In the fall of 2017, I was finishing up lunch at a Noodles Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I saw that I’d missed a call from a 212 area code. I thought, I bet my story just got into The New Yorker. This was an unusual assumption for me to make, given that, at that point, I’d had a single story accepted in a print literary magazine; the rest of my published work was available only in online genre venues, like Body Parts Magazine and Weird Fiction Review. The story I’d submitted to The New Yorker had already been rejected, politely, by every other publication I’d sent it to, but, a few weeks earlier, my agent had received an e-mail from Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, which read, in its entirety:
I just want to apologize for holding onto this one for so long. It’s an intriguing piece and I have it circulating here now, so should be able to get back to you in the next week or two.
Sorry to keep you waiting,
If you are not in the habit of submitting short stories to literary magazines, this might not seem like such a big deal to you, but, when I learned that the fiction editor of The New Yorker knew my name, I was so thrilled that I forwarded the e-mail to my mother.
Against all odds, my prediction was correct. On my voice mail was a message from my agent—at that point, we’d had so few reasons to talk to each other that I hadn’t yet entered her number into my phone. All I remember from the rest of that afternoon was sitting under an oak tree in a University of Michigan quad, trying to wrap my brain around what had happened and what it would mean and thinking, This is it. This is the happiest I will ever be.
On Monday, December 4th, my story “Cat Person” came out in the magazine and online. I posted the link on my Facebook page, at which point nearly everyone I’d ever met either liked it or sent me a message saying “CONGRATULATIONS,” and I responded “THANK YOU!!!” Then a bunch of my friends took me out for drinks at a local cocktail bar and, after that, it was pretty much over.
Except that it wasn’t. Three days later, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my girlfriend, Callie, trying to write, when she looked up from her computer and said, “There’s something going on with your story.” Callie is also a writer, and she used to work in publishing, so she was much more connected to the literary Internet than I was. She seemed slightly unnerved. “It’s just Twitter,” I said, with the smug dismissiveness of a thirtysomething late millennial who had tweeted a grand total of twelve times in her life. Callie tried to explain what was happening; I failed to understand. Then I went home, fired up Twitter, and saw that I had a bunch of notifications from strangers. I was reading through them when my mom called about something unrelated. I tried to explain to her what was happening, and then she went online herself and, at some point, she said, “Oh, my God, Kristen, someone Barack Obama follows just retweeted your story.” Then she burst into tears.
In brief, “Cat Person” is a story about two characters—Margot, a twenty-year-old college student, and Robert, a man in his mid-thirties—who go on a single bad date. The story is told in the close third person, and much of it is spent describing Margot’s thought process as she realizes that she does not want to have sex with Robert but then decides, for a variety of reasons, to go through with it anyway. When the story appeared online, young women began sharing it among themselves; they said it captured something that they had also experienced: the sense that there is a point at which it is “too late” to say no to a sexual encounter. They also talked, more broadly, about the phenomenon of unwanted sex that came about not through the use of physical force but because of a poisoned cocktail of emotions and cultural expectations—embarrassment, pride, self-consciousness, and fear. What had started as a conversation among women was then taken up and folded into a much larger debate that played out, for the most part, between men and women, its flames fanned by the Internet controversy machine. Was what happened between Robert and Margot an issue of consent, or no? Was Robert a villain for not picking up on Margot’s discomfort, or was Margot at fault for not telling Robert what she was feeling? The lines hardened, think pieces proliferated, and disagreements were amplified to the point of absurdity, until the story threatened to become the blue-dress/white-dress moment of the #MeToo era. Men read “Cat Person” this way! Women read “Cat Person” that way! Why can’t we all just get along?
I may have oversimplified this version of events. There are a lot of essays and articles out there that summarize the response to the story much more objectively than I ever could. When I started writing this, my goal was to do something different, to tell the story from the epicenter, to answer a question that I still get asked fairly often: “What was it like to have your story go viral?” But that is turning out to be surprisingly hard.
The truth is that my memory of that period is largely fragmentary, displaced in time and space. I remember that that weekend was very, very cold; my dog had a U.T.I., so I had to keep going outdoors even as the rain froze into snow. I remember logging out of Twitter and then sneaking back onto it from my phone. I remember my friends, on a group chat, sending me a screenshot of someone on Twitter saying, “I cannot IMAGINE her group texts rn”—the social-media snake eating its own tail. I remember Callie hugging me as I cried. I remember the e-mails coming and coming—first, fan letters from people who’d discovered my story and liked it, then anti-fan letters, from people who’d discovered my story and didn’t. I received many in-depth descriptions, from men, of sexual encounters they’d had, because they thought I’d “just like to know.” I got e-mails from people I hadn’t talked to in years who wondered if I’d noticed that my story had gone viral. And, as the days went on, I got e-mails requesting interviews from outlets all over the globe: the U.S., Canada, England, Australia. Everyone wanted me to come on the air and talk about my story. Emphasis on my.
