What Does It Take for a Short Story to Go Viral?

The latest New Yorker fiction is blowing up on Twitter

For once, the piece of writing going viral on Twitter this weekend wasn’t a bad take, a particularly insufferable Vows column, or a new piece of investigative journalism about how everything is on fire. It was a short story. Kristen Roupenian’s story “Cat Person,” which appears in this week’s New Yorker, is written from the perspective of a college sophomore who has an unsatisfying one-night stand with an older guy, and it sparked a lot of conversations about sex and dating, the value of “relatability” in fiction, what it means for a work of art to feel “universal,” and even the definition of a story. The story has sparked more than 10,000 tweets, several rounds of backlash and backlash-to-backlash, and an entire new Twitter account anthologizing negative reactions. It’s like everyone on the internet was having a contentious book club meeting out in public.

It’s a perfect storm of a story: one that deals with a young woman’s complicated experience of sex and consent, coming at a time when such experiences are a topic of national conversation, and published in a high-prestige magazine. It’s not quite topical enough to seem crass—this isn’t a story about assault or harassment, it’s a story about bad sex—but like recent reporting on those topics, it illuminates a dark corner of many women’s personal histories. Apparently, that combination made it catnip (pun intended) for Twitter.

Most of the discussion fell into one of the following categories:

  • “I relate uncomfortably strongly to this and think it’s valuable to talk about”

  • “As a man, I’m confused and angry and possibly doing some heavy posturing” (again, there’s an entire Twitter feed for these! Let’s take some time to revel in the fact that an entire Twitter feed sprang up to collect contentious responses to a short story).

  • “If you think this is a ‘universal’ experience for women, maybe reconsider your ideas of what universal means”

  • “Stop calling it an article??!?”

Variations on these responses included “I found this relatable but didn’t like it,” “I didn’t find this relatable but everyone else did,” “I don’t think relatability is an important factor in fiction,” “I have muted all mentions of ‘cat person,’” and “why are there no cat-people in this story?”

We’re not going to weigh in authoritatively on any of these points except one (stop calling it an article!!!), because frankly we’re just delighted to see literary analysis happening at a scale so large it’s genuinely annoying. Congratulations to Kristen Roupenian for creating a piece of writing that struck so many nerves it briefly turned Twitter into an intro-level contemporary fiction class.

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