Discourse Person

On empathy, fiction, plagiarism, and the woman as artist

Yesterday on literary Twitter, a strange sort of gladiatorial spectacle erupted. It was about topics that matter a great deal to me: art, and who gets taken seriously when making it; empathy, and what we owe each other; authorship, and who gets to tell which stories; gender, and how art by women gets interpreted differently than art by men. At it’s core, it was also about the problem of artistic license and how we decide what is fair game, what is off limits, and what counts as “plagiarism.”

But first, some background.

In late 2017, the New Yorker published a short story by Kristen Roupenian called “Cat Person.” It was the first—and only—piece of short fiction to ever go viral. Roupenian’s story collection was subsequently acquired by Penguin Random House for a reported seven figures.

That virality was down to a few things, I think, but was mostly due to the story’s themes. It was about the sense of sexual obligation that so many women (especially young women) feel towards the men around them, and the sudden and disorienting alienation we experience when the social intimacy we think we’ve achieved through technology turns out to be false. What struck me about the story was the way in which the female character felt she had forged a connection over text with a man she met, only to realize upon meeting him again that it was all in her head. Their intimacy, cultivated via superficial commonalities, like a love of cats, was an illusion. She sleeps with him despite feelings of apprehension, pity, and revulsion, and then ghosts him. Over text, his nice-guy act falls away, and he ends by calling her a whore.

Many women were struck by the familiarity of this scenario: Despite no overt threat of violence, the young woman in the story did not feel that she had the right or even the ability to say no.

What the story was about was of great interest to me, both as a woman and as a person who thinks and writes a lot about gendered iterations of power. It explored that uncomfortable gray area between the sex women have but don’t want, inside a culture of coercion, and the legal definition of rape.

I wrote about this phenomenon in my 2019 book, High Heel:

What we are seeing now […] is a glimpse at the extent to which women are still expected or compelled to submit to men, either through sexual bullying or in professional settings, or through a persistent culture of intimidation, fear, and obligation that exists in women’s personal relationships with men. Young women are speaking out, now perhaps more than ever before, not just about the sexual interactions they are forced to have against their will, but about the sex they ostensibly consent to but do not want and do not enjoy, but which they decide to endure anyway. They do this because they fear hurting a man’s feelings, not meeting expectations, or, more likely, fear the hostility, wrath, and possibly even violence that commonly results from doing so. (p.123-124)

I thought the depiction of this scenario in “Cat Person” was important, but I was less interested in the broader discourse. People were annoyed by the story’s ubiquity. Some were thrilled by the success of any piece of short fiction. Others felt the author did not deserve the hefty book advance, or the sale of the film rights that followed.

Then yesterday, three and a half years later, a writer named Alexis Nowicki published an essay in Slate called “Cat Person and Me,” revealing that superficial aspects of the characters in the story had been inspired by real people, namely her ex-boyfriend, whom Roupenian had known, and herself, whom she had not. The ex-boyfriend had recently passed away, perhaps leading her to feel that she was now free to tell this story in public.

The conversation exploded once again.

It is important to note here that the actual story that occurs in “Cat Person”—the texts, the awkward one-night-stand, the hostility that followed, as well as its themes of alienation, sexual coercion and misogyny—are not what were allegedly taken from real life.

The things that Roupenian mirrored were the mannerisms and physical appearance of the male main character including the appearance of his house, place names, the fact of a relationship with a big age gap—both the story and Nowicki’s essay feature a man in his 30s dating a college student—and the female character’s part-time job.

Unfortunately, these things were enough to cause Nowicki’s phone to blow up with texts after the story went viral. The people in her life were asking her: “Is this about you?”

She writes:

“The protagonist was a girl from my small hometown who lived in the dorms at my college and worked at the art house theater where I’d worked and dated a man in his 30s, as I had. I recognized the man in the story, too. His appearance (tall, slightly overweight, with a tattoo on his shoulder). His attire (rabbit fur hat, vintage coat). His home (fairy lights over the porch, a large board game collection, framed posters).”

The essay, which is well-written and fascinating for its depiction of such an unusual and disorienting experience, goes on to detail how she eventually discovered that Roupenian had in fact known her ex “Charles” (a pseudonym) and that she had used the broad strokes of his past relationship with a much younger woman, including the details of her job at a movie theater and her home town, as the scaffolding on which to hang her story of mistaken intimacies and bad sex.

Nowicki was traumatized by the experience of seeing herself reflected so specifically in fiction in this way, and who can blame her. The experience of reading “Cat Person” was eerie enough for many women as it was. She, as many did, wondered how Roupenian had managed to access her interior world so vividly. Add to that the jarring realization that a passing glance at her real life had inspired its set pieces, and a certain kind of existential crisis seems inevitable.

However, as Nowicki goes on to explain what really happened with “Charles,” including a significant three-year relationship and a protracted break-up, it quickly becomes clear the story was not really based on them at all.

Even Nowicki acknowledges this at the outset:

“Some of the most pivotal scenes—the sexual encounter and the hostile text messages—were unfamiliar to me.”

But in “Cat Person,” the sexual encounter and the hostile text messages are the story. Nowicki—understandably—can’t get past the specter of “Charles” and his exploits with a younger woman from her home town, working at the movie theater where she worked. To her, these details are the most interesting part, and for good reason. But that is not the case for the general reader. To everyone else, they are not only not especially unique or noteworthy, they are wholly immaterial.

