The author of Cat Person – the New Yorker short story that went viral last year and launched international conversations about modern dating, #MeToo and the nature of fiction – is very much back in the news this month, with Kristen Roupenian’s anticipated book out and a bonus essay in The New Yorker. The book, for which Simon & Schuster reportedly paid a seven-figure advance, is the short-story collection You Know You Want This (Zoe Whittall just reviewed it in The Globe and Mail), and one of its stories has been printed on the website Medium, giving us an enticing free taste. The New Yorker essay is about her experience with the massive virality of Cat Person. Both the Medium story and the essay are interesting, but of course, neither has done anything to convince the opponents of lifelike fiction that fiction is anything other than a cudgel in an ideological war.
The sample story, The Good Guy, is an odd one. It is the account of the dating life, from childhood to adulthood, of a terribly sensitive and insecure man. It begins by describing an upsetting fantasy he has as an adult: When he is having sex with a woman, he can only be aroused by imagining he is stabbing her with a knife. “The idea was that she wanted him so badly, had been driven so wild with obsessive physical desire for his dick, that she was driven to impale herself on it despite the torment it caused.” This opening gambit has caused a lot of online outrage, particularly from politically conservative commentators who want to see Roupenian’s writing as simple propaganda for man-hatred.
It is true that I have never heard of such a male fantasy. I have never even seen it represented in pornography or art. In real life, it would be rare in the extreme. Is it possible that such a fantasy could exist? Yes of course it is possible. But if an author puts this unique fantasy into the mind of a male character at the height of a lot of anxiety about male sexuality, is it not bound to be seen as a statement about men in general? Particularly when the title of the story is A Good Guy. And does she not also note that he has a small penis (a perhaps unnecessary touch)?
I like to defend an author’s freedom to write unlikeable characters of either gender, and I refuse to see it as an attack on everyone. If a man writes an unpleasant female character, it is simple-minded to call this a misogynist act. Similarly, if one fictitious man is insecure, the author is not necessarily writing an essay about all men.
The truth of this doesn’t stop many commentators from taking that approach, though. A Good Guy has become a punching bag on conservative Twitter streams – apparently representative of all that’s wrong not just with condescending Jezebel feminism but with contemporary fiction itself, a genre whose point is to provide more indignant stories of toxic male behaviour to an entirely female audience. Is this how Roupenian got a million-dollar advance, they ask: for a bunch of rants about how men are all rapists?
And admit it: The exact same thing would happen if a male writer created a female character with a lot of clichéd “feminine” flaws right now.
The thing is, A Good Guy is a complicated story about a complicated guy. His weird fantasy ends up being explained: He is terrified of women, obsessed with their judgment. His primary and persistent emotion is shame. He hates himself. “This many crying women couldn’t be wrong about him, no matter how unfair their accusations felt.” And about the small penis – he sees it as small in the mirror; no one else does. He ends up turning this shame into resentment; he even tries to hate them.
The women are all rather silly, too. They suffer willful delusions about him. They are mean to each other and to him. Men and women in this universe – as in Cat Person – don’t like each other very much.
There are funny bits, too. It’s basically a painful and yet not unsympathetic satire of sexual relations. Whatever it is, it is not simple-minded propaganda.
In her New Yorker essay, What It Felt Like When ‘Cat Person' Went Viral, Roupenian explains how people interpreted the story, but wisely does not admit to any intentional message. Instead, she explains why she is ill-equipped to explain her story to all its political analysts: “The assumption was that I’d be happy to go on the radio and explain why young women in 2018 were still struggling to achieve satisfying sex lives – in other words, the assumption was that my own position and history would be identical to Margot’s. I was 36 years old and a few months into my first serious relationship with a woman, and now everyone wanted me to explain why 20-year-old girls were having bad sex with men.”
This is the heart of the whole debate. The author is pleading, begging, for her work to be seen as fiction and not as a Slate-level polemic on toxic masculinity.
A Good Guy is not as good a story as Cat Person, because its characters have a slightly cartoonish quality, and its allegorical ending is a little contrived. But it is still just a story, a made-up story, that is troubling in the best way. Fiction troubles, and rarely recommends solutions to the societal and emotional problems it so painstakingly details. I look forward to reading the whole book.