Because that was another thing about the story’s second life as an Internet Sensation: its status as fiction had largely got lost. In a way, I still feel that this is something to be proud of: the story’s realism, and Margot’s perspective in particular, were things I had worked very hard to perfect. I’d wanted people to be able to see themselves in the story, to identify with it in such a way that its narrative scaffolding would disappear. But, perhaps inevitably, as the story was shared again and again, moving it further and further from its original context, people began conflating me, the author, with the main character. Sometimes this was blunt (“What, The New Yorker is just publishing diary entries now?”) and other times it was subtler: 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 thirty-six years old and a few months into my first serious relationship with a woman, and now everyone wanted me to explain why twenty-year-old girls were having bad sex with men. I felt intensely protective of Margot, and of the readers who identified with her, and, at the same time, I felt like an impostor. I felt as though if I were truthful about who I was, I would let everyone down.
So what was it like to have a story go viral? For a few hours, before I came to my senses and shut down my computer, I got to live the dream and the nightmare of knowing exactly what people thought when they read what I’d written, as well as what they thought about me. A torrent of unvarnished, unpolished opinion was delivered directly to my eyes and my brain. That thousands—and, eventually, millions—of readers had liked the story, identified with it, been affected by it, exhorted others to read it, didn’t make this any easier to take. The story was not autobiographical, but it was, nonetheless, personal—everything I write is personal—and here were all these strangers dissecting it, dismissing it, judging it, fighting about it, joking about it, and moving on.
I want people to read my stories—of course I do. That’s why I write them. But knowing, in that immediate and unmediated way, what people thought about my writing felt . . . the word I keep reaching for, even though it seems melodramatic, is annihilating. To be faced with all those people thinking and talking about me was like standing alone, at the center of a stadium, while thousands of people screamed at me at the top of their lungs. Not for me, at me. I guess some people might find this exhilarating. I did not.
For people with low-level social anxiety, a common piece of conventional wisdom is that you should stop worrying so much about what other people think, because no one is actually thinking about you. In fact, this isn’t true, even if you haven’t had a story go viral. Almost everyone we encounter thinks about us. Bad hair, they think, as they pass us on the street. Annoying voice. Nice legs. Gummy smile. Stained shirt. She looks like my third-grade teacher. Why is she taking so long to order her coffee? I hate her stupid face. The problem is not that other people think about us but that their thoughts are so flattening, so reductive in comparison to our own complicated view of ourselves. Here I am, having this irreducible and mysterious set of human experiences, and all you think when you encounter me is, Her hair is weird. Many horror stories revolve around this theme: if we could eavesdrop on all the quick, dismissive thoughts that other people were having about us, we would go insane. We are simply not meant to see ourselves as others see us.
Here’s the catch: when you read a story I’ve written, you’re not thinking about me—you’re thinking as me. I’ve wormed my way inside your head (hi!) and briefly taken over your mind. You’re forced to reckon with my full complexity—or, at least, whatever fraction of that complexity I’ve managed to get down on the page. When the story is over—or if you put it down midway—you’re free to think whatever you want. You can think, Dumb, or Boring, or Great, or, She looks like a bitch in her author photo, or, What the fuck did I just read? But I don’t need to be there to absorb your reaction. In fact, I shouldn’t be. My role in the process is over. The interpretation, the criticism, the analysis telling you that you’re right or that you’re wrong or that you’re an asshole—that’s someone else’s job. I can’t, and won’t, take part.
After “Cat Person” went viral, I sold my first book, a story collection. It’s coming out this month. I’m hoping that the number of monsters and murderers in its pages will put at least some of the autobiographical questions to rest. But, more than that, I want people to read it. I hope they like it. And, at the same time, I don’t want to know what they think about it. I’m sure that sometime, late at night, I’ll go on Twitter and search for my name and try to figure out what people are saying—or not saying—about me and my book. I’ll do this because I’m human, and I’m curious, and I’m anxious, and because it’s possible to want things that are bad for us—but I’ll also do my best to resist. Another piece of conventional wisdom is that what other people think about us is none of our business. And, as it turns out, with that I agree.