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?”
“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.
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