“Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” a nearly ten-thousand-word feature by Robert Kolker in this week’s New York Times Magazine, describes the escalation of a feud between two writers, Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. If you use the Internet more than occasionally, you have probably spent recent days locked feverishly in the discourse that the piece has inspired. For everyone else, here’s a quick primer. In 2015, Dorland decided to donate her kidney (the gift was nondirected, so it had no specified recipient) and created a private Facebook group to update well-wishers on her progress. The group included Larson, along with several other writers Dorland had met at GrubStreet, a Boston writers’ center. A month later, noticing that Larson hadn’t acknowledged her decision or otherwise participated in the Facebook group, Dorland sent her a message, initiating a short correspondence. A year or so after that, Dorland was taken aback to learn, from a third party, that Larson had written a short story about a kidney donation. What’s more, Larson had pulled lines from a letter Dorland had shared, on Facebook, in which she addresses the unknown recipient of her kidney. Dorland claimed plagiarism; Larson made revisions. The ensuing drama, replete with lawsuits and subpoenaed group-text messages, is a fascinatingly tangled version of an old story about the ethics of artistic appropriation.
Yet, as several commentators have pointed out, few of the people remonstrating about the women’s respective infractions or the creative-writing cottage industry or the hazards of asymmetrical relationships have actually read Larson’s story, “The Kindest.” Kolker’s piece offers no judgments. But the story’s quality matters. Larson justified her use of Dorland’s post by distinguishing between the informational text of restaurant menus or tweets—pedestrian stuff, the prose of everyday life—and art, which transfigures and transcends. Larson also implied that what fascinated her about Dorland, what made Dorland irresistible as a character, was the way she exploited her kidney donation for personal gain. (The wording of Dorland’s letter, Larson said, proved “too damn good” to change, by which she meant too perfectly cringeworthy.) This raises the question of whether Larson did any better of a job exploiting Dorland’s kidney donation for personal gain, insofar as exploiting existing material for personal gain is a pretty good working definition of being a writer.
By my reading, she did not. Larson lifted an extremely potent premise—the needy organ donor, seeking connection and validation—and crafted a story that manages to diminish its built-in intrigue. In fact, “The Kindness” falls short in precisely the ways the saga laid out in the Times Magazine piece might lead us to expect: it makes a cartoon of the donor character, and it over-relies on identity-inflected hand-waving. Also, the prose is bad.
I read a version of the story that was included in an anthology, published in December, 2019, called “Welcome to the Neighborhood.” (The book costs $24.99 on Apple Books if you’re determined to avoid Amazon and $14.74 for a Kindle version if not—but in that case you might consider donating a kidney, for karma.) The first part is a swift-moving, dreamlike account of the narrator, Chuntao, undergoing surgery. As the anesthetic takes hold, “I counted backwards and drifted down a valley of misty waterfalls,” Chuntao says. When she wakes, her husband, Bao, is sobbing with relief, “and we were laughing and the laughter felt strange traveling up my lungs, like a language I was remembering only now.” This is wonderful. I love the strange darkness—echoed in the story’s closing sentences—of the round trip to and from death’s door. What feels like Chuntao’s entire social web celebrates with her; but then they depart, and Chuntao remains alone in the hospital room, buzzing for a nurse who won’t come.
The narrator goes home and begins to recover. The writing follows her home, and gets worse. (“Little things amazed me,” Chuntao says, like “tree needles, sprayed out and brushing the window in a breeze.”) Still, the plot rolls forward with an appealing ease and plainness. Things begin, ever so slightly, to go off the rails when a letter arrives. It’s from Chuntao’s donor, a white woman named Rose, who says she likes “sailing” and decided to give up her kidney after watching “a documentary about altruistic kidney donation.” The letter, Chuntao observes, is wrapped in a second letter from the surgeon, “so awestruck was he by the selflessness that he just had to chaperone the missive himself.” A reader pauses at the sneering tone here. Larson is either inviting us to scrutinize her narrator’s knee-jerk resentment or caught in the thrall of her own disgust. Of course, the letter, written with a blue gel pen on daisy-shaped stationary, is pretty damning. (In this version of the story, the message’s contested, climactic lines read, “My journey to you has entailed immense time, money, and yes—pain. But throughout it all I found a profound sense of purpose, knowing that your life depended on my gift.”)
