Yes, 'Cat Person' is very much of this moment, but the viral short story demonstrates fiction's vitality

I am trying to identify the proper sound to characterize 2017. Has it been a year for wailing? Quiet sobbing? What about a good, old-fashioned raspberry? THHBBPYTHBPT!

For me, I think it’s a kind of exhausted sigh where the exhale goes on so long you feel a little queasy afterward. Something like: Phwhooohooooooooo .

Back in August, I wrote about publishing industry worries over a Donald Trump-induced sales slump. I said that the Trump presidency was a collective test of our character to see how much of our selves we can maintain as he careens through the public consciousness.

I give myself a C-minus on my own test. I read fewer novels and short story collections than in any of the previous five years (when I started formally tracking my reading). My poetry intake was up a bit following a resolution to read more of it, but not as much as I’d pledged to myself. I fell prey to the very problem I was warning against, which is probably why I was warning against it.

Other factors were at play. Two book projects had me reading more books for research purposes, which cut into my discretionary time, but even when I did sit down to try to enjoy a work of fiction, I couldn’t manage to slide into the stories with my usual abandon and pleasure.

Maybe I wasn’t alone. Early returns on holiday sales have books down 4 percent on year-to-year sales, according to Publishers Weekly. The economy is supposedly booming; something else must explain the slump, right?

So in a year when fiction seems to have less purchase, I was initially surprised when a New Yorker short story went viral recently. “Viral short story” seems about as likely as “Trump apology,” but for a period, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian — a story told from the perspective of 20-year-old college student Margot as she navigates a relationship with the much older Robert — captured audiences’ fancy and even spawned numerous think pieces debating Margot’s actions.

It’s a very well-crafted story, somewhat old-school (in a good way) in its plain language and the way it holds tension as Margot and Robert first flirt at the movie theater where Margot works, before more exchanges via text, until there is finally a date and sex and the aftermath of that sex. I’ve spoiled nothing with my outline, because the power of the story is in the specifics of its execution, how Roupenian puts us so close to Margot.

“Cat Person” would not have gone viral if it wasn’t well-crafted, but it also seems especially attuned to the zeitgeist. The ways men and women get entangled as well as questions of power and consent are part of public discourse in a wholly new way. At the National Review, Kyle Smith took the story as an occasion to caution Margot about having so much sex, ignoring that Margot is a fictional character.

The hot takes connecting the story to the zeitgeist are somewhat odd. Writing at the Village Voice, Larissa Pham expressed distress over readers’ failure to discern fact from fiction. We lose sight of the potential for art when it’s reduced to a cultural football to be tossed around. Roupenian landed a seven-figure book deal with Scout Press for a debut short story collection and novel, according to The Associated Press.

I’m happy anytime serious writing gets serious public attention, but rather than focusing on the phenomenon, I’m going to choose to remember the 15 minutes “Cat Person” took me out of the world of my cares and put me into those of another — baby steps on my way back to a healthy reading life.

John Warner is the author of "Tough Day for the Army."

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read next based on the last five books you've read.

1. “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” by Al Franken

2. “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky

3. “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from the Old Cairo to the New World” by Lucette Lagnado

4. “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” by Neil deGrasse Tyson

5. “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit” by Chris Matthews

— Paul H., Highland Park

Al Franken’s book was heading for a Biblio Award and then, well, everyone knows what happened there. For Paul, I think Michael Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things” will intrigue.

1. “A Fall of Marigolds” by Susan Meissner

2. “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry

3. “The Handmaid's Tale” by Margaret Atwood

4. “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

5. “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman

— Lori B., Wheaton

Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” manages to cover a broad swath of American history while intimately tying us to indelible characters.

1. “Glass Houses” by Louise Penny

2. “Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War” by Lynne Olson

3. “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

4. “A Casualty of War” by Charles Todd

5. “Sinclair Lewis: An American Life” by Mark Schorer

— Anne M., Dwight, Ill.

If Anne isn’t yet familiar with the Department Q mysteries, she’ll enjoy “The Keeper of Lost Causes” by Jussi Adler-Olsen.

Get a reading from the Biblioracle!

Send a list of the last five books you've read to books@chicagotribune.com. Write "Biblioracle" in the subject line.

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