The Cat Person debate shows how fiction writers use real life does matter

Since its publication in the New Yorker nearly four years ago, Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person remains the most discussed short story ever to have hit the internet. Roupenian’s portrayal of an encounter between a young woman called Margot and an older man called Robert rode the wave of the #MeToo movement, and as a result readers often seem to use the work as a vessel for their own projections. The story provoked widespread anger among some men for its negative depiction of Robert, the man who shows his true colours at the end of the story, and whose wounded reaction to Margot’s rejection resonated with many women.

This week, the story has been given an even more tangled afterlife in the form of a Slate essay by Alexis Nowicki, which alleges that biographical details in 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 home town, lived in the same college dorms, and worked at the same theatre as Margot. And like Robert, Charles was tall and slightly overweight and sometimes wore a rabbit fur hat. His mannerisms were familiar, as was his home: “fairy lights over the porch, a large board game collection, framed posters”.

“Could it be a wild coincidence?” Nowicki asked. “Or did Roupenian, a person I’d never met, somehow know about me?”

As it turns out, Roupenian did know Charles and told Nowicki that she had gleaned details of her previous relationship with Charles through social media. It’s a sad story, especially as Charles died suddenly last year and Nowicki clearly desires to set the record straight about a man she felt was kind and decent, unlike Robert. “What’s difficult about having your relationship rewritten and memorialised in the most viral short story of all time is the sensation that millions of people now know that relationship as described by a stranger,” she writes. “Meanwhile, I’m alone with my memories of what really happened – just like any death leaves you burdened with the responsibility of holding on to the parts of a person that only you knew.”

I’m alone with my memories of what really happened – just like any death leaves you burdened
Again, social media exploded about Cat Person. Some argued that using someone else’s story in this way was unethical. Others argued that writers do this all the time and always have, and that just because someone’s biographical information was used doesn’t mean that the story is about them. Some worried that Roupenian would be subjected to even more misogynist abuse. Some questioned Nowicki’s motives for writing the essay.

As a writer of fiction, I have skin in the game. I believe that the transfiguration of lived experience is essential in writing. I have been in situations where people in my life have been mistaken for characters in my novel and, while they have taken it with good humour, it is not always a comfortable experience. This is something that writers grapple with all the time: there’s a reason that so many plots revolve around the fallout from a writer using a real person as inspiration.

To me, the most interesting question that Nowicki’s essay raises is: how do you go about reconciling the necessary use of real human experience as a way of exploring human psychology while doing right by people? Furthermore, does it matter less when that person is a stranger rather than a friend or family member? Would any of this matter if the story had never gone beyond a writers’ workshop?

I don’t know the answers. I do think the tendency of readers to assume that fiction is based on reality is fairly natural; though, as a female writer, you do seem to find yourself protesting “it’s 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 I Who Is Not Me, Zadie Smith writes that, when reading other people’s novels, she is liable 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 am still liable to think to myself: Yes, yes, very well, I see what you’ve done there with those Dinglebots – but isn’t this all about your recent divorce?”

It was Graham Greene who wrote that every writer has a splinter 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 cannot be easy to find yourself and your dead ex identifiable in a spectacularly successful piece of writing, when it would have been so easy to change some of the more recognisable biographical details (for which Roupenian apologised). Writers can only hope that the people they use as fictional fodder are as gracious and mature as Nowicki has shown herself to be.