Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The truth about fiction

At the beginning of this week, just about four months after everybody else, I finally got around to reading “Cat Person”, the short story by Kristen Roupenian which was published in the New Yorker and famously set the internet on fire. Writing about the internet reaction in Slate, Laura Miller said that the last time she could remember a New Yorker short story causing such a stir, it was “Brokeback Mountain”, 20 years earlier.

Miller addresses the widespread perception that many of the people who read and responded online to Roupenian’s story didn’t at first appreciate that what they were reading was fiction. According to Miller, they took it for a “personal essay” or a “thinkpiece”. I remember reading at the time that someone had tweeted that he/she hadn’t previously known that the New Yorker publishes fiction. It’s more than likely, though, that the number of readers who mistook the story’s genre has been exaggerated.

I searched cursorily through the tweets that mentioned “Cat Person” in the days immediately after publication. I found one reference to the story as an “article” and a few people who commented about Margot and Robert as if they were real people, but I couldn’t find anything that unequivocally painted the story as nonfiction. After all, it’s not at all unusual for people to “hate” or “admire” characters in a tv show or a novel, without that implying that they’ve mistaken them for living individuals.

So the idea that suggested itself to me when I read Miller’s article — that it was precisely because the story hadn’t been generally perceived as fiction that it went viral — doesn’t hold up. I’d been entertaining the hypothesis that so many readers had read the story right to the end only because they thought they were reading nonfiction. In a rudimentary but effective disguise, had a short story managed to penetrate their defences?

Apparently not, unless a substantial number of tweets have since been deleted out of embarrassment — which isn’t impossible, I suppose. But my speculative notion, though wrong, wasn’t at all implausible. The story, even though correctly perceived as fiction, was also seen as “relatable”, recognizable and true to life in a way that we often don’t expect fiction to be. It was made up, sure, but it was an artefact that could very nearly pass as a true story.

I also wondered if the fact that both the author and the point-of-view character are young women affected the readers’ perception of the tale’s likeness to the truth? I was reminded of a recent interview with Louise O’Neill in The Irish Times, where she spoke of the difficulty of getting people to believe that fiction by women is anything other than barely disguised autobiography:

She recalls a talk she did with the authors Lisa McInerney and Rob Doyle. “Rob got up and read a short story about an author called Rob Doyle who lived in Paris. It was an absurd story, because that’s the style of his writing, kind of Flann O’Brien-esque. Anyway, he sat down, and it was very funny, he did a brilliant reading of it. The character was quite obnoxious. And if I got up and read a short story about a writer called Louise O’Neill who lived in Clonakilty, there’s no way anyone would just accept that was fiction.”

I can’t help suspecting that there’s a similar impulse at work in the factification of “Cat Person”

Coincidentally, the same day that I read “Cat Person”, I also noticed a tweet from Sarah Goldsmith (a very active and well regarded writer on Medium). Sarah said she was going to cut back on the amount of fiction she’d be posting here.

Apart from The Weekly Knob I'm done with Medium. Receiving a handful of reads just isn't worth it. Maybe I'm a terrible writer or my posts are buried, but whatever it is I'm moving on!

— Sarah K Goldsmith (@SarahKGoldsmith) April 9, 2018

This shocked me a bit, given that Sarah is clearly one of the star fiction writers on the platform. When, at the end of 2017, I posted a list of the “top ten” writers whose work I had recommended up to that point in my [then] weekly newsletter, Sarah’s was one of those names. But it seems that notwithstanding the quality of her work, it isn’t being read by enough people to justify the effort.

And, I must admit that, once I’d had time to get used to the idea, I wasn’t all that surprised. Writers in certain nonfiction fields — life hacks and tech hacks, more or less — often report page view statistics in the tens of thousands. Fiction writers tend to be more reticent about our numbers but my impression is that most of us would be delighted with a couple of dozen page views.

Why the discrepancy? Part of it is, no doubt, a perception among many readers that Medium isn’t a place you go to read fiction. When I first started to post here, I worried a bit that by posting a short story I’d be guilty of an embarrassing solecism. I think it took me a month or two to notice that there’s a very active community of fiction writers here.

But there’s almost certainly more to it than that. People expect to have to concentrate while reading fiction and, very often, while they’re on the internet they’re just not in the right frame of mind to do that. So when they encounter a story that looks demanding, they bookmark it for later, or maybe just make a mental note, and move on to something that appears more easily digestible. I’ve often done that myself. My mental state as I settle down with a book — whether ebook or print — is usually quite different from when I settle down in front of a web browser. But it doesn’t have to be.

I’d like to end this discussion with a rousing call to action, showing how we writers can persuade our readers (actual and potential) that fiction is still worth their while, even if it’s displayed in a web browser rather than contained in the pages something which has been designated a “book”. Unfortunately, I don’t at the moment have a good enough idea what form that call to action should take. There is certainly no shortage of excellent fiction on the platform and it deserves a readership.