Rose proposes that they might meet. Chuntao doesn’t want to, but her softhearted husband insists. The narrator, who, we slowly learn, injured herself while drinking and driving, takes the bus to Target, where the gleaming white floor (eerily reminiscent of Boston Medical) overwhelms her. “Glossy loops of blond samples down aisles of hair dye,” Chuntao says. “Delightful!” It is in this church of artificiality, consumerism, desire, and—crucially—whiteness that the narrator reluctantly buys some jewelry for Rose, as a thank-you present.
The story’s next few scenes are spent further demonstrating the inconvenience of Rose’s visit. Chuntao and her husband clean, they prepare snacks, they vibrate with dread. Such ramping up is effective, suspenseful, but it also feels a bit like the deck is being stacked. Whether or not Rose asked for a hero’s reception—a tension Larson plays with deftly—we sympathize with Bao and Chuntao, and begrudge the proximate cause of their anxiety.
It is when Rose shows up in person that “The Kindest” falters—or, more precisely, discloses that it has been faltering since the beginning, because too many of its animating ambiguities are, it now seems, unintentional. Rose hovers over the pronunciation of Chuntao’s name, makes a racist remark about her chair, snaps touristy photos, brags about how supportive her own community has been, surveils Chuntao’s drink choice (“Is that wine?” “No, it’s a Welch’s”), and condescendingly praises the neighborhood. Rose has exactly three personality traits, which are entitlement, ignorance, and annoyingness. Bao, the story’s moral compass, is frustrated by Chuntao’s brusqueness—after all, he hisses, “the woman saved my wife”—and yet he doesn’t want to be around Rose, either. He excuses himself and goes for a bike ride. In short, the story, after gesturing vaguely at the possibility that Chuntao was unfair in her initial judgments, corroborates those judgments with relish.
This reductive hostility feels especially disappointing because, for just a moment, in the story’s third act, it evaporates. After Bao flees the premises, Rose and Chuntao sit together in the living room, and the psychological duet that could have been flickers, briefly, into view. Chuntao shares that, since the surgery, she often needs to pee in the middle of the night. Rose lights up, perhaps with recognition. “Are you finding it hard to tie your shoes? And just to bend over generally?” she asks. There’s a flash of intimacy. Rose stares at Chuntao’s torso. “She was thinking about her kidney, buried inside of me,” Chuntao realizes. “Do take care of it,” Rose says—maybe sanctimoniously, but there’s a tender wistfulness in the imperative, too.
What Larson seems to perceive in this moment is that the possibility of connection between the women must exist before their failure to connect can have any emotional impact. Were Rose not defined solely by her capacity to irritate, were she and the narrator to meet on more equal footing, “The Kindest” might break the skin. (Alternately, Larson could have written a delicious satire of a convalescent stuck entertaining her terrible organ donor, but this story is more searching than droll.) In the next beat, Larson lays down her trump card, the most contemptible symbol an author can conjure: white-lady tears. Rose weeps; Chuntao, burning with frustration, comforts her. “People worship you,” Chuntao says robotically. The praise helps. In the story’s final moment, the two women take a selfie on the couch—for Rose, it’s a suitably exotic prop—and Chuntao fake-smiles, glancing “at something off the screen but I didn’t know what it was.”
