Am I a “Bad Art Friend”?

October 6, 2021 at 8:40 pm (Uncategorized)

A bit, yeah. But no.

This is a tale of two female writers, written about in detail (with twists) by the New York Times, here.

I’ll tell this story in chronological order rather than the unfolding story of the article.

Writer #1: Dawn Dorland. Sunny, generous, and extra. White. Not a super successful writer.

Writer #2: Sonya Larson. Hard worker/community member. Asian heritage. Successful writer.

Dorland and Larson were in the same writers’ group and attended many of the same events for more than eight years. Dorland thought Larson was a good friend of hers.

Dawn donated a kidney to a stranger, just because she could. She made a private FaceBook group of friends and family, including Larson, to talk about it. She also shared the letter she wrote to the recipient of her kidney, saying why she felt motivated to donate to a stranger (mostly, because her very poor childhood made her extra empathetic, and so she loved that stranger and thought about them and their life with great joy and care). She also posted about her “kidneyversary” a year later. And she became a public face of live organ donation.

Early on, shortly after her surgery, she thought it was strange that not everyone in her private FaceBook group had commented positively about her choice to donate a kidney. She messaged Larson specifically, “confirming” that Larson was aware of what she’d done. Larson wrote back saying that Dorland had given a tremendous gift.

Meanwhile, several members of the writing circles Dorland was in were mocking her obvious need for affirmation about her kidney donation, sending hundreds of emails back and forth sharing how uncomfortable they felt and how Dorland came across as so needy.

And yeah, kids. I can understand starting a private FaceBook group to talk about a scary surgery and a tough recovery (possibly even coordinating meal delivery or something like that), but hinting at an individual person for more praise is clearly a bit weird. (Unless it’s with immediate family or VERY close friends, and acknowledging what you’re doing.)

Dorland is clearly someone who desperately needs affirmation. And that’s awkward and annoying but…. fundamentally harmless. If I needed a kidney and had to tell someone she was the greatest, kindest person ever every day for the rest of my life in order to get that kidney, it would be super annoying but worth it.

People aren’t just one thing. Dorland is generous and empathetic towards strangers, but she’s also super needy. Both of those things are true.

Clearly, a lot of people found Dorland annoying, including Larson, and I’m sure had found her annoying for years without her knowing. I’ve been in writer groups. There are always plenty of weirdos. I’m one kind of weirdo, and I’m aware that not everyone will like my company. If you put twenty of my acquaintances in front of me, I could probably say which ones feel neutral/negative about me. But I’d get some wrong, too.

So far, this is awkward but not newsworthy (I mean, it’s worth writing news stories about Dorland’s donation, but not about the dynamics of her writing group). And having a bunch of people mocking you for hundreds of pages behind your back probably means it’s not a group filled with kindness. On the other hand, they didn’t think up a pretext to chuck her out, so they could have been worse.

But.

Larson, who specialises in characters who are painfully lacking in self-awareness, wrote a story called “Kindness”. It’s about an Asian American woman with a drinking problem who is in a car accident and needs a kidney donation. Her friends hope that the near-death experience will motivate her to get over alcohol and be a better person. A white American woman donates a kidney, and also writes a letter about her motivation. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the white woman has a bad case of White Savior syndrome, and wants to have power over the Asian American woman. The Asian American woman defiantly refuses to change anything about who she is. And that’s the story.

And yeah, it was very very obviously based on Dawn. In the first draft, her name was used and her letter was used, verbatim. (In one of the emails, Larson said she was trying to change the text of the letter, but it was just “too perfect”. She did change it, but it was still very recogniseable.)

Larson didn’t tell Dorland anything about the story. Dorland discovered its existence because of a mutual friend, who was aware the story was about a donated kidney and that Dorland had donated a kidney.

Dorland was furious, and became more so as more details came to light. Specifically, her letter was still recogniseable. And yet Larson had barely acknowledged her kidney donation in real life.

When she spoke to Larson about it, Larson said that the whole idea of kidney donation was inspired by Dorland’s generosity, but that was all. That was a lie she stuck to for a long time (until the emails came to light). Much gaslighting occurred.

Dorland took legal action, which is still ongoing (and complicated eg a writer’s letters ARE protected by copyright, but satire is legal). And complex.

At one stage, Larson pointed out that the story is FICTION. It is art. All friends of writers know that some details from them and their life may end up in fiction, but it doesn’t mean anything and the writer doesn’t owe their friends anything. Larson said Dorland is a “bad art friend”.

Dorland continues to attack Larson through legal channels, feeling violated at having her words and her life made public without her consent.

Larson and others (no one seems to be saying anything in Dorland’s defence) are extremely uncomfortable about how Dorland is turning Larson’s story into “that story about kidney donation” when it’s actually not about kidney donation at all. It’s about White Saviour stuff. The white lady in the story isn’t even the main character. More than one person has said that Dorland seems to be more interested in tearing another person down than actually writing her own stuff (to be fair, suing people is way more profitable than trying to make it as a writer).

