yorker nearly four years ago, Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person remains the most talked-about news ever to hit the internet. Roupenian’s portrayal of a meeting between a young woman called Margot and an older man called Robert has been riding the wave of the #MeToo movement, and as a result, readers often seem to use the work as a vessel for their own screenings. . The story has sparked widespread anger among some men for its negative portrayal of Robert, the man who shows his true colors at the end of the story, and whose hurt reaction to Margot’s rejection has resonated with many. women.
This week the story received an even more tangled afterlife in the form of a Slate essay by Alexis Nowicki, who alleges that the biographical details of the story were taken from her life and relationship with an older man, whom she calls Charles. Nowicki had never met Roupenian, but came from the same small hometown, lived in the same college dorms, and worked in the same theater as Margot. And like Robert, Charles was tall and slightly overweight and sometimes wore a rabbit fur hat. His manners were familiar, as was his house: “fairy lights above the porch, a large collection of board games, framed posters.”
“Could it be a crazy coincidence?” Nowicki asked. “Or did Roupenian, someone I had never met, know about me somehow?”
Ultimately, Roupenian knew Charles and told Nowicki that she gleaned details of her previous relationship with Charles via social media. It’s a sad story, especially since Charles passed away suddenly last year and Nowicki clearly wants to set the record straight about a man she deemed nice and decent, unlike Robert. “What’s difficult about rewriting and commemorating your relationship in the most viral short story ever is the feeling that millions of people are now experiencing this relationship as described by a stranger,” she writes. “Meanwhile, I’m alone with my memories of what really happened – just as any death leaves you burdened with the responsibility of hanging on to the parts of someone you only knew.”
Once again, social media has exploded over Cat Person. Some have argued that using someone else’s story in this way is unethical. Others have argued that writers do this all the time, and always have, and that just because someone’s biographical information was used doesn’t mean the story is about them. Some feared that Roupenian would be subjected to even more misogynistic abuse. Some have questioned Nowicki’s motivations for writing the essay.
As a fiction writer, my skin is in the game. I believe that the transfiguration of lived experience is essential in writing. I’ve been in situations where people in my life have been mistaken for characters in my novel, and while they’ve taken it in a good mood, it’s not always a comfortable experience. It’s something writers grapple with all the time: There’s a reason so much intrigue revolves around the fallout of a writer using a real person as inspiration.
For me, the most interesting question that Nowicki’s essay raises is: how do you balance the necessary use of real human experience as a means of exploring human psychology while doing the right thing to the people ? Also, is it less important that this person is a stranger rather than a friend or family member? Would all of this matter if the story had never gone beyond a writers’ workshop?
I don’t know the answers. I think the tendency of readers to assume that fiction is based on reality is quite natural; however, as a writer you seem to find yourself protesting “this is fiction!” Quite often (many people seemed to read Cat Person not as a work of fiction, but as a personal essay). In her essay The Me Who Is Not Me, Zadie Smith writes that by reading other people’s novels, she is likely to make what she calls the autobiographical error. “If a friend and peer writes a novel set in space among a race of monopods called the Dinglebots, I’m still likely to think to myself: Yeah, yeah, alright, I see what you did there with those Dinglebots – but isn’t that all about your recent divorce?
It was Graham Greene who wrote that every writer has a piece of ice in their heart. I think he was right: you have to have it, otherwise you would spend all your time worrying about the impact of your work on others and you would never write at all. At the same time, it can’t be easy to find you and your deceased ex identifiable in a spectacularly successful piece of writing when it would have been so easy to alter some of the more recognizable biographical details (for which Roupenian s ‘is excused). Writers can only hope that the people they use as fictional fodder are as graceful and mature as Nowicki has shown herself.