Saturday, October 09, 2021

Bad Art Friend: the blue/gold dress of 2021

You've doubtless seen this one: Robert Kolker's "Who is the Bad Art Friend?" in the NYTimes Magazine. 

Here's the short version:

1. A lightly-published writer (Dawn Dorland) donates a kidney, seeks support (praise?) for doing so by setting up a Facebook private group and inviting writers and others to it, including the more-famous Sonya Larson. She posts an open hypothetical letter to the kidney recipient explaining her reasons. 

2. Larson lurks on the group but doesn't post. Dorland looks at her stats, sees this, and reaches out to Larson by email (who does that?).

3. Larson writes a story, "The Kindest," in which a deluded white savior type donates a kidney to Chuntao, who is--unimpressed? 

In the earliest version of the story, Larson, in order to mock the white savior more effectively, uses part of Dorland's letter word for word, telling her group of writer friends, the Chunky Monkeys, that it was too good not to repeat. Later, she changes it slightly. 

Dorland pursues Larson: those are my words. Larson feels pursued but doubles down: oh, you own all the words and kidney situations, do you? Tells her friends, who along with Larson have been mocking the needy Dorland all along. Lies to Dorland.  Lawsuits ensue. 

The reactions, from Celeste Ng and others on Twitter and in the NY Times comments, have been fascinating. 

1. Writers: Dorland was never our friend; we just liked to mock her. Anyway, she was annoying, and persisting in claiming her words is borderline harassment. She was not part of Our Group, the Chunky Monkey in-crowd. We are Creatives and taking those words and Dorland's life situation was creative license--deal with it. And anyway, Dorland shouldn't write about her kidney donation, because she's begging for praise and it destroys the purity of her gift. Only we should write about it. 

Honestly, this is the take from most of the writers I follow on Twitter, all of whom say "it's clear who the bad guy is here--Dorland, duh."  

The Atlantic has an essay by Elizabeth Bruenig saying "get a load of that awful Dawn Dorland" with no hint of the stolen words backstory, which gives me reason 1,000 why I'm glad I am no longer a subscriber after decades of paying money to The Atlantic. 

2. People who aren't writers: "Wasn't that mean, though, to take her words and gang up on her? Why are you mocking her for being needy and for, excuse me, giving a kidney?" 

My take, as a lowly English professor:

Leaving aside everything else: Isn't the appropriation of someone else's words without attribution what we call . . . plagiarism? And call out in student papers?

I get why Larson would attack and get her group to back her with a lot of excuses. I've seen it whenever I've confronted a student about plagiarism, even when I'm sitting there with a word-for-word comparison. They get defensive and angry. 

It doesn't change the facts. I still report it to Academic Integrity or whatever the university unit about that is calling itself this year. 

Would I ever say this, though, on Twitter? Absolutely not.  I went through middle school, and believe me, I knew Mean Girls.  I also know that the Mean Girl syndrome doesn't stop there. 

Larson said that she wanted "The Kindest" to be a blue/gold dress story, where the woman with the white savior complex and the woman who got the kidney were both wrong and right, depending on your subject position. 

But Kolker's reporting, it seems to me, is providing the real test.

What are your thoughts? 

Updated to add: 

Here's Olivia Craighead at Gawker: sure, there was 'light plagiarism' but ewww Dorland. Dorland pitched her story to the NYTimes, which we can all agree was the REAL crime.

Buzzfeed: #teamSonya

Last update: Summer Brennan lays out the whole case, with screenshots, here:



xykademiqz said...

Thank you so much for this summary. I caught whiff of some kidney kerfuffle on Twitter, but decided not to go digging. So this is helpful.
Totally agree with you on all points. Cheaters can be extremely aggressive in their defensiveness, mean girls and pile-ons are very real, and fuck me if a person who donates a kidney doesn't deserve a lot of praise and TLC, and yes, they are allowed to be a little needy. Giving a kidney isn't having white savior complex, FFS, it is literally being the savior. Plagiarists are disgusting, and the worst ones are the highly positioned ones, who really should have more skill and more professional integrity than taking other people's words without attribution.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

WTactualF. Plagiarism. Mean girls. Yep. Wow. People. I mean! WTF!!! Sorry, I'm amazed that you & xyk are managing to put together coherent words in the face of what leaves me just shaking my head.

undine said...

Xykademiqz—the article was like 10,000 words long, and it’s more nuanced than my summary, but your point is absolutely right: plagiarism is the sticking point, even though the writerly community surrounding GrubStreet and the ChunkyMonkeys seems to be trying to wish it away in the name of Art. And yes—her gift of a kidney saved a life. Who cares if she wants praise for it?

Dame Eleanor—it was a little hard to read, frankly, because it took me back to 6th grade with the in-group meanness. Celeste Ng said something about how Larson, as a half-Chinese writer, was being told by a white woman how her words should be, a racial aggression—but they weren’t Larson’s words. They were Dorland’s.

Ann said...

I'm still in shock that so many (all?) of the writers were defending Larson. That is NOT what came to mind as I read about it. It seemed obvious to me that Larson stole the story and the words.
Definitely a "mean girls" situation and makes me want to not read any of the books by the writers.

undine said...

Ann--I'm not a creative writer (TM) so may not follow that many on Twitter. But the best I saw from anyone is "it's complicated."

nicoleandmaggie said...

(Writer and former lawyer) Courtney Milan's big point is that lawsuits are expensive. So whether or not it's plagiarism to copy from a Facebook post, don't do it because you could be sued. (And if someone does it, don't sue because you won't like the outcome.)

Have been ignoring this story otherwise. Too busy reading frivolous novels.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--your approach is best--don't engage, and don't sue based on FB.

CG said...

Dorland seems like she maybe doesn't have the most sophisticated social skills and she might be kind of annoying if you know her. But Larson is a thief and a meanie. Both of those are way worse. Also Dorland saved someone's life!

undine said...

CG--that's what was so puzzling to me. Sure, some people can be annoying; who among us hasn't been? But does that excuse the bullying?