And there’s a whole extra layer of racism, as a white woman claims that her words are what makes the story special…. when actually, it’s the Asian American woman’s story that makes the white woman’s words special (and the words in the letter have gone through several drafts, too, and are now quite different).

So yeah, Dorland is absolutely a “bad art friend”. She’s also clueless (about who is actually friends with her, and about her own motivations), vindictive/sensitive (to keep fighting this), and has a childish need to be praised.

And Larson was never her friend.

I have writer friends (and non-writer friends), and it’s complicated. I once wrote a novel that was literally about a single party that I went to (with flashes back and forward in time). It was obviously based on a particular friendship group, including a person who self-harmed after manic episodes and a trans woman. If you knew this group at all, you’d obviously recognise precisely who those characters were based on. I did change the names, but appearances, relationships, and much more were the same. So I approached several people and explained what I’d done, offering to have them read all the sections in which they were mentioned (and/or the whole book) and let me know if I needed to change things. That wasn’t easy, but it was definitely necessary. There are obvious ethics at play there, and possibly legal stuff (although the worst stuff I did was say one person was overweight, and have some people have crushes on people that were either secret or nonexistent… and would be old news by the time the book was published).

I often hesitate to read books by people I know, in case I hate the book and it’s awkward. But to be honest, it’s happened plenty of times and although I’ve sometimes told people what I didn’t like about their books (because I thought they could take it, or because I’d promised to tell them what I thought) I usually just stay quiet. And I never, ever ask someone I know what they thought about MY books, either. If they write a public review, though, I read it—and often edit the book based on things they say that are negative. (Bad reviews don’t bother me, unless they mention a legitimate flaw in the book—and I don’t blame the reviewer for that.)

So, that’s a social complication in writer-town. The other one is the successful/not divide. Basically, I try not to give advice to any writer about writing because they’re probably better than me. The exception is when I’m teaching a class or running a panel, or if someone asks a question (most often, “Did you say you get PAID for interactive fiction? Tell me more.”) I also try to be super polite and respectful to everyone at writer cons (unless they’re someone I think I know well, in which case I relax without being insulting). I have a terrible memory so I could easily be talking to an acquisitions editor, internationally best-selling author, or publisher. The whole world of writing and publishing is extremely insular anyway, so I would never be horrid to anyone because you can get blacklisted for that. (Speaking of which, I bet Dorland either gets published now, while she’s infamous, or absolutely never. I certainly wouldn’t want to be near her.) I have had a couple of one-on-one conversations about other writers who have insulted people, but that wasn’t to laugh at them; it was to comfort their victims.

We writers do sometimes size each other up by either genre* or level of publishing success (in this order: not published, self-published, short stories published, published by a small press, successfully self-published, published by a large press, Holy Crap I’ve Heard Of You).

Genre: I tend to lose interest if they write literary fiction or nonfiction, to admire them but not read them if they write horror, romance, or realist/thriller fiction, and to light up if they write fantasy.

So there’s lots of social complexity to navigate. Larson was a bit douchy, but it’s a good enough story that it was worth losing the friendship of someone she never actually liked.

Dorland has issues. She is indeed a bad art friend, but since Larson was never actually her friend I’d be sympathetic if Dorland hadn’t kept pushing and pushing, making things difficult for Larson.

I relate more to Dorland in this story. I’m hyper empathetic, which I consider both a deep part of me and something that is part of my suite of mental illness. I’ve thought about randomly donating a kidney myself in the past, but quickly realised my health isn’t up to it. So I run a free food pantry (which I can’t really afford, oops) and a refugee sponsorship group (which is often hard work). Those two things are necessary for me to feel “okay” about… well, existing. In my privileged white person space.

That’s where Dorland and I diverge. She is cheerfully tearing down an Asian woman over a minor slight (I know Dorland is very upset and feels violated about it all, but she’s being very precious about a minor thing), and seems amazingly unaware of her own mixed-up motivations for donating a kidney.

Unlike her, I KNOW I have a White Saviour complex. (Go ahead and satirise me in your fiction all you like—just please change my name.) I know that a big part of my charitable activity is purely to feel like a “good person” and another part is to feel “in control”, particularly during a pandemic.

I largely accept these mixed-up motivations in myself, because I think the end result is worth it. I also *love* weighing in on moral discussions like this, which presumably is also motivated by my self-image as a “good person”. And a reasonably self-aware person. Probably the most dangerous part of my own White Saviour complex is that I often have power over people (eg the refugees I meet may depend on me for important cultural or legal knowledge—the goal of sponsorship is to increase their power and knowledge until they don’t need help any more).

So yeah, I’m a White Saviour type. But I try not to be an asshole about it.

2 Comments

  1. Overly Devoted Archivist said,

    I saw people all over Twitter talking about this but had no idea what the actual story was! Thanks for explaining it all!

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