When the Bad Art Friend story came out I had been aware of it for a little while – I’d gone to school with the kidney donor – and I sensed it would be a big one. Still, I was thrown by the whale that it was, somehow entirely consuming my book Twitter feed during the same week in which the Nobel Prize in Literature was revealed and the National Book Prize finalists were announced. Clearly the only real winner here was the guy who converted on the New York Times Magazine feature, making bank on a tale of two ambitious women tearing each other to shreds on the world stage.
The story fell loudly for so many reasons. Writers are narcissistic (duh) and we love reading about ourselves. Gossip is our love language, and the subpoenaed text chain situation dealt it a crushing blow. And, well, there’s that weird supposition that writers are especially bound by ethics – above the fray in a world gone mad – something that has never felt true to me, but is nevertheless the dramatic engine behind so many writing scandals (Stephen Glass, James Frey, Cat Person, ad nauseam). On Twitter, tellingly, many writer-readers were more appalled by the notion of an ethically minded group of writers than anything else in the story.
Long before Dawn Dorland, the kidney donor, came into my life, I counted among my close friends several women with whom I had been in direct competition – for jobs, for attention, for mentorship, for men. I remember the moments my affection for these women was forged: when we were both treated like garbage by the same love interest, the same professor, the same institution, the same editor. I instinctively bonded with these people, and it is a curiously persistent pattern.
Dorland inspired a different reaction, and I have never known why. Here was someone who was driven and passionate about many of the same things as me (writing, social justice, reproductive rights) but whose approach to those subjects made me feel insecure in ways I still find hard to pinpoint. We were friendly at first but the chemistry went sour. I shrank back, but there was so much I wanted to say. The wall of her intensity clammed me up, and I didn’t know how to handle this in a healthy way. The viability of a friendship can seem less reliant on shared values or interests, sometimes, than whether your insecurities are compatible.
This is the part of the essay where I come clean. Like Sonya Larson, the writer who used parts of Dorland’s letter to her kidney’s recipient as inspiration for a short story, I took these feelings and wrote a piece of fiction inspired by Dorland’s character. It had nothing to do with kidneys – it concerned the all-encompassing competition among women that often goes unspoken but manages to swallow broad swaths of our lives.
I never published the story and I probably never will. It’s not great. But as Dorland re-emerges in my field of vision, I am again struck by this dynamic, its permeation through the “Bad Art Friend” piece and much of its public reception— that grown women who set out for big things and pursue overlapping goals often struggle to be up front about their intentions.
How many people read “Bad Art Friend” and thought, wow, if Larson could have just told Dorland what she was working on and that it was inspired, in some part, by her actions, she could have written the story she wanted to write in peace? And hey, if Dorland could have taken the white savior criticism on the chin, she would be able to move on with her life and perhaps publish her novel without it being the Maligned Work of Kidney Person?
And yet I know how hard these conversations are. It is difficult to be direct about what we want, because we are so often (and so publicly) punished for boldly wanting anything from anyone. I remember with such clarity a moment in 2005 involving a girlfriend and a male friend we were both attracted to. He was my platonic love for a time – we went on walks and stayed up late reading poetry. I mentioned to my girlfriend that I had a crush on him and she didn’t waste a minute. She looked me in the eye and said, “I am in love with him. I’m going to make him my boyfriend.” Rather than injury, I felt a deep respect. I liked the guy, sure, but was I in love with him? No. I was a little on the fence, but he was cute. Was her crush intensified by my crush? Maybe, but who cares. Here was a woman who knew what she wanted and could say it to someone who had declared an interest in the same. It was like watching a single-celled organism sprout legs and dance off into the moonlight. My crush hopped, instantly, from him to her.
So many of the women in my life are fucking warriors. They show up for all the big fights – social justice, climate change, access to abortion, #metoo, gun control. Most of them do gut-wrenchingly difficult, emotionally taxing jobs like raising kids and teaching and nursing and nonprofit work. If the opportunity arose, every last one of them would land a haymaker on Mitch McConnell and take the prison sentence in stride. And yet it’s still hard for most of these women to tread sensitive interpersonal ground without feeling sick about it. Heavy questions can bloom from the slightest impasses: have I just tanked the friendship? Who am I to judge? Did I send her into a shame spiral? What becomes of us now? How will we recover?
What prevents us from speaking directly to each other about sensitive, yet common, things? For me, it feels tied up with this: I know too well the trauma so many women have endured and the emotional work they do for others in their lives. In times of spiking anxiety and despair, like, well, now, it can feel like any direct conflict or ask would do irrevocable damage to the person being addressed.
This summer I was flooded with awe while watching the women in the Olympics – women who bore the trauma of the pandemic alongside all their other traumas and national nightmares and emotional demands, handling immense pressure and passion with honesty and grit. They did their best work, unashamed of their drive. In fields whose rules and goalposts are slipperier, like writing or politics or managing a household, women still struggle to take pride in their achievements, and they struggle to celebrate without caveat or judgment the feats of other women.
The two bad art friends in the story have been through different but overlapping versions of hell. They work in an intensely competitive field that pays peanuts unless you’re famous. They’ve experienced different kinds of discrimination and pain and now the mortal infamy of being publicly labeled Potentially Unethical Writers, whatever that means.
Good artists are not always good friends or good people, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone. But we can probably agree that neither art nor friendship works as a purity test (when have those ever served women), and no one’s group chats or writers’ group names are fit for public consumption. It’s probably also worth examining whether a story about two cis men in a similar conflict would inspire the same roaring moral scrutiny.
Writing isn’t the Morality Olympics. It’s what happens when something matters enough to someone to record, and maybe it resonates with an audience and maybe it doesn’t. Occasionally a story will become a reference point for better understanding human motivations, and hey, that’s something, even if the story is difficult and involves you.
I’ll never forget the Cold War feeling that had been escalating between me and one of my closest (and most competitive) female friends until she identified the subtext between us as the question of moral superiority. That being a ridiculous metric, we could both declare ourselves winners and move on. She suggested we preface everything we say to each other for the rest of the night with the phrase “As a morally superior human being…” Having that subtext spoken, it turned out, didn’t hurt at all, it just made us laugh.