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Have you heard about the new thing everyone's mad at?
Robert Kolker's New York Times piece "Who Is The Bad Art Friend?" will either keep you hanging on every new detail, slack-jawed, or bore you so much that you give up a third of the way through. I'm in the former camp, obviously, because I'm writing this.
I can't sum up the entire drama for you here. You have to read it for all the petty details and outsized fallout. Once you've done that, hopefully you'll reach the same conclusion I did: Dawn is the worst!!
Sonya Larson's story "The Kindest" was intended, Kolker explains, as "a Rorschach test, one that might betray the reader’s own hidden biases." Kolker's piece itself seems to function the same way. Writers, predictably, tend to side with Sonya, because all writers have taken inspiration from their real lives.
In a passive-aggressive email about the short story, Dawn Dorland wrote, “It’s the interpersonal layer that feels off to me, Sonya... I think your behavior is a little deceptive. At least, weird." The interpersonal layer is the heart of this conflict. Dawn believes that she and Sonya were friends, that Sonya did not properly acknowledge her selfless kidney donation, and that Sonya owed it to her to preemptively inform her that she was writing a story inspired by Dawn's actions.
There are a couple of mistakes and misunderstandings here. The biggest is that Dawn and Sonya weren't really friends. They ran in similar social circles, but Sonya did not consider Dawn a close friend. Dawn thinks that Sonya violated a social contract by writing a story that was inspired by her. I'd argue that Dawn violated several social contracts, first in emailing Sonya to demand to know why she hadn't been liking her Facebook posts, next in blatantly vagueposting about her like a middle schooler, next in threatening Sonya's livelihood by contacting her employers, professional contacts, and the media to defame her, and finally in subpoenaing her damn text messages.
Sonya believes that artistic principles are more important than interpersonal niceties. Writers are inspired by real life, so any fiction writer should have the creative liberty to draw on their experiences and transform them into a new creative work. I'm obviously biased towards Sonya here. I have a series in this newsletter about my so-called Nemesis List for the same reason that Sonya wrote "The Kindest:" because sometimes people annoy you so much that it's fascinating. You have to write about it, obscuring some details to analyze the behavior.
Was this kind of shitty of Sonya? Yeah, I guess. But it's possible that she was trying to spare Dawn's feelings, first by not mentioning the story and then by downplaying Dawn's influence, because the kidney donor in her story is a bad person. Maybe disclosing the influence would have diffused some of that hurt. She probably should have sent an email early on in the process that said something like "I saw you donated a kidney and it inspired me to write a story with a twist on that premise: what if a kidney donor was actually a total asshole? Obviously that part's not inspired by you! xoxo!" Here's where I sympathize with Sonya, though. Dawn's entire personality was asking people to acknowledge that she donated a kidney. I, too, would stubbornly refuse to bring it up preemptively, in the same way I'd avoid asking a notorious bridezilla how wedding planning is going out of sheer pettiness.
I can see why people sympathize with Dawn, particularly if they aren't in a creative field and merely read this as a story of bullying and mockery. But Sonya is a fiction writer, and Dawn's obnoxious social media antics did inspire her. Imagine the most annoying person you know invited you to a Facebook group about themselves. You start writing a story inspired by this annoying person. While you're working on it, the annoying person reaches out to confirm that you care about their life, because they noticed you hadn't liked enough of their posts in the Facebook group they started about themselves. Do you:
a. Politely sidestep the question
b. Bluntly answer “I care insomuch as I’m fascinated by how oblivious and weird you are, and I actually have a work in progress inspired by trying to figure out why you’re like that!"
If you answered B, no you didn't. No one would do that. I'm sure that the best-case scenario that Sonya pictured here was Dawn never finding out about "The Kindest," but I imagine she also considered that perhaps Dawn would read it, see some of her behavior reflected in the donor character, and be inspired to self-reflect a little bit.
But Dawn is extremely not into self-reflecting! That's why she's so morbidly fascinating! It's why a similarly gossipy story, this one about an imposter in a writer's room, went somewhat viral recently. It's why a writer would be inspired to create a character like her, why mutual friends would roll their eyes at her posts and gossip in the group chat about her antics, and why this story – which SHE HERSELF pitched to the New York Fucking Times! – is viral right now. People love to gawk at people with no self-awareness making asses of themselves.
A standout sketch of season two of I Think You Should Leave is the courtroom scene in episode 3. (The clip is sadly unavailable online, but it's on Netflix! Go watch it!) The sketch is funny because poor hapless Brian learns that he's been mocked relentlessly in his coworkers’ texts in an otherwise completely unrelated cross-examination. A lawyer is presenting evidence of his coworkers' actual crimes, and Brian's feelings are collateral damage. It's a great premise: what if you were legally required to turn over your texts, inconsequential gossip and all, and your dopey acquaintance found out you were shit-talking about him in the worst possible way? Dawn is the Brian of this scenario, obviously, but the difference is that she hired a lawyer specifically to prove that her coworkers were talking about her hat.
The legal issue here is whether Sonya's story was significantly transformative enough to qualify as fair use. The answer seems clear to me. Sonya didn't lift passages from a story that Dawn wrote about an attention-seeking organ donor. Dawn wrote a really needy Facebook post, and Sonya created a fictional character around the idea of a worse version of such a person mailing a letter directly to her organ recipient. Sonya should have changed more of the details in Dawn's letter. (And she definitely shouldn't have used the name "Dawn" as a placeholder in any draft, nor should she have landed on "Rose" as an alternative when Dawn has posted so extensively about participating in a Rose Parade to flaunt her kidney donation!) But writers use quips from friends, conversations overheard in public, and other random detritus as jumping-off points for creativity all the time. Nirvana's biggest hit got its title from a friend scribbling "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit" on Cobain's wall because she thought that the Teen Spirit brand of deodorant had a funny name. It's not surprising that a modern writer would be inspired by someone oversharing on Facebook. I'm not a lawyer, but I did take one media law class in journalism school, and I think clowning on someone's terrible social media presence should be considered fair use.
Dawn is clearly needy and self-aggrandizing, and simply validating her many cries for attention would have been a kind thing to do. Perhaps Sonya didn't want to encourage her annoying social media behavior. But it's also possible that she sensed something more sinister there. She wrote "The Kindest" specifically to examine white savior dynamics in a cross-racial organ donation. While it doesn't seem like Dawn's experience with donating a kidney reflected this particular racial bias, her behavior since learning about Sonya's story has certainly weaponized white fragility at the expense of a writer of color's career. When you Google Sonya's name and her story title, you'll see headlines like "Inspiration Or Plagiarism?," forever tying the reception of her work to a serious accusation of intellectual theft.
Dawn's feelings were hurt. But her response was to try to speak to the manager of Art about it, and that's not how any of this works.