I, like much of the writing attached world, have been unable to stop thinking about Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson whose feud was covered in depth by the New York Times this week. Here’s the gist as summarized by Jenny G. Zhang at Gawker:
Dawn Dorland, an unpublished author, donated a kidney via a nondirected donation, in which the organ goes to a stranger in need, and added her friends and acquaintances to a Facebook group she created about the fact. Sonya Larson, a more successful writer whom Dorland one-sidedly considered a “friend,” wrote a short story that was inspired (not in an admiring way) by Dorland’s kidney donation and subsequent frequent posts about her act of altruism. Not only that, but Larson — in an original version of her story — used words that Dorland wrote, almost verbatim, in the form of a letter to the recipient of the kidney. Dorland, upset by both the inspiration/plagiarism as well as what she likely perceived to be a betrayal of friendship (which was, again, pretty much one-sided), attempted to get Larson to pay damages via a lawsuit against a book festival. Larson sued back. Dorland filed a counterclaim. Larson accused Dorland of harassing a writer of color (herself). Mean group chats were subpoenaed. It turned into a real fucking mess. Oh, and Dorland, it must be noted, was apparently the one to pitch this whole saga to reporter Robert Kolker, who ended up writing about it for the Times.
The Times piece is, to its credit, ambiguous about who is the asshole here. On the one hand, it’s clear that Larson not only used Dorland’s life–which Dorland had copiously shared in a private Facebook group the two were in–she took words Dorland wrote and placed them as hers in her work of fiction. Dorland, who donated a kidney to whomever might need it, clearly wants adulation for her kindness–she doesn’t appear to be someone that doing good is, in and of itself, its own reward. To complicate matters, Dorland is White, Larson is mixed-race Asian American.
Many writers, most famously Celeste Ng, have come down firmly on Larson’s side. The Guardian made fun of Dorland’s claim. Others on social media have been on Dawn’s side and her case has been allowed to go forward in the courts.
I’m not sure what I think about the merits of either woman’s actions here–and that’s not what I’m interested in today. I am curious if, when mining the lives of living people, if those who write fiction have carte blanche to write whatever they wish. And if they do, do they owe those whose lives they’re reimagining a heads up or a thank-you? And if they don’t, why not?