CHENNAI: In late 2017, a short story in The New Yorker entitled Cat Person went viral, like no English-language fiction had ever done before. The author Kristen Roupenian’s debut, it tapped into the #MeToo movement’s complex and charged conversations on consent.
Last week, Alexis Nowicki, who works in publishing, released a personal essay revealing that Roupenian had based the story’s protagonist on her. She had contacted Roupenian, and confirmed what she suspected. Nowicki wrote about how her actual relationship with a since-deceased man she called Charles was far better than the relationship depicted therein.
The entire ethical issue could have been avoided if Roupenian had been more careful with her craft. The story would not have been impacted if the protagonist lived in a different town or pursued a different undergrad major. These were the details that Nowicki saw herself in; not, by her own admission, the most important parts of the story.
Speaking on the story’s fame, Roupenian told The Guardian in 2019, “I can’t think without feeling shrunken. It’s like everyone’s talking about me, and it makes me feel small.” In her essay, Nowicki writes, “I was angry, still – that someone who knows so intensely about what it’s like to watch your readers misconstrue fiction as autobiography would have dragged others, without their knowledge, into that discomfort.” This unpleasant feeling is known to many who encounter success, notoriety or both — from artists who draw on true narratives to those whose photos become memes. Roupenian felt this on a scale of millions. Nowicki felt it in her personal circles, who recognised her and Charles immediately. Neither experience could have been nice.
But no one involved in Cat Person Nowicki whom the protagonist was built on, Roupenian who wrote it, Charles whom the three real life and fictional women all dated — is not messy. It’s not hard to imagine how Roupenian, triggered by a lover’s constant (and manipulative) talk about an ex, became a bit obsessed with that ex. Significantly, most of what she knew about Nowicki was not through social media, but shared by Charles. In catharsising her feelings through fiction, she should have been creative with a few highly interchangeable details. But if Roupenian’s motives are dubious, so are Nowicki’s.
Charles remained publicly anonymous despite the spotlight cast by Cat Person. Nowicki has violated his privacy, posthumously, despite knowing he was ashamed by the story. She has offered unassailable proof to anyone who knew him that Charles treated Roupenian (and possibly others) poorly. Knowing her identity, strangers can unearth his too. Her defense of him suggests internalised misogyny; the “he was good to me” argument is a human shield that many sexual predators get to crouch behind. Roupenian shot to fame through writing based on Charles. Nowicki has now done the same.
The ethics are less tricky than they appear at first. Roupenian was sloppy in her craft; Nowicki clever. Both got their revenge. If both privileged their own experiences above Charles’ — well, is it so bad when something doesn’t revolve around a cis-het man, for a change? Or are we still uncomfortable when women tell their stories, as fact or as fiction?
The columnist is a writer and illustrator