#CatPerson: fiction, snobbery and morality

#catperson story fiction hype

#CatPerson, story, fictionOnce again, everyone’s suddenly making a fuss about a piece of fiction: Cat Person if you are the sort of person who doesn’t care for fiction but hates to be left out, I have some good news for you: it’s a short story rather than a novel. I’ll even give you a tl;dr version if you’re really too busy and important to read much but feel obliged to have an opinion on the topic: two not very interesting people have an awkward date and then some awkward sex. Yup, that’s about it. Oh, the man turns out to be a bit of a knob after the woman dumps him, but that really is about it. There aren’t any actual cats – and I promise you no one even contemplates having sex with one. Sorry if you were expecting a bit of… shifter erotica, shall we say?

Cat Person isn’t a terrible short story, but it certainly isn’t a great one. Because very little actually happens, you’re supposed to be impressed by the special writing. This is the sort of special writing you might get taught in a more expensive creative writing class, perhaps: a lot of self-conscious look-at-me-being-incisive-and-sensitive-and-#catperson story fiction hypeliterary waffling. It seems to be gaining most of its traction from the fact that it’s written by a woman and describes a female protagonist not liking a sexual encounter very much. So it gets bonus points for being topical and, yeah, some of the people reading it may find the awkward date and the awkward sex depressingly reminiscent of their own less than delicious encounters. There have also been plenty of men, over the years, writing about not-great sex in an overblown, look-at-the-quality-of-this-writing way.

But there have always been stories by and about women which point out that sex can be clumsy, unsatisfying, uncomfortable, grim and, if not coerced, not all that willingly entered into, either. There’s a bit in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar where she talks about seeing a dick and says “Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.” And I seem to recall dozens of stories and novel extracts published in Cosmopolitan in the 80s (when the UK edition had a fiction section) along #catperson, story, erotic writingvery similar lines: dating is hell, men are shits, life is intolerable for women, and isn’t this story every bit as heartfelt and authentic as last month and the month before’s almost interchangable ones?

Back in the days of the previous explosion of erotic fiction, there was always an irritating distinction made between proper, literary fiction with sex in and, well, erotica which was cheap, nasty and disposable. Mainly, this seemed to come down to: if the sex is lousy and they all die or get the clap or both, then it’s literature: if everyone who has a lot of sex just enjoys themselves then it’s worthless smut. Certainly nowadays and, to an extent, back then, there was plenty of erotica that was unashamedly sold as such that did contain some great writing on all the squirmy, uncomfortable, confusing messes people can get themselves into when they want to have sex. There have been some fabulous stories and novels over the years written by people with a profound understanding of the knife-edge between revulsion and desire.#catperson, story, writer

This time round, there is an additional, equally irritating, attitude around #CatPerson to the effect that, if you don’t think the story is all that wonderful, you must be on the side of the patriarchy and Not Care about power and privilege and men’s sexual oppression of women. While there do seem to be a few dicks out there (remember all those broflakes who think it’s brave to announce that they never read fiction by women anyway) there are plenty of people who just don’t think the story’s all that good, and fair play to them.

A story is, ultimately, just a story. The idea that it has to be based on the author’s own life to be worthwhile – or to be recognisable to some readers as being exactly like their own experiences, is a bullshit one put about by people who just don’t read enough fiction. The two most resonant, influential, archetypal stories of the last forty years feature a school for magical practitioners in one case and a galaxy full of spaceships and inhabited planets in the other. if you think Cat Person is spectacularly, unusually important as a story, you are simply not reading enough fiction.

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