The fact people are even talking about it is part of the fuss
Nobody pays attention to short stories nowadays. The joke among all the hundreds of journals that publish them is that the only readers are other writers hoping to get published. But even those writers are just hoping to publish short stories until they can get a novel published, when you might finally get large numbers of regular people to notice you.
It wouldn't surprise me if part of the hate this story got--and there was hate--comes simply from people in the literary community who are irritated that this one story is getting so much love. As Vox's summary of the hub-bub on this story put it:
The short story is a medium already granted precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it were holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose; not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.
I have to admit, while reading the story, I had to fight feelings of jealousy or maybe territoriality, wondering what it was that made this story, out of the tens of thousands of stories published every year, so popular. I myself wrote a story in the same thematic family this year, one in which a young woman wonders about the dating credentials of a man who isn't the paragon of masculinity. My main character does not share "Cat Person's" main character's other privileges, but she is dating a guy she's not entirely sure is up to snuff with the expectations she's been conditioned to have. I can't get the fucking thing published. So it was hard for me to deal with this story's explosive popularity. I got over it, though, and I'm glad I did.
Key issues people are arguing about
One major reason the story is so hot is pure serendipity. There is a bad date followed by bad sex that Margot, the main character, is wishing she weren't having. That bad sex forces the reader to ask a lot of questions. At a moment when America is having a come-to-Jesus experience about unwanted sexual acts, this story's central event takes place when a girl misinterprets a guy, ends up initiating sex she really doesn't want, and then following through because she feels the imperative to be nice. A really good story puts the reader in a tough moral space and forces us to ask hard questions of ourselves. In this case, one question is: "Was this consensual sex?"
It's a hard question to answer. It wasn't not consensual. It wouldn't hold up as rape in court. Or would it? He is 34, we find out, after the date, and she is only 20. He bought her beers. He questions whether she is drunk. It appears momentarily that he is going to turn down her sexual advances--which she clearly starts, not him--based on the possibility she is drunk. He is unable to resist, though, when she persists. He's a man. And probably not one who is all that successful with the ladies. One is now throwing herself at him, from what he can tell. He's only going to be able to say no for so long.
He never seems to force anything on her. He's not good in bed. She's dying for it to be over. But he doesn't know that.
It's a good story precisely because there's no easy answer to just how culpable both parties are. Bad decisions were made, and there is some blame to pass around.
I'd wager that most people would have given Robert--the sad sack guy--more benefit of the doubt if it weren't for the story's ending. He seemed to me to just be a guy who stumbled into dating above himself, got lucky, and then faced inevitable dumping. The dumping is brutal. Three days after sex, when Margot has ignored him nearly the whole time, Margot's roommate takes her phone and texts Robert this message: “Hi im not interested in you stop textng me.”
Robert sees Margot in a bar a month after that text. He texts her after seeing her. He starts off okay, just wanting to know if he did anything wrong, but he ends in a rage, asking if she is fucking the guy she was with in the bar. The last line of the story is Robert calling Margot a whore.
So maybe the guy was bad news all along, and not really so innocent that night.
Some who didn't like the book, including literary all-star Roxanne Gay, hated Margot's attitude to Robert's body. The main reason she is repulsed by him is that he is fat. She notices “his belly thick and soft and covered with hair," his penis “only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly.”
Margot appears to be a young woman of some privilege. She is in college. She is thin. While Robert is apparently touchy about her high-brow views of film, she is equally touchy about being seen as high-brow.
While some have criticized the story for its obsession with fat, others have pointed out that characters are not required to be role models. Margot is a product of the culture she inhabits, and that culture has conditioned her to have feelings toward fat bodies. The story is just being honest about the thoughts of a young woman dating.
A light touch of mansplaining
A lot of men apparently don't like this story. I do. I especially liked the treatment of Margot's back-and-forth creation of a narrative for minuscule clues from Robert on their date. But I'm going to push back a bit on how Robert is being interpreted in a way that I'm sure some will find just so typical of a man. I think that when Robert calls Margot a whore at the end, we're supposed to lose all sympathy for him. The author suggested as much. But why do we forgive Margot's fat shaming, but not Robert's decision to try to hurt her with words after she has rejected him? You shouldn't call someone names like that, but he was probably drunk, had just seen the girl who dumped him after sex in a rude text three days after their date, and was at a very low point. He didn't attack her physically. He attacked her with a text.
I think we're meant to extrapolate back from that ending into the story and see him as something of a monster throughout. Margot wonders more than once whether he might be a murderer, since she knows so little about him. We are supposed to wonder the same thing at the end.
But I don't think so. I think that text is the lowest Robert is likely to go. He's a ball of insecurities. He's what my one friend calls a "Beta." He's a man without either the physical or social qualities a manly man is supposed to possess. He's got cats (probably), for crying out loud. That is not a good harbinger of a man's masculine qualities in our culture. He got his hopes up, because a girl out of his league seemed to hit on him in a movie theater, then pursue a relationship with him, then initiate sex, and then the whole dream came crashing down. He's devastated.
Some might say he was a scoundrel for dating someone 14 years younger than him. I don't think Robert is the kind of guy who can afford to be that scrupled. She's legal and she seemed to be into him. He also seems to have thought she was older than she was when he met her.
Does calling a woman a name meant to demean her sexual conduct eliminate a person's claim to sympathy? I'd guess you'd get a statistically significant spread of responses from men and women on this. At least some men can feel some sympathy for Robert. I don't claim I'm right, only that I do feel it, too.
This story came at a good time for me
In addition to all the news of the past few months, in the past two weeks, I've also watched two shows on Netflix that dealt a lot with the issues that young women face while trying to figure out dating, love, and sex. One was Spike Lee's series "She's Gotta Have it," the other was the Korean drama translated as "Hello My Twenties." Both had a few scenes that were hard for me to watch, because they did an excellent job of showing how for women, the time of life where you're trying to find yourself can switch from magical to terrifying in a heartbeat. In her New Yorker interview after the story, Roupenian quotes--strangely enough--Louis C.K.: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” This story was a punctuation mark on a couple of weeks' meditation on this theme.
Like most short story writers, I'm glad a short story is getting so much attention. It's not a perfect story. That ending strikes me as possibly an unearned surprise, or a bit of a hokey shock ending. But it still a very good story, and worthy of attention. That isn't less true just because there are thousands of other stories every year also worthy of this much discussion.