Making “Great” Art Is Not An Excuse To Be An Asshole

Hello, everyone! Like many people, I recently became immersed in the “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?”saga. For those who haven’t read it, the New York Times Magazine feature goes like this: a woman named Dawn Dorland donated a kidney to an anonymous stranger, and invited a group of writer peers to a personal Facebook group dedicated to acknowledging and celebrating that kidney donation. A fellow writer in that group, Sonya Larson, wrote a fictional short story about a narcissistic kidney donor, and plagiarized one of Dawn’s cringey Facebook posts in the story. Dawn found out and tried to alert Sonya’s publishers to the plagiarism, Sonya sued Dawn for harassment, and during the discovery process, it was revealed that Sonya had been part of a group-chat that not only mocked Dawn’s Facebook group, but admitted to knowingly and purposefully plagiarizing Dawn’s Facebook post because it was “too damn good” not to include.

As can be expected, “Bad Art Friend” caused an uproar on Twitter, with users divided over whether it was legally and morally ethical for Sonya Larson to use phrases from Dawn’s Facebook post and base a derisive, mean-spirited story on Dawn’s decision to altruistically donate a kidney. Larson, who is a published writer and friends with literary celebs like Celeste Ng, garnered a lot of support from the literary community, with authors like Roxane Gay tweeting that “Larson made some bad choices that most people make at some point (in terms of gossip) but nothing she did merits years of litigation, harassment, and other fall out.” A piece in Gawker titled “Great Artists Steal” seemed to agree, with author Gretchen Felker-Martin writing:

Armchair adjudicators can bleat all they want about copyright law and plagiarism, but part of art has always had a smash-and-grab approach to real people and events. If real connections — whether mutual friendships or a combination of irritable appeasement and parasocial attachment like Dorland’s and Larson’s — suffer in the process, that’s part of art’s potential cost. Push the world, the world pushes back, and all of a sudden you can never go back to Dublin.

“Great Artists Steal” by Gretchen Felker-Martin

The Dublin in the quote being an allusion to the setting of James Joyce’s two novels Dubliners and Finnegan’s Wake, and the hometown from which he was exiled after his writing pissed off the Catholic Church, and supposedly, all the real people he fictionalized in his works. Like other discourse I have read on this dilemma, Felker-Martin mentions other famous pieces of media that have used the lives of real people for their fictional works: Citizen Kane, which fictionalized the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, The Portrait of Dorian Grey, which allegedly was based off of Oscar Wilde’s lover John Gray, and Dante’s Inferno, which drew inspiration from his “living political and artistic enemies.” All this to say, that if the greats did it, then why can’t we? Felker-Martin quotes the aphorism that “good artists copy, great artists steal,” ending the piece by adding that “the very best artists are those smart enough not to get caught.” Her thesis, and the thesis of much of the literary community surrounding this piece, is best embodied in Felker-Martin’s own words:

If one wished to sum it up in more colloquial terms, “talk shit, get hit” seems to cover the matter. So, accepting that the inclusion of real people in fiction may provoke strong feelings in the parties so included, is the writer then bound to address those feelings? In a word, no. In two, fuck no.

“Great Artists Steal” by Gretchen Felker-Martin

It’s an easy position to take, from a writer’s perspective. Writers are always told to “write what they know,” so why would any writer let the feelings of the people that they know stop them from writing about them? A recent Slate essay by Alexis Nowicki throws a wrinkle into this argument with her revolutionary statement that using people’s personal lives for story fodder is actually an assholish thing to do. Titled ““Cat Person” and Me,” Nowicki’s article expresses her bewilderment, pain, and frustration after realizing that Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 short story “Cat Person” was loosely based off of her own relationship. Nowicki, who had never met Roupenian, detailed the moment that she saw “dozens of text messages—some from close friends, but many from old co-workers, classmates, and people I hadn’t spoken to in years,” asking her if she had written “Cat Person” under a pen name in order to talk about her past relationship with Charles, a man 15 years her senior. While Nowicki was initially confused and blindsided by the similarities between herself and the story’s characters (the protagonist lived in the same town, went to the same school, and worked at the same movie theater as Nowicki), she later learned that the similarities were no coincidence: Charles had known Roupenian, and Roupenian had based the protagonist’s character off of Nowicki.

I realized for the first time that my suspicions had been true—I could finally say for sure that “Cat Person” was about me. As the night wore on, my chest tightened. Within hours, the strange thrill I’d felt was replaced by disgust, then anger. I imagined Roupenian scrolling through my social media accounts, gathering details about me. I felt invaded.

