Inside the NYTimes: “My editor and I decided to emphasize the two points of view by alternating perspectives”

From a Times Insider story by Robert Kolker headlined “Portraying Bad Art Friends Faithfully”:

In early January, I got an email from a writer in Los Angeles named Dawn Dorland. The email was straightforward: She believed she’d been plagiarized in a short story by another writer named Sonya Larson. Now they were in court. “This dispute, on top of just being surreal, has cost my family a lot of money we didn’t have,” Ms. Dorland wrote. “And, as I am learning now through the legal discovery process, cost me my writing community back in Boston, where I cut my teeth as a writer.”

I didn’t know Ms. Dorland or Ms. Larson, hadn’t read the short story in question and don’t travel in the same writer circles as they do. But to be approached in this way is not exactly unusual for me. People involved in lawsuits often want reporters to pay attention to their cases. I have written a lot of narratively driven journalism about complicated, tangled relationships that end up involving lawyers.

I remember thinking that the case was so complex and the issues so insular that it would be hard to get anyone interested. But a week after that first email, I wandered back to it, and the more I read, the more there seemed to be a lot happening — in and out of court, and on both sides of the story.

Over the next several months, I examined the case for the recent New York Times Magazine article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” which was published earlier this month and became a major subject of conversation online, with readers taking sides. As I reported, I saw how this was, on one level, a story about a friendship torn asunder. But it was also about how people can take details from real life and weave them into their fiction, and the question of whether artists must adhere to a certain set of ethics. Then there was the astonishing nature of what was appropriated: Ms. Dorland had donated a kidney, and Ms. Larson’s short story was about a kidney donation — and, Ms. Dorland maintained, the story used some phrases from a letter Ms. Dorland had written to her kidney recipient and posted in a private Facebook group.

I thought about the vulnerability and accountability of social media — the sense that anything we put online does not belong to us. And I thought about how exposed that makes us all: Ms. Dorland’s undeniably generous act, once she announced it to the world, struck some who knew her as strange, even braggy. But if Ms. Dorland felt targeted by Ms. Larson’s story, Ms. Larson felt that Ms. Dorland’s arguments overshadowed the real reasons Ms. Larson wrote her story — issues of racial dynamics. While Ms. Dorland is white, Ms. Larson is a mixed-race Asian American, and her story was more about the clash of cultures than about organ donation itself. By using Ms. Dorland’s donation as inspiration and adapting and transforming reality, Ms. Larson believed — and still believes — that she was doing what many artists do.

What hovered over it all, I thought, was the mystery of how a small quarrel had landed in federal court, profoundly transforming two people’s lives. That’s what Raha Naddaf, my editor at The Times Magazine, responded to — how a disagreement about art had gradually escalated into a defamation and copyright infringement case. She and I have worked on many other pieces with tangled narratives and huge emotional stakes. Here, we decided on a story that would present both Ms. Dorland’s and Ms. Larson’s side faithfully, while explaining to readers how, moment by moment, all of this unfolded.

I spent several months sifting through hundreds of pages of court documents, parsing the particulars of copyright law and speaking with both women. I saw two separate, completely conflicting stories take shape: Ms. Dorland’s version, in which her selfless act was warped and co-opted by someone she thought was a friend; and Ms. Larson’s, in which she found herself publicly harassed by someone intent on claiming ownership of a thing she alone created.

In revisions, my editor and I decided to emphasize the two points of view by alternating perspectives: Readers would spend a little time in Ms. Dorland’s shoes, then Ms. Larson’s, and back and forth again. The point wasn’t to frustrate readers as much as to invite them to identify with both sides. I set out to show in great detail how Ms. Dorland and Ms. Larson each felt justified in her actions — which set them on a collision course.

Like the story Ms. Larson wrote, “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” is a Rorschach test. Some readers might land on team Dorland, others on team Larson. But neither I nor any of the editors involved in the piece expected it to turn into Twitter’s favorite parlor game. While many readers appreciated the story’s perspective shifts and came away understanding both people well, others found themselves identifying emotionally with one side — and getting mad. I feel that a lot of the debate that continues to swirl across Twitter risks flattening the piece into a tale of good guys and bad guys — which, you might say, kind of proves the story’s point. At any moment, we all can retreat into our own echo chambers and decide on our own versions of the truth — which can turn any of us into bad art friends.

Robert Kolker is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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