Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 18; 21 July 2021

Uncovering the hidden side of Margot

The truth about “Cat Person”

Kristen Roupenian’s short story, “Cat Person”, was first published in the New Yorker in December 2017. The story caused a sensation; it was read and commented on (in many cases on Twitter) by unusually large numbers of people for a work of fiction. That kind of online attention is catnip to publishers, so Roupenian quickly got a book contract, resulting in the publication of her collection of short stories, You Know You Want This, in 2019. It has since been reissued under the title Cat Person and Other Stories. I’ve read, so far, only three of Roupenian’s stories apart from “Cat Person” itself. (One of these, “The Good Guy”, can be read online.) “Cat Person” is written in a more naturalistic mode than the others I’ve read. I believe that the naturalism probably contributed to the story’s viral success and may even have led some readers to doubt that it was really fiction. I’ve touched before on the question of the story’s relationship to truth or “fact”, and I’ll try to avoid repeating myself.

The story’s fictive nature is again under intense scrutiny following the recent publication in Slate of a personal essay, “‘Cat Person’ and Me”, by Alexis Nowicki, a young woman who believes that she was the model for the story’s Margot. The character is a 20-year-old student who reluctantly has sex, once, with Robert, a man of 34. As soon as the story appeared, Nowicki began to receive messages from friends and others, asking if this was her story and if she had written it pseudonymously. The story’s Robert is recognizably a portrait of someone Nowicki used to date whom she calls “Charles”. While they were dating, Charles was 33, 15 years older than she was. The main incidents of the story were quite different from the circumstances of Nowicki’s history with Charles. The characters in the story, having flirted for a while first, went on just one date during which they had sex, and then exchanged text messages culminating in his final word: “Whore”.

Nowicki and Charles, on the other hand, dated over a period of months, and broke up because she had made some friends closer to her own age. After that, “we weren’t in regular communication but we still texted occasionally”. After the story was published, Nowicki texted Charles about it and he agreed it was weird. She didn’t ask him whether he had known Roupenian. He had, but Nowicki found that out only after he had died and a mutual friend told her “He was always so upset that she brought you into it”. Charles had indeed been the model for the story’s Robert.

Until then, Nowicki had puzzled over how Roupenian had apparently known so much about her, almost as if the author had been stalking her. Even after having confirmation of the connection between Charles and Roupenian, “I imagined Roupenian scrolling through my social media accounts, gathering details about me. I felt invaded.” Eventually, Nowicki got in contact with Roupenian, who admitted she had been careless in using some of the details of Nowicki’s life (where she lived, where she worked) for Margot’s background:

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.

The story had been rejected by other publications before the New Yorker accepted it. It was a huge step up from the small publications that had previously carried her stories. She was certainly “not prepared for the amount of attention the story received.” So, the admission of carelessness refers in particular to the period between the story’s acceptance for publication and its actual appearance. During that interval, Roupenian should have changed the potentially identifying information. But it was not particularly blameworthy on her part that she failed to foresee the consequences of leaving the details unchanged.

It’s important to note that, though she admitted to carelessness, Roupenian did not accept that Margot was “fully based on” Alexis Nowicki:

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 Arbour, 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 …

Nowicki isn’t wholly satisfied with Roupenian’s explanation and apology:

I’m not sure how Roupenian gleaned so much information from social media alone, nor am I sure whether Charles told her anything about me, but she got a lot of things right … She guessed correctly at the way I was intimidated by my colleagues at the Michigan Theater, afraid I wasn’t smart enough to express my opinions to them.

Now, some of the details that Roupenian got right clearly came from her observation of Charles. (“How sensitive he was. The way we both worried the other was ashamed of the relationship”.) But it’s not true that Margot is intimidated by the knowledge and experience of the people she works with. Rather, she pretends to Robert that she is, to avoid making him feel at an intellectual or educational disadvantage:

… once she knew how to hurt him, she also knew how he could be soothed. She asked him lots of questions about the movies he liked, and she spoke self-deprecatingly about the movies at the artsy theatre that she found boring or incomprehensible; she told him about how much her older coworkers intimidated her and how she sometimes worried that she wasn’t smart enough to form her own opinions on anything. The effect of this on him was palpable and immediate, and she felt as if she were petting a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear, skilfully coaxing it to eat from her hand.

The 20-year-old Margot is more self-confident and more adept at interpersonal relations than Nowicki believes herself to have been at 18.

