On Cat Person, and against easy reading

Over the last week or so, I have watched with interest the discussion on Twitter about the short story Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian, published in the December 11 issue of the New Yorker, as well as online. In commentary, many women noted how the main character's experience of kind of unwanted sex with a cisgender man resonates for them, particularly in this moment as women speak up in greater numbers about harassment and unwanted sexual attention. Others lamented the fatphobic language that the main character used; others lamented that a mediocre story garnered this much support, or questioned how a writer who has never published a book managed to get a story published in the New Yorker.

But perhaps the most interesting, at least from an information literacy perspective, is how many people assumed that the story was non-fiction. This morning, I read this piece by Larissa Pham where she suggests that this reflects a failure as readers, in part because we cannot expect the same things from fiction and non-fiction. She argues that mistaking the one for the other flattens our analysis: rather than see I don't totally agree with Pham's assessment -- I do believe that fiction can provide lessons on how to live our best lives -- but I love this final paragraph:

When we look to our texts to teach us not how to think, but what to think, we suffer for it — as artists and consumers of art, but also as citizens. We further collapse the distinction between truth and lies, fact and fiction, which is something we cannot afford to do at a time when Donald Trump’s cries of “fake news” are being taken up by despots around the world. We cannot give in to easy reading. We simply must be better readers of the texts we encounter — especially now, when so much is at stake, and when so much of our daily lives takes place in the world of words.

As a librarian, I frequently see the kind of mix-up that Pham describes, not in the analysis of texts, but in their citation. I teach an information literacy course where students created an annotated bibliography, and there is a great deal of confusion about format and genre. Students regularly describe novels as monographs and vice versa. I once had a student turn in a review of a New Yorker article for an assignment titled "Review of a Scholarly Book." The article they wrote about was actually a very good fit for their topic, written by a subject expert, and I found myself struggling to both affirm the student and also underline why it mattered to be able to find a specific type of thing when you do research.

Anyway, I have come around to the belief that learning a citation style does kinda matter. I had long felt ambivalent because a) there are powerful tools and guides to help with this, and b) ultimately, what matters is if I can find the thing, not if the commas are in the right place. However, the citation for a book looks pretty different from the one for a New Yorker article. There are little clues for either that would suggest whether you might be looking at a "scholarly" publication -- say, published by a university press -- although of course a meaningful evaluation of that would require more digging.

Of course, in the case of Cat Person, the citation alone wouldn't be enough to identify fact from fiction. Still, I was initially surprised that people were confused, because the short stories in the New Yorker are generally pretty obviously identified: they show up toward the back of the magazine, and are always preceded by a page with a big lovely illustration. They're also labeled as fiction (there's also a tiny little note on the digital version, but I can see how it would get lost). Still, I appreciate that this makes me think about how learning to write citations is or at least reflects a type of reading. Also, how delightful for a short story to be trending on Twitter? Sometimes, it is the small pleasures.