Can art imitate life too closely? Tuesday (October 5) New York Times Magazine asked this question when she published a 10,000 word article entitled “Who is a bad friend in art?», An account of an ongoing lawsuit between two women from the same writing group based in Boston.
It all started when one of the women, Dawn Dorland, decided to donate a kidney to a stranger in 2015. She documented this process in posts on a private Facebook group, sharing her feelings about such a selfless act and posting a letter in which she: “d sent to the recipient of her kidney. Another (more successful) writer in the group, Sonya Larson, saw Dorland’s posts and was not interested in them: she found them self-aggrandizing. A few years later, Dorland discovered that Larson had written a short story about a woman who donated her kidney, and that he included, almost verbatim, Dorland’s letter to the recipient of the kidney. (Larson later edited the story to make the letter less recognizable to Dorland.) Larson’s story was about a wealthy white savior who obsessively sought confirmation in order to donate her kidney to an Asian woman. Dorland sues Larson. V New York Times the story went viral and was simply called “Bad Art Friend.”
Bad Art Friend is the latest in a long line of popular culture moments when the question is asked: Do we own our stories? In July, the writer Alexis Nowitzki proposed in Slate that the details of her life were used as a basis for popular New Yorker story “Cat Man”; summer Azia King, whose viral Twitter thread became the subject of the film Zola, talked about how her life turned into something unrecognizable… Last fall, supermodel Emily Ratajkowski wrote a viral essay for Slice about paying tens of thousands of dollars to redeem her image, which she posted on her Instagram account. A related – yes, viral – essay by influential Caroline Calloway’s ex-girlfriend, Natalie Beach. also in Slice, was published a year earlier, claiming that Calloway repurposed Beach’s life story – sometimes with her consent – to win over fans.
While this issue is currently being addressed in a very modern online context, this is nothing new. The literature has always discussed the ethics of using people’s lives in fiction. Ernest Hemingway even complained about it F. Scott Fitzgerald. Art often counts directly with this idea: in Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with friendsFrancis writes a story based on the life of his flatmate Bobby. On sitcom 30 RockTina Fay Liz’s character gets into trouble for using another character’s personality as the basis for her bestseller (to be clear, she gives him her rights to life). And Bad Art Friend, and Alex Novitsky’s article in Slate prompted many authors to claim that fiction basically steals the real experiences of real people – and always does.
But this debate has intensified in recent years as many of us now document most of our lives online. Dorland’s kidney donation story was taken from her Facebook posts; Nowitzki’s details have been removed from her Facebook profile; King adapted the film from her Twitter thread; Ratajkowski’s images were reworked from her Instagram. When we write down our thoughts and experiences in this way, we can perhaps become certain goods, things that we can point to and say: this is me, you can see this, this is mine. Social media has exacerbated the idea of self-ownership because it provides us with a register of our lives that exists for public consumption.
Of course, before the advent of social media, people still felt resentful if their life stories were used for someone else’s art. But it was difficult to unequivocally prove that this happened, and they had little opportunity to argue. With the Internet, it has become much easier to “prove” that someone looked over our shoulder, looked at our life and “took” it. When we read about this happening to others, it’s easy to understand – anyone can do it with your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
The great admission-based social media trick that many have sought before they exist is that they lead us to believe that we are all truly unique. This is what prompts us to publish even insignificant details from our lives: to create a collage of our personality on the Internet. While this is true to some extent (for example, I am sure that I am the only “Sarah Manavis” in the world), even the most niche aspects of our life have almost always been experienced by someone else (I am not the first American woman to move to the UK and become a writer) or at least talked to a universal experience (my life could be ironed out to apply to any expat).
It is difficult to reckon with this feeling that your life has been stolen. For Dorland, seeing her own words repeat themselves understandably felt like stealing. But is she the only person in the world who donated a kidney in this way? Was it unique just because she published it publicly? I’m sure it was painful to see her actions in a negative light, but is it wrong for Larson to view this story as part of a broader social trend of white salvation?
It can be difficult or even painful, but we must accept the limitations of our individuality and try to understand that in most cases there is no real harm to someone else interpreting our life differently from how we see ourselves. What happens to us does not belong to us, simply because we document them for the whole world.
Bad Art Friend touches on many complex aspects of human psychology that cannot be described here (the motivation of bitchy group chats, the moment when eccentric behavior turns into stalking or persecution, neuroses that can cause someone to sincerely ask the question: “Not writers, not writers” ). do you care about my kidney donation? “). But at its core, Bad Art Friend points to a popular misconception widespread even after 30 years of the Internet and nearly 20 years of social media. In fact, what we post on the web is not that we are betting on who we are, but that we give parts of ourselves to someone who might accidentally run into them.
[see also: What online discourse gets wrong about therapy]