bad art(ificial intelligence)
Sonya and Dawn go on Judge Mathis challenge
Edit: Since I wrote this post, some legal documents have come to light that paint statements made in the original article in a different light. I’ve made changes to this post to reflect that—nothing substantial, but I felt it was unfair to those involved to leave the original post since people still appear to be reading it (thanks for the support!!)
First, a housewarming note: about two years ago during some long-forgotten Twitter drama, I proposed a newsletter where I (genius, generally correct) recap literary and media twitter drama. I didn’t do it because I realized I couldn’t commit to summarizing nascent bullshit every week. This week, I realized: I’m a free woman, I can simply choose to only have commentary on and summarize that which has taken up residence in my brain and given me The Worms and I need to excise them.
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I basically haven’t been able to sleep after reading Bad Art Friend and the ensuing chatter online. It is deeply embarrassing for my brain to be so sickened by this, but the worms have nuzzled in and won’t leave until I synthesize this frankly hilarious yet also deeply cringe-worthy situation in the context of the aftermath online and in my various friend chats.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am snarky in the group chat, I am snarky on Twitter and in my interpersonal interactions. However, I don’t make art about it. That’s partially an aesthetic preference, of course, but it’s also a tactical one. It’s fine to be a jerk in your published work, but then acting like you’ve been trod all over when the person to whom you’re being a jerk to gets upset, it’s like…you’re willing to make your brand making fun of people in your art, but you’re not willing to stand behind what you did? Ok. You can’t have it both ways.
People are always going to talk shit, in group chats or otherwise. But part of being in social circles and like, being an adult in general, is choosing how much you’re going to let that spill over into your professional work.
I don’t consider mockery to be good art. Again, personal aesthetic preference. I have good friends whom I respect who disagree. When mockery is necessary in art, imo, it’s for mocking people in power, mocking people who hurt other people, or the like. Dawn ostensibly wasn’t hurting anyone and wasn’t in a position of power when she started posting about her kidney donation. She was literally giving away a kidney—she wasn’t doing harm.
I’ve heard the argument that the kidney incident was ‘too good to not fictionalize,’ and I have...thoughts. Off the cuff, I have suggested, why didn’t Sonya change it to egg donation? Surrogacy, a mission trip, the peace corps, adopting a child, etc?
Say your opinion that kidney donation is funnier / more symbolic than egg donation, surrogacy, a mission trip, the peace corps, adopting a child, whatever. Fine! That’s your opinion, but it’s by no means an indisputable fact, and it’s not a fact of ‘high art.’ If there are even rules of high art, they certainly don’t govern whether or not a kidney donation is the most hilarious perfect thing to symbolize white people with misplaced valor.
You’re free to do what you want as an artist, but no one ever said that you were free from consequences. People have lived and died, gone bankrupt and undermined their loved ones for art. And they’ve dealt with the consequences. Creative expression is a right, but ‘ridicule and then gaslight a person until they crack’ isn’t a subheading of that right.
The Sonya camp’s main defense was that Sonya was using kidney donation as a ‘point to jump off from,’ but that’s clearly not true given the receipts. She was mocking Dawn specifically, to the point where it was recognizable no matter how many drafts she wrote, and she was cribbing material she found online and putting a spin on it that was disingenuous. Making a ‘white savior kidney donor character’ wouldn’t have been morally questionable in the first place: making a character that is an explicit mockery of Dawn herself, and ascribing that character with a racist narrative, well, it makes sense that that made Dawn angry.
I’ve dated a lot of a men who did icky things to me—if I wrote a story about them (which I wouldn’t, I have better things to do,) it would be sketchy of me to use very recognizable details of said men, and then like, make the character a rapist. Illegal? Idk! But definitely sketchy, and I can imagine that the men would be Mad.
If Sonya was so serious about her Message reaching a city of readers, she should have placed that as a priority above mocking Dawn publicly. It’s really that simple! You’re undermining your own message if you insist on carrying out your project of public mockery alongside your stated moral intentions. If you want to write a story about an important topic, you need to do your due diligence and not fuck it upon account of a dumb artistic petty mistake.
I’m familiar with covering your tracks sloppily after you do something rude and unwise: it happened o me a lot when I was 20. If you’ve been writing professionally for any length of time, it’s frankly your responsibility to think ahead and cover your ass. Should we have to do this? No! But we also shoudln’t have to work in menial jobs and pay exorbitant rent to live in tiny apartments and live without universal healthcare. But we do it anyway because that’s where society is at right now. Writing a mean story isn’t making a statement about artisic freedom. It’s making a mockery of artistic freedom by utilizing it in a way that is going to get you in dumb dumb trouble!
