Have you read “Bad Art Friend” yet? This is the question lighting up media group chats and Slack channels right now, and rightfully so. The latest New York Times gossipy longread checks all the boxes for going viral on “Media Twitter.” The story concerns two writers (seeing yourself in the story? Check.) who started beefing because one of them posted on Facebook about their voluntary kidney donation (someone perhaps oversharing in a self-aggrandizing manner? Check.) and the other used that as the jumping off point for a short story (something about “ethics” and “craft”? Check.).
I cannot possibly sum up this article for you in the space of a blog post, because it takes place over many years and is more than 10,000 words long for a reason. But basically two writers, Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, entered into a years-long battle over a short story Larson wrote that was inspired by Dorland’s posting on Facebook about donating her kidney to a stranger.
Neither one comes off particularly well in the story, but while Larson may have engaged in some light plagiarism, Dorland is ultimately so unsympathetic that it’s hard to take her side. Not only because Dorland emailed someone after they failed to react to a Facebook post (which is wild behavior), but contacted every institution Larson had worked with, lawyered up, and ultimately asked for $15,000 to cover legal fees incurred from her starting this whole thing to begin with.
Now, here’s where a teachable moment comes in. A minor character in this story is the author Celeste Ng. Ng is a friend of Larson’s and arguably the only person who ends up seeming level-headed throughout the article.
Ng tweeted today a juicy tidbit that was, for obvious reasons, left out of the Times’s telling of the story. Dorland pitched this story to the Times herself.
So Dorland has been contacting people for “years” trying to get her story told. Here’s the thing — if the Real Estate and Vows sections of the Times have taught us anything, it’s that being a non-famous subject at the Paper of Record will probably make you look like an asshole. Especially if it is about niche literary drama that turned you into a pariah.
Unless you are doing unimpeachably good work like saving the lives of refugees or being a child who started a lemonade stand to fund abortions, do not ever pitch a story about yourself. The kind of gripes being unleashed in “Bad Art Friend” are the kind that should stay in a group chat — which in Larson’s case they did until those texts were subpoenaed, a Hell unto itself.
“All press is good press” is a lie, and I am sure Dorland is learning that at this moment. If you, my dear reader, are ever feeling like maybe a journalist at the Times might be the person to go to have your side of the story told, take a moment to reflect. Ask yourself, your friends, your mentors, “Will an unbiased telling of this story make me seem like a dick?” Then delete that email draft and go post anonymously on Am I The Asshole instead.