• Jessica Nacovsky

14: My *Initial* Take On The NYTimes “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?” Story & An Update

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

My bloodshot eyes after watching folks' takes on this drama since yesterday
My bloodshot eyes after watching folks' takes on this drama since yesterday

Howdy! Today's 10/06/2021, and aside from liking other folks’ “takes,” I generally stay away from Twitter drama, especially of the literary sort, given I’m an unpublished writer. Burning bridges is shortsighted when they haven’t been built yet. However, the writers involved in the “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?” dispute, offered their petty drama up for readers to judge. Seems everyone even tertiarily involved in writing/publishing has tweeted their perspective on the piece, so here’s where I'm sharing mine. For anyone not on Twitter, the NYTimes published the article, "Who is the Bad Art Friend?," which was written by Robert Kolker, about the ongoing lawsuit battle between writers Sonya Larson and Dawn Dorland. Dawn wrote a semi-public letter advocating for anonymous-altruistic kidney donating, explaining why she was happy to do so herself. Sonya was inspired by Dawn's story to write her own. The Kindness is a short story about a white-savior woman donating a kidney to a flawed person of color. There is debate as to whether the letter was plagiarized in Sonya's story, and whether Dawn overreacted to possibly being plagiarized.

Judging by their quotes, Dawn was living in a world where she was close friends with Sonya and the Chunky Monkeys (Sonya's writers' group), who Dawn had interacted with at writing workshops and the like—while they considered her nearer to a workplace acquaintance, someone to network with, or be polite to for the sake of professionalism. In Dawn’s defense, friendship is relative, and I think most people have experienced the disappointment of learning a valued friend doesn’t reciprocate that affection. It’s a real shame when this happens, the pain exacerbated in this case by the fact that Dawn’s friends, who considered her, at best, a peer, disliked and mocked her.

Was Dawn’s behavior, in creating a Facebook group applauding herself for donating a kidney, objectively bizarre? Yep. While generous of her to do so, orchestrating a private space for her peers to admire her singular act of goodwill, shows a lack of self awareness. That she not only expected her “friends” to accept her invitation to the group, but to interact with her self-congratulatory posts—going so far as to email members demanding an explanation for not having done so—would certainly have incited gossiping in any clique I’ve ever been a part of. Can’t speak for others, but while I wouldn’t have called her out publicly nor privately for her absurd behavior and expectations, if she emailed me over not liking her Facebook posts, I absolutely would’ve cast judgement to my friends. It was Dawn's good fortune she didn't share her discomfort at everyone not discussing her organ donation at the following writer's conference and to her shame she felt the need to mention it to the NYTimes as evidence of a Chunky Monkey conspiracy against her. Likewise, calling writers "service-oriented people" is a bit of a stretch. Writers write. That's the commonality.

As for Sonya founding The Kindness off Dawn's disturbing eccentricities, I'd argue they're fair game. Artists pull inspiration from everywhere. While yes, the initial idea was triggered by the letter Dawn posted to her Facebook group, the final published short story does not use Dawn's exact letter. That earlier drafts did, to me, is irrelevant. Dawn’s wording does not match Sonya's fictional letter’s current published state. Should Sonya have changed it more? Yes. if something might be plagiarized, as a writer, you've got to assume that it is and get back to work.

Sonya trying to spin Dawn's lawsuits as a white woman demanding credit for an Asian-American woman's story, while technically accurate, leans away from the heart of the dispute. Sonya took Dawn's flaws, Dawn's publicly shared experience, and wrote a piece of fiction. Denying to Dawn that she was a source of inspiration, while a copy of her letter sits in earlier drafts, shows that Sonya suspected herself of wrongdoing, and that's where Sonya really messed up. Had Sonya simply asked Dawn's permission, when Dawn was clearly vying for attention and affection from her more successful peers, or changed the story more to make Dawn's personality unrecognizable to her, there would be no mass online discourse over who is the bad "friend."

Do I empathize with Dawn feeling hurt after hearing her exact letter read out loud in an earlier draft, seeing herself as the white-savior figure being negatively portrayed by Sonya’s story? Yeah. That's got to be a terrible experience. Knowing her behavior, however intended, was perceived as attention seeking, must keep her awake at night. It sucks, but this was also an opportunity for Dawn to look in the mirror and ask herself whether that interpretation was warranted. If so, would she like to change and become someone who does good without shouting it from the rooftops? And if not, should she strive to improve her social skills to be better understood in the future?

Instead, Dawn sued, and Dawn didn’t just sue Sonya directly, she went after every event, publisher, and organization dealing not just with the story, but was working with Sonya. The Kindness, which profited a little over $400, cost Dawn and the inevitably counter-suing Sonya, thousands of dollars.

And, to top it all off, in case I wasn’t clear in taking Sonya’s side over Dawn’s, not that either of them come off looking like saints, Dawn admits she’s continued stalking Sonya at writing conferences, “to conduct due diligence for her ongoing case” after succeeding in getting Sonya’s story booted from events. Dawn submitted their ongoing drama to the NYTimes genuinely believing she’d be viewed as the victim, while fully confessing to harassing Sonya for, I will reiterate, saying mean things about her in private to her friends, and using Dawn’s letter as the founding idea for a moderately successful short story.

