The discourse side of Twitter has had a busy week or two, all thanks to a lengthy piece on The New York Times, that came out on October 5. Written by Robert Kolker, the piece titled ‘Who is the Bad Art Friend?’ has been seeing sprawling debate, with chunky threads discussing the merits and demerits of two ‘friends’ embroiled in a prolonged legal feud over a work of art. Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, two authors from the Boston literary circle, battled it out over the latter having allegedly lifted a part of a letter written by the former to the recipient of her kidney donation. Dorland claimed it was plagiarism to do so; Larson refuted and added that there was an element of racism and white saviour complex in Dorland’s allegations against her. The legal battle saw Dorland suing Larson for plagiarism, and Larson suing Dorland for defamation. The Twitter debate has, by now, entered into the murky territory of how racism and morality interact, as well as the age-old question of life vis-à-vis art.
What are the focal points of the ‘bad art friend’ debate?
The main talking points for most of the social media have revolved around Dorland’s ‘emotional neediness’ in monitoring who was interacting with her Facebook posts on her kidney donation, and a gratuitous, navel-gazing brand of “kindness” that reeks of narcissism. On the side that has admonished Larson, the talking point has been on the appropriation of someone’s lived experience and then terming their resistance as white privilege. There were discussions on morality: is an act of kindness rendered futile if the doer does it for accolade? Several conflicting narratives have also emerged on who was the first one to make the issue legal. However, beyond the technicalities, there is another side to the B.A.F. debate. In the course of their battle, Dorland found out that Larson and other members of the writers’ nonprofit GrubStreet were having lengthy chats discussing just how cringeworthy the former was. At the heart of the matter, there is also this question, then: what if the people you consider friends secretly hate you?
I know writers hold sacrosanct the idea that everything is fair game for them to pilferBut after this, and the earlier Cat Person essay (https://t.co/hS0kV2csBS), there *is* a conversation to be had about what we owe our inspirations
I’m haunted by this comment, for instance: pic.twitter.com/gHvN28SVs1
— kidneygate (@kidneygate) October 13, 2021
Coming to think the real lesson of Bad Art Friend is that when someone super annoying does something objectively great you need to just post the image below instead of constructing an elaborate tortured narrative where the good thing is actually bad & proof of their wicked nature pic.twitter.com/Va44OyYZyj— Ash vs the Evil Dead (@why_wolf) October 14, 2021
you don’t get to gaslight someone, co-opt a deeply meaningful and personal lived experience for your own narrative, then call their reaction “white privilege.” Deeply embarrassed and disappointed for both Sonya Larson and Celeste Ng, as an AAPI woman myself #BadArtFriend— Sheena (@shnanigansq) October 7, 2021
What are the kidney memes getting at?
The kidney memes are about—well, the kidney. The primary line that these memes target, however, is this one from the NYT original piece that quoted Dorland as such: when friends and mentors at a GrubStreet conference failed to mention her kidney donation, she mused, “Do writers not care about my kidney donation? Which kind of confused me, because I thought I was in a community of service-oriented people.”
Where have you heard of the ‘bad art friend’ before?
bad art friend? oh you mean dorian gray?— SparkNotes (@SparkNotes) October 6, 2021
The debate on art making use of life is old as time, with inspiration, transformative use, copies and originals spurring discourse since the dawn of literature (no pun intended). Perhaps, one of the earliest known contemplations was by none other than Plato in his theory of Mimesis, where he said that literature is twice removed from reality; in essence, he believed that all art essentially imitates life, and that the idea was the supreme reality. Along came Oscar Wilde and shattered the concept, writing in his “The Decay of Lying”: “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”. The debate, therefore, is not new and has been continuing without resolution through the ages.
In popular culture, the latest material that dealt with an extremely similar subject is the Netflix movie ‘Malcolm and Marie’, starring Zendaya and Denzel Washington. Here, the discourse is further complicated by the romantic dynamic between the lead pair, where one has won accolades after making a film that lifts from the other’s life. Here, too, racism is heavily involved in how they manoeuvre the subject of art.
Is the actual art at the centre of the drama any good?
The New Yorker staff writer Katy Waldman read and reviewed Larson’s short story “The Kindest” that’s at the centre of the controversy, and opined that the absence of kindness sabotaged its literary merit and turned it into a “takedown in disguise”. Kolker quoted a friend of Larson’s, Calvin Hennick, in the original piece: “The first draft of the story really was a takedown of Dawn, wasn’t it? But Sonya didn’t publish that draft… She created a new, better story”. Waldman dismisses this claim in her piece, insisting that the original intent of the story persisted through its revisions.
What’s the verdict and why do people care?
Who is the bad art friend, after all? The overwhelming consensus on Twitter and elsewhere seems to be that everybody involved in the drama has acted inexcusably in more than one way, and no one emerges as the guileless victim or the unidimensional wrongdoer. Perhaps what’s kept so many people engaged in the drama and even elevated it to discourse is the simple fact that it appears to be a problem with a solution in sight. However, it’s designed to keep you embroiled, because the moment that you think you have it, some new information emerges that befuddles the context for you. The Guardian columnist Emma Brockes writes in an opinion piece, “It happens every few months, somewhere or other, with a reliability approaching a new genre. Someone, usually working for a large media company, devotes considerable resources to excavating an obscure story of relatively low public interest”. This, Brockes argues, prods you towards questioning what you’re doing with your own life. So if, for the past two weeks, you have found yourself breathlessly scrolling down hours’ worth of Twitter’s bad art friend threads, someone, somewhere had meant for exactly that to happen.