Thus far, the world has seen one short story go viral—Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” published in The New Yorker in 2017 and released as a movie this month. In a similar vein, Robert Kolker’s 2021 New York Times Magazine article “Who Was the Bad Art Friend?” spawned a viral fiction-world scandal. “Cat Person” was billed as a work of fiction; Kolker’s story involved a real-life feud between two writers, one of whom accused the other of stealing details from her life for use in a work of fiction. Taken together, these two literary episodes suggest the emergence of a new genre that blends true crime and fiction but also functions a lot like a very old genre: the fairy tale.
“Cat Person” centers on the relationship between Margot, a college student, and Robert, an older local man, culminating in bad sex and its consequences. “Who Was the Bad Art Friend?” concerned a successful writer penning a story inspired by a fellow writer she knew from writing-workshop circles who had posted on social media about having donated her kidney. These narratives’ virality was fueled by the conflicting reactions they provoked among readers. Most strongly sided with one of the two main characters’ perception of events and became convinced their judgment was the only correct one. Their effect was something akin to the viral “what color is this dress?” meme from 2015, which had people arguing online for months over the actual color of a dress in a photo.