Earlier this month, a 10,000-word feature was published in the New York Times Magazine that described a legal dispute involving two American fiction writers, Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. The piece went viral, and the question of its title – “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” – has since been the subject of much cheerful debate. It’s a story about betrayal, egotism and altruism. It’s also about the value of privacy.
The story begins with Dorland’s kidney donation to a stranger. So far, so noble. But Dorland made the mistake of being gauche about her act of generosity. She created a private Facebook group dedicated to her donation, and invited writer friends to it, including Larson, who was the more successful of the two. Larson had published several modestly praised short stories, whereas Dorland has not yet found a publisher for the autobiographical novel she has been working on for many years.
Larson found Dorland’s donation fascinating, but not in a nice way. She sniggered about it with other writers in private emails and messages (excruciatingly, these were later submitted as evidence in the legal dispute). And she used it as inspiration for a short story about a narcissistic white woman who donates a kidney to an Asian-American woman.
Dorland didn’t take this well. When Larson’s story was picked up by the Boston Book Festival, Dorland hired a lawyer, who sent the festival a cease-and-desist letter. After some legal back and forth, Larson filed a defamation lawsuit and Dorland filed a counterclaim for copyright violation. And all for the sake of a story that earned Larson a total of $425.
Except that it wasn’t really about the money. The debate over the identity of the “Bad Art Friend” – is it the “plagiarist” Larson, or the “narcissist” Dorland? – has mostly focused on race, class and the excesses of American litigiousness.
Far less has been said about the gladiatorial arena that both writers threw themselves into, first by writing candidly about their own lives, and then by permitting a journalist to do so. I take the view that Dorland was right to be angry at Larson’s representation of her, even if she was not right to pursue the matter in the courts. I also believe that privacy is a precious thing, and that its value has been forgotten in the age of “the first-person industrial complex”, as the journalist Laura Bennett has identified it.
It was wrong for Larson to take Dorland’s life and offer it up for public consumption. But in our culture, such flagrant violations of privacy have been normalised. The internet allows us to live in public, revealing everything about our bodies, relationships and emotional lives. Such disclosures are not only permitted, but encouraged, particularly of writers, and particularly of women. The radical honesty of the genre makes for sometimes gripping reading, but it comes at a cost.
There’s a bottomless appetite in some parts of the media for confessional writing. In Self Care, a witty novel about the world of New York women’s media, the author Leigh Stein portrays a character who makes a living writing for online outlets such as Jezebel, BuzzFeed and xoJane, all of which are known for publishing stories by female writers – often young and poorly paid – who take episodes from their lives and crush them down into clickbait.
In one scene, this character tells her new boyfriend that she’s pregnant and, as he sits in silence, the unspoken word “abortion” hangs in the air between them. “I was already planning how I would turn this moment in my life into content,” she reflects later, having lost all notion of privacy. Torment guarantees clicks, and that’s her livelihood.
Intimate autobiographical writing is hardly a new genre. In the 4th century St Augustine’s Confessions introduced us to his torturous relationship with sexual desire by describing a teenage trip to the public baths with his father, who spotted Augustine’s involuntary erection (the father was delighted by this sign of impending adulthood; the son was not).
But publishing confessional writing online is different. Dorland and Larson have both been picked apart on social media, their mistakes and neuroses exposed to public judgement. Several commentators were incredulous at the rumour that it was Dorland herself who approached the New York Times, hoping to force the story out into the open. Didn’t she know how bad she’d look? Couldn’t she see it? Well, apparently not. She hoped for a generous verdict from the internet’s kangaroo court. She did not receive one.
Confessional writing has become the norm, and protecting one’s privacy is unusual. I’m in the final stages of writing a book about sex in which I do not once mention anything about my own sexual experiences. I made this choice in part because I thought doing otherwise would be unfair to my husband and to the rest of my family, including children not yet born. I also did it because I wanted to make a point. A writer shouldn’t have to offer herself up, legs splayed. It should be possible to leave some parts of your life unshared.
In the case of Dorland vs Larson, both parties lost – not only their money and their friendship, but also their dignity. There is only one winner from this story: Robert Kolker, the author of “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”, an excellent piece in which he shared nothing of himself, acting only as a quiet onlooker in the whole sorry business.
[See also: Can anyone “steal” your life from social media?]
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West