In the end, I think Nowicki’s continuing complaint against Roupenian is summarized in this passage:

I was angry — still — that someone who knows so intensely about what it’s like to watch your readers misconstrue fiction as autobiography, would have dragged others, without their knowledge, into that discomfort.

What Nowicki seems to be temporarily overlooking here is that it was only after “Cat Person” had been exposed to public view that Roupenian learnt that particular lesson.

It seems to me that when a living person features in a piece of writing, whether fiction or factual, it’s normal for that person to overestimate the importance of the part he or she plays in the work. You don’t need to be unusually vain to think this song is about you. It seems to me that “Cat Person” is about Charles/Robert more than it is about Alexis Nowicki, and it’s about the invented character Margot much more than either.

In the same way, if one piece of writing refers to an earlier one, it may be normal for the earlier writer to believe that the later piece takes more from the earlier one than the later writer would be prepared to acknowledge. This is brilliantly and poignantly illustrated by an essay that Nowicki refers to.

In 2018, the New Yorker writer Katy Waldman was asked to review a novel by Louisa Hall, titled Trinity. The novel consists of “seven testimonials, presented in chronological order, from marginal [fictional] figures in [J Robert] Oppenheimer’s life.” One of these figures, Sally, whose twin sister died of anorexia, has certain things in common with Waldman herself. A few years earlier, Waldman had written a Slate story about anorexia and her relationship with her own twin sister. Now, reading the novel she was supposed to review, “I thought that I recognized my past in a stranger’s words”. (I read Waldman’s essay on anorexia a few years ago. I didn’t reread it before writing this, though I intend to reread it soon, and I recommend it.)

The review wasn’t published but Waldman subsequently spoke to Louisa Hall by phone. Hall acknowledged having read Waldman’s essay in Slate (and presumably having drawn on it to some extent) but insisted that the the novel was her own. Waldman’s anger wasn’t immediately assuaged. But three years earlier, when her Slate essay appeared, Waldman had received an email from the author of a memoir to which she had referred, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia. The author of the memoir, Kelsey Osgood,

… claimed that I had annexed the themes of “How to Disappear Completely” and that I owed her a more significant citation than the one that appeared in my essay.

So, Waldman found herself in a very similar position in relation to Osgood as Hall would later be in relation to her. At first, Waldman dismissed Osgood’s claim (as Hall would dismiss hers). But, by the time she came to write the New Yorker essay cited by Nowicki, she was coming around to a more ambivalent view.

I have always been inclined to favour the later author in such situations. It would be very hard to make anything else work without an attempt to unravel a web of influences. I haven’t read either Osgood’s memoir or Hall’s novel but on the basis of the limited information I have, I’m predisposed to the assumption that there’s less of Osgood’s work in Waldman’s essay than Osgood supposes, and less of Waldman’s in Hall’s novel than Waldman thinks.

By the same token, I don’t think that Alexis Nowicki has demonstrated that Margot is based on her. The resemblances are partly coincidental and otherwise generic. Most fiction writers (possibly excepting the writers of autofiction) want to make things up. Their aim is to create something, if not out of nothing then out of as little as possible. But you can’t make absolutely everything up, so you focus your attention on the important things.

In “Cat Person”, the important things are concentrated around Margot’s feelings when she goes back to Robert’s house after their only date, an episode that didn’t take place in (Nowicki’s) real life. Then, having made up what you can, you use scraps of real life to fill in the background details.

It seems that many readers don’t like to believe this; they prefer to think that a novel is a roman à clef, that a short story is a lightly fictionalised memoir. I hope I’m not being unfair to Alexis Nowicki when I say that I don’t believe that Kristen Roupenian did anything wrong. It’s perfectly clear why Nowicki thought that part of her life had been appropriated without her consent. Almost anyone would have felt the same in those circumstances. But almost anyone in those circumstances would have been mistaken.

And yet I’m very glad that Nowicki wrote her essay. It illuminates the creative process, and in particular helps us to interpret “Cat Person” and to see its strengths as a work of fiction. It also gives us some insight into how such an unusual piece of writing — a viral short story — came to exist. For that, I’d like to thank her.

Disagree? Or perhaps you see the whole question from a completely different angle that I haven’t considered? As always (though as I rarely remember to say) I welcome comments and discussion. I’d love to hear your views.

If you’re not already a subscriber, consider signing up so that you can be sure of receiving the newsletter by email every two weeks. Till next time.

Alternatively, if you don’t wish to receive the newsletter by email, you can subscribe to the RSS feed. There’ll be more in two weeks’ time. Till then.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 21–Jul-2021.