On reading the essay, I was immediately reminded of one of the most evocative fragments from Sarah Manguso’s 2017 book 300 Arguments, about seeing herself reflected in the fiction of a man she had been involved with:

“The man who had me in a phone booth married quickly after the affair ended. His novel had everything in it—the phone booth, the shame, the sash he sewed to wear over the surgical appliance in his belly. In the novel it covers a plastic leg cast. The front page of his website is a glowing glass phone booth standing alone in snow. The book got bad reviews. He has two children.”

The way in which Manguso turns the authorial gaze back on him is so economical, and so devastating. But even in this, a far more personal and specific instance of artistic mirroring, one cannot truly assert that the novel which features the phone booth is about Manguso (the phone booth on the website is more damning). I’ll wager that Manguso would agree with me, although she nevertheless retains the right to skewer him and mirror his mirroring back in the way that she so expertly does.

By the time that a person or event from “real life” has been ground up and refashioned into fiction, its meaning and significance have shifted dramatically for the author. Maybe the phone booth man is working out his issues with Manguso in the novel, but maybe not. Does he, too, not have a right to mine and refashion the passing iconography of his own existence? What is permissible for a writer to take from their surroundings, and what isn’t? One could argue that the more removed the details are from the writer’s own personal life and those they are close to, the less harm is (usually) caused by incorporating them. Like the old man seen eating pistachios on the bus, or the article one reads about a woman in Arizona jailed for setting fire to her girlfriend’s car, or a man a writer meets who is in his 30s and once dated a teenage girl who lived in a dorm.

“I agree the scenario described by the essayist is interesting and unnerving (it's a very specific situation heightened by a lot of unlikely variables),” the acclaimed writer Carmen Maria Machado tweeted yesterday, “but the idea that a fiction writer doing what literally every fiction writer does being unethical or unusual is ridiculous.”

What I found most alarming in the polarized discourse that followed was the conflation of Roupenian having pick-pocketed details from the life of an acquaintance, for a story that ultimate had little if nothing to do with that acquaintance, with plagiarism or inaccurate reportage. The story was not a “retelling” of Nowicki’s experience. It did not “memorialize” her relationship in any way, as Nowicki wrote. It makes sense that she did not ultimately recognize herself in the character or what happened to her, because the character is not her. And yet instead of feeling pacified by this marked creative divergence from fact, some demanded that Nowicki be given the right to “set the record straight,” and suggested that Roupenian had failed as a fiction writer by drawing from life. To suggest such things is preposterous—even dangerous—in that it not only threatens to discount the important reality of what fiction is, what it does, and why it is important, but also plays into the tired and sexist trope of erasing the achievements of women artists by denying their right to create as men do, and insisting that all women’s work must be personal, secretly factual, and illegitimate as art.

Tellingly, when “Cat Person” was first published, those commenting on it repeatedly referred to it not as a short story, but as a “piece,” or “essay,” as if it were a personal divulging and not a work of fiction. Some of that confusion, conscious or not, continues to plague the conversation today.

What happened with Nowicki and Roupenian wasn’t plagiarism, but that doesn’t mean that it was kind. Being insensitive or even cruel, as one can argue the ultimately unnecessary inclusion of these details were, is a different conversation. However the broader arguments against Roupenian have hewed alarmingly close to the problems addressed in Joanna Russ’s 1983 book How To Suppress Women’s Writing:

“She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…”

The constant need to ferret out the ways in which fiction written by women must somehow be “real” or “autobiographical,” in ways that male authors are not held to, is a denial of the woman as artist. In fiction, female authors are constantly asked to explain how their personal experiences have somehow qualified them to tell the stories they are telling. In nonfiction, even the smallest mention of the first-person self by a female author can cause a topical narrative nonfiction story to be recast as memoir. Men, on the other hand, and by comparison, are rarely asked what qualifies them to tell a fictional story. They can be as involved as they like in their narrative nonfiction tales, too, without having their books labeled as memoir or dismissed as personal and therefore not expert, not about big ideas, and topically non-serious.

I agree that a private acknowledgement from the author when confronted by a distressed subject of inspiration, as well as an admission of thoughtlessness, were appropriate in this instance.

As Roupenian herself explained to Nowicki in an email :

“When I was living in Ann Arbor, I had an encounter with a man. I later learned, from social media, that this man previously had a much younger girlfriend. I also learned a handful of facts about her: that she worked in a movie theater, that she was from a town adjacent to Ann Arbor, and that she was an undergrad at the same school I attended as a grad student. Using those facts as a jumping-off point, I then wrote a story that was primarily a work of the imagination, but which also drew on my own personal experiences, both past and present. In retrospect, I was wrong not to go back and remove those biographical details, especially the name of the town. Not doing so was careless.”

Roupenian may have experienced a failure of empathy, or at least of foresight, when she did not change such small and unimportant details, but it is not tantamount to the theft of another person’s story. Nowicki has every right to be upset by this strange series of events, and to write publicly about such a singular experience as finding oneself recognized inside a famous work of fiction. But she has also displayed a different kind of failure, one of understanding, which the editor of her essay should have pushed for, by claiming that this work of fiction which draws on the author’s own experiences and artistic vision is ultimately “about her.”

In that way, “Cat Person” and its maddening discourse is about all of us.