An explosion of online literary criticism is settling down into an interesting heap of debris. Over the last few days our feeds—I say “our,” since together we form the kind of collaborative group that Stanley Fish would call an “interpretive community”—have rumbled with talk about “Cat Person.” Kristen Roupenian’s story of a bad date has invited a lot of different readings and prompted a lot of good conversations. We’ve talked about genre, narrative voice, “relatability,” and creating bodies with words. Some of us were unimpressed, while others snarled at the unimpressed’s incomprehension of Roupenian’s achievement. All agreed that it was an unusual phenomenon, a short story going viral, and that was a kind of news.
Since the story was about the awkward, sometimes menacing push-pull between a young woman and her older male date, various outlets have woven this piece of fiction into the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment, as if it were a personal essay or reported piece. “It has women saying, in other words, ‘Yeah, us too,’” wrote Olga Khazan in The Atlantic. While it is totally legitimate for a reader to respond that way, as an approach to criticism it turns the story at hand into a tool for digging in the hole of reality, rather than an imagined world that has its own rules.
The truly interesting thing about those articles, however, is that they demonstrate the huge gap between the new literary criticism taking place online and the media’s ability to respond to it.
In this case, the media has been thrust in the position of the literary critic, drawing lines between the artwork and the broader culture. This isn’t a bad development, exactly—it’s great that a short story is making headlines. But it is also worth noting that the boundaries of literary criticism, at least as they are traditionally conceived, are being exceeded across the internet. The response to “Cat Person” is the latest evidence that we have entered new territory for online criticism, and no one quite knows what to make of it.
Rupi Kaur is a good example of the unsatisfying way in which literature, social media, and criticism intersect these days. When the 25-year-old poet hit the bestseller list, she got the smirky profile treatment in The Cut, which made Kaur look a bit silly for caring more about book jackets (“I’ll collect a lot of covers that inspire me”) than their contents. This gentle mockery stemmed from Kaur’s astonishing career trajectory. She seemed to have spun her popularity on social media into literary fame, to the detriment of Poetry writ large.
But this missed the key to Kaur’s appeal, which, in Instagram and in print form, lies in her facility with graphic design. She uses words like objects, placing them in relation to other objects (her own face, a flower). Even though her poetry is not very good in my opinion, I think that her Instagram posts are very good, according to the particular visual standards of that medium. But “criticism” as a genre wasn’t capable of expressing that appreciation, partly because there is no Times critic who writes on social media, about social media. Those who understand Kaur’s appeal are left to have their own conversations, in their own app.
“Cat Person” is a short story, not a book, so until Roupenian publishes her collection it is not eligible for a review in one of the influential old literary criticism hubs. Instead, it has been treated as a quasi-news story, to be caught before its moment on Twitter has faded. It is being digested by critics whose job it is to digest cultural news, then regurgitated to readers as more fodder for the news cycle.
So when a literary phenomenon happens on social media, readers get the story-about-the-story, a commentary on how the conversation played out before it’s even finished. It’s the “Here’s Why You Can’t Stop Talking About ‘Cat Person’” style of take, and it treats you—the conscious and collaborative reader—like a consumer. This state of affairs is horribly unfair. It does no justice to the richness of literary conversations online.
But then again, neither do book publishers. The marketing of literature on social media remains an embarrassment to readers and writers. In trying to sell debut novels, a book publicist will cannibalize the tools of Kaur-esque Instagram-lit and photograph the book’s jacket on a pretty table, beside a manicured hand and a bunch of flowers in a ceramic vase. Again, this is a mismatch: The publishing houses treat the book like a lifestyle commodity, while trying to tap into social media’s interest in literature. Thousands of people on Twitter did not go wild over “Cat Person” because they love lattes and tulips.
Literary critics, news journalists, and marketing specialists alike are all failing to connect with this online community of readers. Each group is hanging in difficult tension with the idea of belonging to that community. The latte-posting corporate account is trying to say, “Hey, I’m one of you—buy my stuff!” The aloof literary critic is saying, “I’m not one of you, and I’m going to pretend you don’t exist.” Worst of all, perhaps, is the journalist who is neither here nor there, both outside and in, merely reflecting what you have already thought, but not quite.
If we return to Stanley Fish, we might get a better sense of where the journalist goes wrong when he reports on online readerships. When a writer comes along to a conversation and inserts his take, his claim is that “his interpretation more perfectly accords with the facts,” as Fish writes in his 1980 work Is There a Text in This Class? Here’s what’s really going on with “Cat Person,” the writer opines, and cuts through the wreathing fog of ignorance that surrounds it. But the commentator’s actual purpose in this effort is to convince us of “the version of the facts he espouses,” by, first of all, making us submit to a certain framework at the outset—“the interpretive principles in the light of which those facts will seem indisputable.”
In other words, the way that a journalist presents the conversation (“A Viral Short Story for the #MeToo Moment”) conditions us to believe that he has the answers, even though “the facts” in this case are an invention. What he is really doing is layering more fictions on to fictions. The writer’s “greatest fear,” Fish writes, is that “he will stand charged of having substituted his own meanings for the meanings of which he is supposedly the guardian; his greatest fear is that he be found guilty of having interpreted.” Journalists like to pretend that they’re flourishing the noble sword of truth, and to prove it will dabble in the “aggressive humility” of posing as a reporter when really they’re acting like critics. They pretend merely to describe a phenomenon, when really they are doing what every other social media user is doing, all day long: interpreting.
Ironically enough, interpretation is precisely what Kristen Roupenian has described as the core of “Cat Person.” In an interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, she said that a bad-date incident in her life “got her thinking about the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off.” The only thing that characterizes the woman’s sense of her date is his volatility. Her image of him is “based on incomplete and unreliable information, which is why her interpretation of him can’t stay still.”
As a journalist who is guilty of Fish’s charges, it seems to me that this is what thinkpiece authors are doing when they “report on” the life of literature on social media. When I sit down to deliver my take, I have to pretend that I’m uniquely privy to “the facts,” while simultaneously convincing you to see things in a light of my own casting. But in this particular case, it won’t do. “Cat Person” is a story about a lack of information, and the layering of interpretations that its protagonist assembles to “understand” her date. Reader: beware anybody who comes to you promising investigative truths about fiction. Reporting on literature is “interpretation in another guise because,” Stanley Fish writes, “like it or not, interpretation is the only game in town.”