The Bad Art Friend

The New York Times ran an excellent longform piece titled “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”

It’s about two writer acquaintances. Ms. Dorland wrote a heartfelt letter to the recipient of her anonymous kidney donation, and posted about it to a private social media group of writer acquaintances. Ms. Larson later used that letter as inspiration in a short story. It ends up with a lawsuit for plagiarism, and the question is who is the bad art friend?

There are lots of details you need to know, and it would be a terrible disservice to form an opinion from my unworthy summary. There are multiple plot twists so be sure to read the whole thing through. Read the article here:

Various corners of the internet are divided as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong. The article raises questions not only on what makes one a bad art friend, but also about freedom of expression and plagiarism. I wanted to see what the 'dope thinks.


I personally think Ms. Larson &co. are (were) very bad and spiteful friends, who should have leveled any criticism to Ms. Dorland’s face rather than play dumb, and given credit where credit is due from the outset. I don’t think Ms. Larson needed to ask for permission but I think she should have acknowledged the extent of Ms. Dorland’s influence on the short story. On the other hand I think Ms. Dorland was, at times, out of line in some of her communications and suspicions (although they were ultimately borne out). She does come across as obsessive. Not knowing her personally I can’t give full consideration to the friends’ criticism of Ms. Dorland’s motives for organ donation, but it is distinctly possible that Ms. Dorland’s kidney donation was less than selfless or admirable.

~Max

My Bad Art Friend was the one with the Velvet Elvis right next to the Dogs Playing Poker. My god, man, have you no respect for artistic styles?!?!

My dad turned his basement into a large, three-hole putting green. (So far, okay, Dad) He hired a concrete contractor to come in and build hills and valleys. And laid down an acre of Astroturf. (Ok, cool, Dad!) Then he decorated it with Brightly-Colored Paintings On Black Velvet.

Yikes, Dad.

To this day, we say “I hope he was being ironic…”

Larson clearly plagiarized the letter initially. Later, she tried to tweak it to make it not plagiarism, but complained she just couldn’t change it enough, because the letter was too good. At the same time she was telling Dorland nothing was going on. This seems to morally implicate her as doing something wrong, though whether it’s still legally plagiarism would be a question for an IP lawyer and/or a court to decide.

On the other hand, Dorland is majorly overreacting. The story begins when she posted about her own good works, then wondered why certain people didn’t respond to congratulate her. She has no right to other people’s congratulations, but because she felt social-media slighted she started this holy crusade against Larson.

My thoughts exactly.

~Max

Some of my takeaways here:

  1. The “friend” framing is misleading. There were really no “friends” involved except to the extent that some people feel that someone becomes a “friend” by attending a class with someone and being their Facebook friend.
  2. Dorland is a certified attention-seeking narcissistic psycho. There’s no other way to characterize someone who donates a kidney, posts it to a Facebook group of acquaintances, and then starts reaching out to those people to ask why they didn’t give her any attention.
  3. Larsen’s use of her text is shady but defensible. The text she used clearly wasn’t intended to be a published work of art. It was informational the same as when someone posts on Facebook that their grandmother died, or that vaccines are stupid. Very risky to use information like that, but not technically plagiarism IMO.
  4. Larsen’s interpersonal behavior IMO was borderline sociopathic. She knew she was roasting Dorland both in her story and private communications. She concealed her use of text knowing she could be found out. The duplicity is pretty gross.
  5. I find it pretty gross that Larsen rationalized her behavior by invoking the race/gender pecking order that exists in the publishing world. Books are to be reviewed by someone of the same rank wherever possible. Those at the bottom of the gender/ethnic hierarchy (white people) are to defer to those higher in rank. Everyone’s tired of it except the weak writers who benefit from it, and of course those who need to deflect controversy. This is exactly what Larsen did when she roped Celeste Ng into it.
  6. It was pretty gross of Kolker to write the article in the first place. Neither of these idiots should be rewarded with more attention for their bad behavior, but Kolker knew clickbait when he saw it and leaned all the way into it.
  7. I can’t be bothered to care about Dorland harassing Larsen. Larsen could have defused this at any point by saying “hey, I’m sorry I used your stuff and hid that fact, it was just really useful. I’m sorry to be the one who tells you this, but frankly your attention-seeking behavior is excessive and alarming.” Instead she doubled down and rallied support to her side. She used Dorland’s material because it portrayed someone who was nuts. She should have thought about the Pandora’s box she was opening.

I have to take issue with this. If Dorland wrote it she holds the copywrite unless she transfers it. While posting to Facebook may have given Facebook rights to her writing (I haven’t read their TOS in a long time) it didn’t give Larson rights to it. If Larson had used the original version without attribution that would have been definitely plagiarism.

It’s the fact that she modified it before publishing that muddies the waters, not the fact that she found it on Facebook.

Re: “someone who donates a kidney, posts it to a Facebook group of acquaintances, and then starts reaching out to those people to ask why they didn’t give her any attention” – if you look at what the article actually says (as opposed to what it insinuates), Dorland wrote Larson an email that (presumably, since Kolker doesn’t mention it and I’m sure he would have had there been any there there) didn’t mention her kidney or attention AT ALL. When Larson wrote back asking how she was doing, Dorland mentioned she donated her kidney – which, if I’d had major surgery done on me and someone asked how I was doing, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to mention! I think Kolker is being a little disingenuous there and presenting it in a way that makes Dorland look like a narcissist, when if you strip away his words and look at what actually happened it seems like a reasonable interaction.

