A debut writer’s short story about a college-going girl catastrophically dating a 30-something man now needs no introduction on social media. The very idea of a piece of fiction going viral is unprecedented in the history of The New Yorker, admits the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. To put a number to it, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” has been read by 2 million people.
Speaking to Scroll.in, Treisman broke down why a story about a bad date and fake selves triggered such response in social media circles. And, in the process, talked about publishing fiction in one of the world’s most prestigious English language magazines. Excerpts from the interview.
How did you discover Cat Person?
Kristen Roupenian had just finished an MFA in Michigan and an agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, had facilitated the process and agreed to send out a couple of stories. I was the first person she sent it to. She loved the story, so I read it. And it was an intense read and maybe uncomfortable. My first instinct might have been to say no for that reason but it was actually the best reason to say yes. So I decided to take it.
The timing of the publishing is uncanny. Was that planned?
Yes, everybody thinks there is some strange conspiracy to capitalise on something. Perhaps it’s such a powerful story because these things are happening. But it didn’t directly relate to anything really in the news. When we take stories…we…publish them (chuckles). I took it in November and ran it a few weeks later.
Is the time between your reading a story and publishing it in the magazine so very short?
I can take something and put it out next week. It’s a weekly magazine. You send something to the press on a Monday and out the next Monday.
But you only send out rejection letters three or four months after submission…
Yes, it can actually take a long time. It was a few months before I got to it because I am slow. If I had been really fast and read it in July…umm…it would have come out then. And maybe no one would have responded because there would have been no #MeToo. We wouldn’t have had Harvey Weinstein exposed and so on. I think above and beyond that.
I don’t think people responded to the story just because there it is in the news. I think they responded more vocally because they felt recently allowed to speak up about their own negative experiences. That might have been made the response louder. I think the response would have been there regardless. A lot of people are saying, people who are 40 or 50 – “ugh…this sounds like just what I went through in my 20s”. So it’s not that they are talking about last week, they are relating to it because of the things that happened 20 years ago to them. So it’s an ongoing issue and she captured that in this particular moment.
She does try to get you to sympathise with Robert, her bad date…
I think she keeps the mystery going as to what you should think about him. The female character is constantly changing her mind. What she thinks about him, how she reads his responds to her, and I don’t think that even despite the last word he comes out as the devil. I think he comes out as somebody who actually had invested a lot of emotion in this encounter falsely because he barely meets a girl that he had a lot of interest in, and he reacts in an angry way.
She shouldn’t have treated him the way she did. She should have been direct before it got to the point of awfulness. But that was Kristen’s whole point – that many women feel that you can’t speak out about what they are feeling.
Did it take you by surprise that the story went viral?
Oh, yes. Never happened before.
Does that tell us something about an audience that would like to read but is not your traditional reader? Since, there is always talk of people not reading, especially literary fiction.
I think there was always a perception that we were publishing fiction in a magazine because we believe in literature and taking the high road but nobody is really reading it. And I feel that perception has somewhat already been tossed out because the podcast fiction I do, it’s a quarter a million downloads a month. That’s not nobody. That’s 250,000 people out there downloading podcasts…fiction.
The audience is absolutely out there. I think with these electronic ways of getting a story to them by audio or by website or by linking to it on twitter – it just facilitates the process and distribution. You know, they don’t have to go to a newsstand and pay $8 to buy a copy of the magazine based on what’s in there, they can just go to it online in seconds and access.
Since you came into the role of the Fiction editor, you’ve laid great stress on discovering new, diverse voices…
Have I? I like to keep the spectrum as wide as possible. We have such a luxury. I can get a story this week, and the week after and the week after. You don’t have to say no to something because it doesn’t fit into this box. You can say it can be “this box” this week, “this box” next week. I am very happy to have newer voices, and I am very happy to have stories from older persons and established voices. The beauty for me is what is next. You never know what you are going to get next week. It could be different. It could be Cat Person, it could be William Trevor.
We have been publishing more and more international fiction. There are stories by Samantha Schweblin, an Argentinian writer. We have Kristen Roupenian, who is almost unpublished. And, interestingly enough, has written horror stories before and sapped into that. We have had such a wide reach over time of who you think of now as very established. Like Junot Diaz for instance, Jhumpa Lahiri, who was publishing her first stories with us, or Alexander Hemmon – people whose background is multinational and who write in English now. Chimamanda Adichie. I feel there is such a range of voices and I have learned about different parts of the world through their work even if they are writing in English.
What about Indian literature? Other than Jhumpa Lahiri, who else are you excited about?
You know, I should have written down a list of the writers that we have published. There’s Akhil Sharma who is here, Jhumpa, Manil Suri. I’m sure there are many more and I don’t have an Indian category in my head. Most of them are based in the US.
Do you get a lot of writers from non-MFA backgrounds too? Since a case has been made about creative writing programmes producing formula-driven writing.
We get all kinds of writing. Most American writers who want to pursue their path and are doing MFA these days, but not all. And definitely international.
I think if you look at it 20 years ago or 30 years ago, there were only one or two programmes that had that kind of reputation like Iowa. You could sense the people coming out of those programmes learnt certain techniques. And you could say, this is a workshop story. This has completely gone by the way now. There are so many different programmes, so many different ways of teaching, and ultimately what they are teaching doesn’t matter very much. It gives people a couple of years to figure out a way to do it and to think about writing. There are going to be far more people in MFA programmes than there are going to be great writers, but it helps just the ones that are going to be great to speed up the process.
Have you put writing fiction behind you after your rejection letter from The New Yorker when you were 11? What about non-fiction?
I’ve just put out a book with Bloomsbury which is the (auto)biography of an art curator, Walter Hopps, that took forever and the subject died in the process. So, it had many stumbling blocks but that was for me, a form of wonderful editing. I also edit non-fiction at the New Yorker. It uses slightly different muscles. There are these blurring lines between personal narratives and fiction. The number of books in which the writer has used his or her own name for a character in the book – it feels like every book now. So people are very consciously trying to blur those lines. There’s something interesting about that. It’s maybe a gimmick that will fall away but there’s something interesting about this attempt to challenge the reader to take a side – what’s true and what’s not.
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