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Debating the Bad Art Friend

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Like most people in the publishing world with a working internet connection, the Gotham team spent much of last week devouring and dissecting the New York Times Magazine story Who Is the Bad Art Friend? And we couldn’t resist the opportunity to share our reactions to this one-of-a-kind literary feud. Here are the competing viewpoints of this particular pack of writing pros. (Spoilers for the article, obviously … but you’ve read it already, haven’t you?)

What do you get when you cross an insecure aspiring writer who seeks validation from her peers above all else with her more accomplished writer friend with a mean streak and the support of her catty writer’s group? A very petty story that lends itself perfectly to our pick-a-side-and-attack-the-other-side-mercilessly online style of debate. After my skin finally stopped crawling from all the second-hand embarrassment, I couldn’t help but feel for Dawn’s plight and the hurt of learning that her “friends” were making fun of her behind her back. But, once that initial sympathy passed, I realized that I had no problem with Sonya lifting so much from Dawn’s letter and my main issues were with Sonya’s lack of professionalism and palpable contempt for Dawn. Ultimately, my takeaway is that I can’t stand either of them … and that I will absolutely watch the inevitable film adaptation.

–Evan Valentine, Administrative Assistant

Who is the bad art friend? Sonya, probably. But if you asked, “Who seems slightly unhinged and in need of a social media cleanse?” Dawn, definitely. Look – I would also be pissed if a “friend” “lifted” something I wrote almost verbatim. But that’s not what got published, and that wasn’t Dawn’s initial complaint. She was mad that some people didn’t like or comment on her post about her self-proclaimed altruistic (anonymous) kidney donation and followed up to request that acknowledgement. That is painfully ironic, and crazy. The rest is just messy and uncalled for. I can’t believe this has been going on for five years. At the end of the day, I’m team Sonya. On brand with her martyrdom, Dawn decided to die on this hill. Sonya didn’t. She just picked the wrong person to emulate. I almost feel bad adding my two cents – as if these women aren’t already the subject of widespread public embarrassment. But they were petty, & catty, and it’s so cringeworthy it’s hard to resist partaking in this conversation. Plus, it is a unique opportunity to evaluate the unwritten rules of inspiration and imitation, which I think is important to discuss. I hope they find reconciliation, but I can’t imagine that sequel. What I would do to be in that Facebook group now.

–Fiona Winch, Marketing Intern

In this high-drama, lilliputian-stakes showdown between a validation-hungry organ donor and the quasi-plagiarist who satirized her, the only true winners are the New York Times and gossip aficionados. But I do think we can all learn a few important lessons from this:

  • Don’t donate your kidney anonymously if it is very important to you that your (genuinely generous!) sacrifice be praised.
  • Don’t gaslight the acquaintance you’re making fun of and potentially plagiarizing by insisting you’re not doing that when you are, in fact, totally doing the thing she’s accused you of doing … and particularly if your literary mean girl group chat has an extensive paper trail documenting that fact.
  • Don’t pursue any legal action that will result in discovery of said group chat if you aren’t prepared to read a bunch of nasty-but-accurate gossip about yourself.
  • Don’t pitch the New York Times on an extensive profile of your personal and professional drama if you aren’t very, very sure you won’t come across as an unhinged obsessive.
–Nate Roberson, Editorial Director

Talk about a literary train wreck. The behavior of these characters is so deeply cringeworthy, so devoid of basic moral standards, so shameful in so many ways.  And just when I thought it must be coming to an end (please Lord may it end soon!), the feud between Dawn and Sonya raged on like a bad game of amateur ping pong – accusations thrown, tempers blazing, insults batted back and forth. Both so catty, cruel, and downright unhinged at times. I’d like to side somewhere in between, in that grey space where people treat one another with basic levels respect and graciousness. That said, here’s the bottom line. Sonya ripped another writer’s words pretty much verbatim. That she changed them down the line is irrelevant. And she did it with nastiness and ridicule to boot. No apology. No acknowledgment. No sense of remorse. This is totally unacceptable to me. So, I guess that reluctantly leaves me with Team Dawn. To whom I’d say: Good for you for donating a kidney. Truly. Now get over it, pull yourself together, drop the mic, and move on with your life.   –Georgina Levitt, Communications Director This has to be the darkest look at the psychodynamics of a writing workshop since Todd Solondz’s Storytelling. But going beyond the totally absorbing minutiae of the case, I think this story has taken off because it touches on the central issue facing writers today: the ethics of representation. With inclusion, sensitivity, and accountability as the industry’s watchwords, and novels being publicly appraised and denounced while still in galleys, the question of who gets to tell which story can end an author’s career before it even begins. But while it’s now trendy to talk about the novel as an empathy-generating machine, the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of great fiction comes from dark impulses and base feelings. (What is satire but elevated contempt?) Artists need to create as if there were no consequences, but that offers no insurance against the injured feelings of those reflected in their work. It’s a circle that can probably never be squared, and it’s going to acutely preoccupy the literary world for years to come.  

–Georgina Levitt, Director of Communications and Business Development

This has to be the darkest look at the psychodynamics of a writing workshop since Todd Solondz’s Storytelling. But going beyond the totally absorbing minutiae of the case, I think this story has taken off because it touches on the central issue facing writers today: the ethics of representation. With inclusion, sensitivity, and accountability as the industry’s watchwords, and novels being publicly appraised and denounced while still in galleys, the question of who gets to tell which story can end an author’s career before it even begins. But while it’s now trendy to talk about the novel as an empathy-generating machine, the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of great fiction comes from dark impulses and base feelings. (What is satire but elevated contempt?) Artists need to create as if there were no consequences, but that offers no insurance against the injured feelings of those reflected in their work. It’s a circle that can probably never be squared, and it’s going to acutely preoccupy the literary world for years to come.  

–Will Wolfslau, Director of Operations

It’s sad to me that the important, nuanced ethical questions around artistic freedom that this story raises have been overshadowed by the psychodrama between the two writers and the endless, unproductive hot takes their feud has inspired on social media. That said, the emotional Rorschach test these unlikeable people have produced is fascinating and revealing in its own right. It says a lot more about the observers than the writers themselves.

–Dan Gerstein, CEO
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