“Cat Person and Me” by Alexis Nowicki

When Nowicki wrote to Roupenian to ask about the story, Roupenian answered first by saying “I’ve spent the past several days struggling with the question of how to balance what is right for me with what I owe you.” She apologized for not properly obscuring Nowicki’s personal details, while also admitting that she had learned a lot of it from scouring Nowicki’s personal social media after meeting Charles and learning of his much younger ex girlfriend. While Nowicki accepted the apology, she recalled being frustrated by Roupenian’s words, and the idea that the story, based on her relationship with Charles, portrayed them both in a negative light.

What’s difficult about having your relationship rewritten and memorialized in the most viral short story of all time is the sensation that millions of people now know that relationship as described by a stranger. Meanwhile, I’m alone with my memories of what really happened—just like any death leaves you burdened with the responsibility of holding onto the parts of a person that only you knew.

“Cat Person and Me” by Alexis Nowicki

To me, Nowicki’s essay best expresses why claims that “good artists steal” and “art has a personal cost” don’t hold water. They put the value of art over the personal pain of real people, and in doing so, turn art into an inhumane and vicious thing. As a writer myself, I recognize the temptation of writing about real people. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s more difficult to craft an interesting character from scratch than it is to fictionalize the personality of someone you already know. But I also know that there is a difference between using a real person as inspiration, and exploiting a person for material. Good artists may steal from their lives, but if they have any empathy, or any care for the people around them, they also know how to professionally obscure the details of those people’s lives so that they’re unrecognizable to the general public.

I think what both Roupenian and Larson did was not only lazy, but deliberate. They did not “steal,” but “copied,” and did so poorly enough for the subject of both of their stories to be recognizable. This is not the sign of “great art,” but the sign of bad writing, and it’s amazing to me that the literary community is not only taking these author’s sides, but excusing their methods as the price of doing business. Essentially, what the literary community is saying is that it’s okay for writers to be plagiarists, to exploit the stories of others for personal gain, and to lie about it. It’s also telling to me that Roupenian started her reply to Nowicki with the words “what is best for me.” Both of these stories are reflections of an author’s narcissism in thinking that the value of their own words, and the rewards that they may gain for their writing, are more important than the feelings of the people whose lives they mine for material.

In Larson’s case, she wanted the people who knew Dawn to read her short story and know that Dawn was the butt of the joke. In Roupenian’s case, it seems like she used a real relationship in order to prove a point, perhaps never thinking of the personal cost of the people involved, but once becoming aware, hardly apologizing for it either. Both writers show a lack of empathy for their subjects and greater lack of self-awareness that writing, while being a form of art, is not a license to be a jerk. It’s one thing to parody the exploits of society’s rich and powerful, like Welles did with Citizen Kane. It’s quite another thing to use a private person’s life as publishing material, and then hide beneath the veil of artistic license.

Author Seth Abramson tweeted this, which I think perfectly sums up one of the core issues with these pieces, and the writing community as a whole:

This epic is a good summation of what every day in the American literary community is like—lies, betrayal, arrogance, casual cruelty, abuse, theft, emotional manipulation, gaslighting and worse. Talented writers should do anything but enter this community.

As a country that loves assholes, abusers, and jerks of all kinds, it’s no surprise that the American literary establishment would wholeheartedly support the idea that it’s okay to exploit people if it makes good art. I say that’s bullshit. If an entire country of writers can’t write a single piece of fiction without using the personal lives of real people, then they can hardly call themselves authors. It’s appalling to believe that “great art” must be inherently mean to be meaningful. Would Larson’s story have been acceptable if she wrote it without plagiarizing Dawn’s Facebook post? Legally, maybe, but it would still be a mean-spirited mockery of a peer’s sincere desire to do something good in the world. Roupenian’s piece, while less malicious, still could have obscured Nowicki’s personal details from the public. Additionally, the fact that she based her piece, which was essentially a takedown of modern male misogyny, off of the seemingly healthy and loving relationship of an acquaintance, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s not legally wrong, but it’s unkind, and that should matter, too.

Should writers be able to take the lives of people they know and turn them into fiction? Of course. That’s writing. But in doing so, they should be actually fictionalizing these people’s lives. If a character in a story is recognizably based off of someone else, that’s not true fiction, that’s a roman à clef. Writing a roman à clef about a person who did little to the author besides annoy them is unwarranted and malicious, and fiction shouldn’t be malicious. It bothers me that the literary community is so ready to excuse this, even as I know that we’ve been excusing the horrid personal behavior of famous authors since the dawn of time. In closing, I think it’s time to stop using art as an excuse to be an asshole. These authors aren’t “great,” and they aren’t fooling anyone.

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