Frankly, Sonya should get a restraining order against Dawn, who should continue with therapy. A traumatic past does not absolve the wrong-doing adult of their actions. As for any lessons to be gleaned from all this, they are:

  1. When writing an individual from real life into a fictional story, make that person and their tale so different as to be unrecognizable to the subject.

  2. Do not antagonize people who appear obsessive or are otherwise unstable.

  3. If you’ve got to ask for another opinion regarding whether or not your work is plagiarism, it is. Change it.

Update: Today's 10/21/2021 and I'm late to the news that there was a follow-up article to the "Who is the Bad Art Friend?" story. Off The Record, which unfortunately has a hard paywall, recently shared Julia Black's article, "How a Viral Feature is Made" which is a reactionary deep-dive into the making of "Who is the Bad Art Friend?" Now, because I have a rule against paying for unnecessary subscriptions, I've not read this article. My update is partially based off quotes from the article that have been shared on Twitter. Dawn Dorland also contacted Gawker to point out inaccuracies their blogs had reported in their reactions to the initial NYTimes piece. I'll be referring to that as well.

First off, I was wrong in my understanding that Dawn Dorland pitched this article to the times. Robert Kolker expressed to Julia Black, of Off The Record, that he reached out to Dawn, convincing her to participate, promising that his approach would be "non-prosecutorial," his intent to share "everybody's rationale." Conflictingly, in Robert's letter to Sonya Larson, he assures her he'll slant the article in her favor. His slant was very effective, and as NY_Popcorn explained on Twitter, Robert only included quotes from Sonya's supporters, none for Dawn, who presumably has friends who would have spoken out on her behalf. NY_Popcorn further notes that Dawn's letter encouraged an anonymous kidney donation from a peer, which Robert purposefully excluded from his story. Likewise, Robert did not explain how Dawn noticed Sonya wasn't interacting with Dawn's kidney-donation-Facebook-group posts. Apparently, Facebook shared the analytics of post interactions with Dawn and while all of the other group members interacted with her posts to some extent, Sonya, then oddly, saw all yet interacted with none. Dawn messaged her privately, and her alone, to learn why.

Robert, well, really Sonya, spins the letter as the product of a self-important need to overshare an altruistic act. However, writing to the recipient of a donated organ is so common that most altruistic organ donation guides include how-to links, as well as explicit instructions on what can be included and who will be distributing the letter.

In her follow-up letter to Gawker, Dawn pointed out that Robert falsely implied that she (1) contacted every literary organization warning them that Sonya had plagiarized her story, (2) had lawyered up before Sonya, (3) sued Sonya first, and (4) that Dawn's lawyer had the Chunky Monkey private group chat subpoenaed. In her letter, Dawn states that she contacted those organizations who, timeline-wise, would've made sense for Sonya to submit the possibly-plagiarized letter to. While she identified Sonya, and her ultimate reason for contacting some organizations, Dawn says that, of others, she simply requested information on submission requirements, to better grasp if Sonya would have entered their competitions. Sonya also, apparently, hired a lawyer first. If was only after the "BBF refused to provide [Dawn] with the revised text that they intended to publish and distribute for the 1C1S program as a result of [the] plagiarism (infringement) claim, and then told [Dawn] to cease contact," that Dawn hired a lawyer. Likewise, Sonya "initiated litigation" in 2019, with Dawn following suit in 2020. As for the subpoenaed private chats, Dawn responded, "The correspondence included in the Kolker article was discoverable because of the litigation Sonya initiated against me in January 2019 (in response to my invitation in late 2018 to mediate or arbitrate our copyright dispute with a low-cost legal arts service). I did not subpoena any of Sonya’s correspondence. Sonya, because she sued me for defamation and other tort claims after I asserted legal rights to my letter, was required to produce relevant documents in relation to her lawsuit against me." I'm including the entire quote because I don't speak legalese well enough to understand if that does or doesn't mean if that still means Dawn's lawyers went to the judge to cough up those private chats.

Also, Calvin Hennik, presumably a member of the Chunky Monkeys wrote, in a personal email within the group (which has become part of the court documents), that, not only was Sonya's story a "take-down" of Dawn specifically, but that the white-savior character was even named after Dawn Dorland in the early drafts. After rereading Robert's article, he did mention that the character was named for Dawn is early drafts, which I must've glossed over. Holy shit balls is that blatantly mean. I stand by Sonya's right, as an author, to write whatever cruel perception she had of the person who considered her a friend, so long as she changed the character enough to make her unrecognizable to the reader—but morally, that was a massive dick-move. Sonya didn't just privately take inspiration from a peer she disliked. She wrote a story about that peer, sharing it with her well-respected writer-friends, so they could all laugh at Dawn together. That is so much darker than merely venting about how annoying so-and-so is, privately.

In short, by this point, I think Robert Kolker is the real bad guy in this story. Sonya and The Chunky Monkeys are bullies. Dawn deserves more credit as a human. Too much money has been spent on a legal battle over a very brief letter in a not-very-profitable short story. Dawn's continued harassment of Sonya, as of the publishing of Robert's story, is very telling that she too remains flawed. There is no Good Art Friend here.

Thanks for stopping by! I put out a new blog post every Monday. Toodles!

#twitterdrama #twitter #WhoIsTheBadArtFriend #LiteraryDrama

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