Sadly, the fact of the matter appears to be that Dawn thought the people she was putting in the private Facebook group were her friends. That they weren’t actually her friends is sad for everyone involved, but I think it would be pretty challenging to argue that Dawn thinking people were her friends who secretly didn’t like her is anything other than pitiable, and it’s certainly not vilianous.
At this point, I have read more than I would advise anyone to consume about this article, including legal documents. Nothing has convinced me that Dawn’s emails to Sonya were actively harmful, especially since the receipts make it clear that Sonya had already been writing and workshopping the story by the time Dawn emailed her. Mocking someone in a story that their peers will read is inciting behavior.
Relentlessly mocking someone whose motives you find questionable isn’t praxis. Artists are free to do what they want, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask an artist to be rigorous, to sit and consider their creative decisions from angles beyond ‘this person is too cringe to not directly mock.’
I for one am incapable of reading even one more ‘im just a wee writer weevil, being a MAGPIE and discretely putting DETAILS in my pockets, don’t hurt me im just a little writer leech!!!’ tweet without vomiting. Like ok, if that’s the hill you want to die on, absolutely go for it—you do have the right to be a rude magpie and make fun of people in your fiction! But they also have a right to their reactions.
Writers and journalists claim to take plagiarism seriously, and although people have argued endlessly about the way Dawn went about pursuing her claim, the actual claim was not at all ridiculous. When students can get kicked out of college for even incidental instances of plagiarism, I don’t think it’s a bridge too far to say that Sonya should have known better.
The way to prevent that from happening was pretty simple. Don’t actively plagiarize the letter. No matter how ‘good’ the content was…don’t do it? If you want to enter a profession and not read up on the legal stuff, congrats! You put yourself in a precarious position! Fiction writers love to pretend they’re excempt from professional ethics, but if you want to beg the world to consider fiction writing a real profession, you have to be willing to admit that you must then follow the rules of real professions!
It’s also *a choice* to participate so unabashedly in the CRWR cottage industry (that’s what I call workshops like Grub Street as well as 90% of MFA programs,) which relies on people with money to burn to take their classes and fund the livelihoods of the people who run them. I can’t say it better than my friend Christian said it on Twitter:
Do we have responsibility to every rando we meet on the street? No. Do we have a responsibility to the people who we grift into paying hundreds of dollars for our shim sham writing workshops and then make fun of when they don’t meet our bogus standards of moral superiority? Alas, I think you do.
Living in a fantasy world where you can shit on losers in your published work with no consequences and then cover it up with groupthink isn’t artistic freedom or social change, it’s just being an asshole for no discernible reason other than making yourself and your friends feel superior to someone you’re actively bullying.
If I found out that a bunch of the staff and students of Catapult, where I used to take classes, (I do not think Catapult is shim-sham, I learned a lot there and think they’re very professional and wouldn’t get embroiled in something like this…but I digress…) had been actively making fun of me and using me as a character in their stories, I would not only be pissed, I would also point out that I’ve paid that oraganization thousands of dollars! When you start to make writing community into a business, you have to acknowledge that you are no longer free to shit on people as unrepentently as you were when it was just a social circle.
It would be remiss to not mention Celeste Ng’s social media presence in all this. She took to twitter in an attempt to ‘clarify facts,’ but ended up doling out more obfuscating excuses.
Celeste ‘lobbying for herself’ as one of my friends put it, is simply more of fiction writers pretending to care about the sanctity of the craft while really being self serving. Celeste was literally interviewed for the article!!! She had plenty of time to say things. Tweeting “DAWN WASN’T EVEN OUR FRIEND!” is really not the exculpatory evidence she thinks it is. You were just making fun of a tragic figure who thought she was your friend but you and your pals actually hated her? That’s not a defense!! It’s not illegal but it’s not justifying your actions either!
If I ever stoop so low as to publish a short story about someone I don’t like, please just take me out back and shoot me. Let this be the end for all of us. Make fun of the person at the bar, laugh with your friends, prayers up that you have friends to make fun of people with instead of being made fun of, then go home. Please touch some grass on the way :)
In the end, I think we can all agree that Dawn certainly manifested writers talking about her kidney. Bless up!
Among other things, this story is also specifically about Boston, the old school insularity and cliquishness of its art scene, and the unmerited sense of moral superiority of its elites.
The only good take on bad art friend