Bad art friend. The label that’s taken over social media, striking fear in group chats and monopolizing brunch conversations. If you haven’t been following the story, stop right now and go read “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?” in The New York Times because it's well worth the long read. Here’s a quick recap: In 2015, Dawn Dorland, who can best be described as a writing hobbyist, donated a kidney and shared her experience on a private Facebook group of friends, family and members of a writing group called the “Chunky Monkeys” (Sadly, not not named after the superb Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor). One of those friends--the word “friend” is used very loosely--was Sonya Larson, an emerging writer who used parts of the narrative, including some of Dorland’s words verbatim, in her short story The Kindest ....but never told her.
Well, as luck would have it, The Kindest ended up being published in American Short Fiction in 2017 and then selected in 2018 for One City One Story, a program sponsored by the Boston Book Festival. Once Dorland got wind of this, she waged literati war. What follows has been an entanglement of accusations of plagiarism, threats of lawsuits, questions about racial privilege (Dorland is white and Larson is mixed-race Asian American) and professional bullying. Private group chats between Larson and others were made public as part of the legal fracas, making things all the more messy, probing into questions of confidentiality and the need for safe spaces. Since The New York Times article broke, the drama has spilled out on social media and established writers like Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) have jumped in; some getting taken to task for their own alleged bad behavior in the literary community.
The issue about the bad art friend isn’t about the art at all. Let’s be honest: Creatives are constantly inspired by the world around us. Every person we meet, every conversation, every third-party anecdote can inspire consciously or subtly something in our work. Now, I’m not defending plagiarism or copying and pasting someone else’s sweat equity (Larson was in the wrong in my opinion, for that part) but in an age of information overload, it’s literally impossible to trace and parse every grain of inspiration.
The real breakdown of the story of the bad art friend is friendship. Here are two women with very different definitions of a relationship-- and therefore, the responsibilities and expectations are completely out of whack. From the reporting, Dorland and Larson’s dynamic was lukewarm at best. I'm being generous here. Their exchanges were imbalanced. Dorland initiated contact while Larson kept it cordial but distant. Think: one shade nicer and fuzzier than the notorious "I don’t know her".
Friendships, especially among women, can be both fulfilling and complicated. There’s deep emotional intimacy and when that’s cut, especially suddenly or unexpectedly, it can be painful. It's like a breakup except you can't call you friend to commiserate with you for hours...because you just broke up with said friend. And it doesn’t stop in high school. Adult female friendships are fraught with miscommunication, misaligned expectations and even ghosting. “It’s a common belief that men are more competitive than women, explains writer Alia Wong in the article “Why Women’s Friendships Are So Complicated” in The Atlantic, based on the work of Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships. “Women are simply competitive in a way that’s less obvious—they’re competitive about connection. Among women, prized is the degree to which one is privy into the details of her friends’ lives.”
Throw in the intrinsic competition and insecurity of writers (I'm allowed to say it) and that friendship was doomed.
It’s unclear what Dawn Dorland wanted to accomplish by pitching the bad art friend article in the first place. Fame? Revenge? The fall-out has certainly amplified her profile but it’s debatable whether for the better or worse. Hopefully she uses these 15 minutes for good and not evil. Maybe what she really wanted was recognition. Some sort of post-breakup closure of why the friendship ended and whether it meant anything to Sonya Larson. This probably won't happen. Larson, the Chunky Monkeys, et al. were nothing more than social media acquaintances, quasi-colleagues and yes, sometimes mean girls. Not quite parasocial relationships but definitely not the people to get empathy and kidney kudos from.
Dorland didn’t get the message: “Here was a friend entrusting something to you, making herself vulnerable to you. At least, the conclusion I can draw from your responses is that I was mistaken to consider us the friends that I did,” she emailed Larson on July 15, 2016. Larson didn’t answer...nor did she respond when Dorland sent her another message in a text and in an email: “I am still surprised that you didn’t care about my personal feelings. … I wish you’d given me the benefit of the doubt that I wouldn’t interfere.” Silence is louder than words but Dorland persisted with messages and subliminal Facebook posts. Personally, I would've cut my losses; put on the Toni Braxton, grab some Chunky Monkey and mourn the toxic relationship.
“Bad art friend” has now burrowed itself into the cultural zeitgeist, becoming a social media trending topic and spawning countless thinkpieces. It's easy to portray these women as diametric opposites--the amateur vs the professional, the white woman vs. the woman of color, etc.--when in fact, they both exemplify universal traits like ego, insecurity, need for external validation and lack of communication. That's why this story has struck such a nerve. Whether you're a writer or not, we've all had moments of being Dawn and being Sonya.
The bad art friend isn't Dawn or Sonya. It's Dawn and Sonya. And if we're going to be honest, it's all of us too. Nobody's perfect. There's a whole gamut of things we can do to be better friends, colleagues, allies and humans whether that's picking up the phone, giving people their flowers, hitting "like" on a social media post or subscribing to a newsletter (Hint hint).
While we wait for it, go check in on your friends.