Here, a reading of “The Kindest” suggests itself: that Larson has transmuted a beguilingly thorny setup into a dull critique of racism. Another, more generous reading is that Chuntao’s uncharitable vision of Rose flows in part from her own anger at how receiving a kidney robbed her of the social status granted to the terminally ill. (“The thing about the dying,” Chuntao, no longer dying, thinks, “is that they command the deepest respect.”) I believe that this is the story that Larson wished to write, and sort of did—a study of a flawed, conflicted protagonist who does not extend grace to others. Perhaps, we are meant to conclude, Chuntao should be more grateful, should be more like Bao. Even by that reading, though, the full store of the tale’s complexity resides in one character. Chuntao’s mean, but she gets all the good lines, whereas her counterweight only ever seems privileged, grasping, pathetic. Perversely, Rose’s flatness ends up flattening Chuntao, too, making her reactions seem both overdetermined and vague. “I wondered if it hurt,” Chuntao says, of Rose. “The hole inside of her . . . but I sort of didn’t want to know.” Larson, who has written an incurious narrator, seems correspondingly incurious about how Chuntao got this way, which heightens the impression that her derision toward Rose is meant to scan as normal, natural, rather than worthy of examination.
It is possible, though, that Chuntao has reconfigured details of her encounter with Rose or otherwise misled the reader—and, thus, that Larson’s psychological brush is subtler than I am giving her credit for. In pursuit of this theory, one might examine other elements of the work’s construction. Is there any corroborating evidence—in the language, say—of such cunning? Well, no. Chuntao’s sarcastic inner monologues feature sentences such as “Whoa now. Hold up” and “Um. Can you say no way?” She favors cliché: Chuntao sees, in the dots on the ceiling, “intricate patterns, like constellations in stars.” There are puzzling word choices and nonsensical images. The walls of a garbage truck descend to “slurp” up Chuntao’s crutches. The scent of Rose’s perfume is “a breeze of high-pitched peaches.” Sloppy repetitions occur. “But Bao didn’t seem angry,” Larson writes, and then, a few sentences later, “But Bao didn’t seem to mind.”
On Twitter, where much of the “Bad Art Friend” debate has flourished, my colleague Helen Rosner observes a “tension between writers who define themselves via their writing and writers who define themselves via ‘being a writer.’ ” To me, the slippage between these two categories gives the Dorland-Larson saga its heat. When you put a person’s life in your art, you risk misrepresenting them. But when you put another writer’s life in your art, you commit a kind of proleptic plagiarism—you steal their material. A growing interest, in some publishing circles, in “own voices” and “lived experience” intensifies this dynamic: a premium is placed on authors’ personal familiarity with the worlds they summon. There’s a corresponding sense that the person who inhabited a story in real life should get the first crack at fictionalizing it. By extension, you could say that the gravity of a transgression like Larson’s—appropriating someone else’s experience for her art—depends upon the quality of the appropriation. The offense is less if the story is bad. The ore hasn’t been fully extracted; there’s room for another go. Reading “The Kindest,” one longs for a richer treatment of the Dawn Dorland character. One longs, too, for her to tangle with somebody who doesn’t simply function as a likable, if imperfect, foil—somebody as alluringly composite in her motives and biases as, say, Sonya Larson.
Just before the “Kindest” commotion, another story by Larson, “Gabe Dove,” was selected by Meg Wolitzer for the 2017 edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” It follows a Chinese American woman, also named Chuntao, who begins to date a self-effacing man as she mourns another relationship’s end. I looked the story up, with trepidation, and discovered that it was lovely—surprising, sensitive, and sharp. Perhaps the circumstances of “The Kindest” ’s creation condemned it to a staleness and wishy-washiness uncharacteristic of Larson’s other works. In Kolker’s article, he quotes Calvin Hennick, a friend of Larson’s. “The first draft of the story really was a takedown of Dawn, wasn’t it?” Hennick wrote. “But Sonya didn’t publish that draft. . . . She created a new, better story.” It’s a revealing glimpse at the true origins of “The Kindest,” which Larson understandably wanted to veil. But I disagree with Hennick. Even in her revision, it seems Larson couldn’t quite sublimate her contempt for Dorland. She crafted a takedown in disguise, which reduces even its protagonist to an instrument. The final product lacks both the texture of realism and the courage and clarity of satire. In a fiction-worthy twist, one quality above all sabotaged Larson’s story in absentia: kindness.