Anyway, I’m saying that with the benefit of hindsight: with more information coming out via the court filings (the thing I think is hilarious is that it was Larson that sued Dorland to begin with, and she should have known that all of this would come out via discovery), it sounds like Dorland is actually a very nice person and Larson and her cronies are horrible people. For example the article here, with links to the court filings:

ETA: And I agree with tofor: it’s plagiarism when you lift someone’s words from Facebook even if it’s “informational,” the same way it’s plagiarism if my kid copied an article from the encyclopedia and tried to pass it off as her own work.

  1. Dorland was wrong to think they were friends, clearly, but she did believe that she was sharing the news with a small group who would be interested.

  2. She could see that Larson was interacting with every post (copying and pasting), but not interacting with the group at all. It seems reasonable to reach out and ask what’s up, given that.

I didn’t see that in the article. Is that a Facebook feature?

Yeah, this is where I take issue with Larson’s side. Instead of tweaking Dorland’s letter, she should have written a new and completely different letter, or used some other literary device to get the same point across. I have a problem with people who think that you can transform plagiarism into not-plagiarism by grabbing a thesaurus and swapping out a few words.

In any case, Larson could have defused the whole issue by acknowledging that she screwed up and revising her story to eradicate any trace of plagiarism. Instead, she doubled down. Arguing that the letter was “informational” seems disingenuous to me.

Without that letter, there’s no problem beyond Dorland’s hurt feelings, and I have little sympathy for Dorland because I’ve known people exactly like her. They go through life conspicuously doing “nice things” so they can bask in gratitude. If they don’t get that gratitude, or deem it to be insufficient or insincere, they are furious. This is profoundly manipulative, narcissistic behavior, and it shouldn’t be rewarded or encouraged in any way.

It’s interesting to see the backlash starting to unfold from all of this. GrubStreet has announced a 3rd party investigation. The writing community is obviously deeply troubled by all of this. Writers feel like they can’t continue taking classes without the worry of having someone in a director-level position plagiarizing or taking credit for their work, and then having a group like the Chunky Monkeys gang up on them to suppress their opposition to the theft.

Here are some things that the GrubStreet organization has to be concerned about, and I’m referencing a blog that dissects a lot of it.

From a distance, it appears GrubStreet has a problematic tone-at-the-top problem.

Welcome; what a great first post!

I’m still struggling to put my thoughts on all this into words. One thing I can articulate is that I think it’s really gross of people who are not mental health professionals and have not met Dorland to call her a narcissist or worse, based on her doing just about the most generous thing a person can do and then daring to talk about it on social media.

My daughter is part of a writer’s group, and the discussion about this has been all-consuming for a couple of weeks. One thing the article didn’t make clear is that kidney organizations, wanting to advance the cause of donations, asked Dorland to do some of those public things that Larson and her friends sneered at. She also told me a few things that are being said about Larson and Dorland that are less than sympathetic about them both.

The group’s general consensus boils down to:

1 No one in your writer’s group should ever be considered a “friend.” This goes for both parties.
2 Larson should have revised her story a few more times.

I’m not sure I agree. It’s a fascinating tale, and I appreciated the artistry with which all the facts were presented and portraits of Dorland and Larson were carefully drawn. The story offers insight into how badly humans can behave and there is enough moral ambiguity there to make discussion interesting. I would love to read more stories like that one.

I’m surprised that a few posters are fairly supportive of Dawn Dorland. She is clearly an attention-seeker of the worst kind. The author showed that by presenting her own words, not by innuendo.

Larson doesn’t exactly come off smelling so great either. She used extremely poor judgment lifting the text of the letter word for word in the first place, and then being evasive and defensive. It also feels like she may have used the issue of race to deflect from her own bad behavior, which is a loss for everyone, especially writers of color who may be more likely to have their legitimate complaints dismissed by people who don’t find Larson’s attacks credible.

You’ll find more discussion on Twitter @kidneygate

Kidneygate. How cute. :roll_eyes:

Here is a thing that bugs me, though: sure, Dorland is a desperate, entitled attention-seeker. Like you, I find that kind of behavior pathetic and disgusting.

But we must ask ourselves: even if that behavior disgusts us personally on what level, what harm does it do to me? None. If she’d assaulted someone or stolen from someone, perhaps we’d feel justified that she deserves a little payback. But in this case, for what does she deserve payback? For annoying us? For being cringey? This merits taking her work, and mocking and insulting her in professional circles, and filing suit against her when she takes issue with it? Sure her motives for donating a kidney were tainted, but still, she donated a kidney and harmed nobody in the process.

It really smells like Larsen saw a person saw someone showing annoying but harmless behavior, and decided they needed to be punished in some way. She decided that since she’s a half-shade higher on the writing world’s color-based pecking order, that she was entitled to do it. So she secretly mocked Dorland in professional circles while stealing her work. She deflected, she denied, and when irrefutable evidence of the plagiarism emerged, she plunked down her half-Chinese race card and actually sued Dorland first!

That’s what bugs me the most. Larsen felt entitled to put Dorland in her place, whether knowingly or otherwise, despite Dorland initially doing nothing worse than being the wrong sort of person.

You make some excellent points. Dorland’s attention-seeking doesn’t in any way excuse Larson’s unethical actions.

I do think there might have been some harm caused by Dorland’s blatant demands to be admired for her donation - to the poor recipient (but not to Larson, so it in no way mitigates her culpability for misbehavior). The story mentions that Dorland met her “donee” in person and I think posted FB photos of them together. Imagine if you were that kidney recipient, how awkward that would be. You can’t very well refuse to take part in any little charade she sets up - after all, she just gave you an organ from her own body! Still, I bet the guy was weirded out and extremely uncomfortable, which can’t have been ideal for his recovery process or mental health.