Bad Discourse Friend: The Unraveling of a Viral Story (Part 2)

NOTE: Hi. This is part two of this story. The first part can be found here. I published it last week and then thought better of putting it up on it’s own without the full context of what came later. While it did get sent out as an email to subscribers, it hasn’t been up on the website. It’s back up now though, and you can read it, if you haven’t yet, before getting into this one—that is, if you, like me, are foolish enough to wade into this mess.

Also, aren’t we done talking about this? Like, as of last week? Yes. But also no. The issues at the center of this conflict are not going away any time soon.

Once again, you can also just turn back now and not get into it. Consider yourself twice warned.


Part Two: Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal

Continued from Part 1

It was the weekend of June 2nd, 2018, a Saturday, when Dawn Dorland finally came across Sonya Larson’s short story “The Kindest” on the website for American Short Fiction. She’d given birth in April and was caring for her newborn son at home. She had known “The Kindest” existed, known its title, but hadn’t felt compelled to buy a copy of the magazine or subscribe to the website just to see what Sonya had written. Now here it was in front of her, nearly two years after she first heard of its existence, a story in part inspired by one of the most significant events in her life.

The day after reading it, Dawn reached out to a colleague, agent Samantha Shea of the Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. She said that while she understood there wasn’t much to be done about Sonya writing a kidney donation story she found hurtful and exploitative, the inclusion of a letter so like her own felt more problematic.

“This writer’s appropriation of my personal kidney story fictionally is one kind of debate,” she wrote, “but another writer’s use of a text I authored is, to my mind, a serious issue and a clear violation. I think this new discovery crosses a line.” She said acceptable remedies to the situation might range from ASF pulling the story, to Sonya including an acknowledgement of her original text, she thought.

“I would be so grateful to hear what you think about this and what I should do,” Dawn wrote.

Samantha replied that she wasn’t sure if the use of her letter would count as plagiarism, but suggested she consult a lawyer. If the lines of communication were not open with Sonya, then “I would think going to the editors of ASF would be appropriate,” she wrote.

Communication had indeed broken down with Sonya. Following their tense but—she thought—ultimately positive email exchange in 2016 about the story, Dawn later said she continued to have a bad feeling about the whole thing. Sonya had proceeded to blank Dawn when she ran into her in person at the 2017 Muse writing conference, ignoring her when she said hello and abruptly turning around and walking away when the two women found themselves face to face.

A day after she received the email from Samantha, Dawn wrote to ASF’s editors. She told them that “The Kindest” borrowed from her own life experiences, at Sonya’s own admission, for which Dawn had received no acknowledgement.

“BUT HERE’S THE PROBLEM,” Dawn wrote in all caps.

The problem was the letter, which Dawn believed to be plagiarism. She used the same language she had with Samantha: The appropriation of her story was “one kind of debate,” but the use of her letter crossed a line. If the editors at ASF agreed it bore “a problematic resemblance” to her own, then she proposed three solutions. One, ASF could take the story down. Two, Sonya could include an acknowledgement of Dawn’s original text. Or three, ASF could keep the story up and publish an additional article by Dawn about the ethics of using other people’s stories in fiction.

“How do we balance careerist impulses with our stated artistic ideals (empathy among them)?” Dawn wrote. “And for those in the ‘you shared it, so I stole it’ school, does being writers give us permission to violate the bonds of intimacy, to fail one another as friends?”

The next day ASF editor Rebecca Markovits responded. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” she wrote, “We are investigating the situation and consulting with our legal advisors[…]”

“This is obviously news to us,” she added.

Two days later, Dawn had already discovered the story’s inclusion as the One City One Story selection for that year’s Boston Book Festival, and reached out to its organizers with her plagiarism claims. She also emailed Jennifer Grotz of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Workshop at Middlebury, presumably concerned that Sonya had sent the story there, too, but received a curt response: they were not able to provide information regarding applicants or students. Sonya later said that Dawn, in the ensuing months of conflict, would also contact the Vermont Studio Center and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, although I did not see any record of that, or at least evidence that either responded. The Boston Book Festival, however, could not ignore the issue.

“As you may have also heard from American Short Fiction,” the festival’s executive director Norah Piehl emailed Sonya, “we’ve been approached by Dawn Dorland (who I understand you know through GrubStreet) making accusations that ‘The Kindest’ plagiarized portions of a kidney donor letter she wrote and shared to a group of which you were a member. I was just wondering if you had already been made aware of this, and if so, if you had already obtained any legal advice.”

“I had not heard about any of this, and have not received legal advice myself,” Sonya replied. She explained that her original idea for the story “did emerge from being included in that Facebook group,” but stressed that she would do whatever she could to resolve things.

A little over an hour later, Sonya was texting with Celeste.

“DAWN DORLAND AND HER ONE KIDNEY CAN GO AND FUCK THEMSELVES,” Celeste vented to Sonya, her friend, who, as far as she was concerned, was weathering an unfair attack. But she didn’t seem to know the whole story.

“Like does she have any grounds?” Sonya asked.

“IF you used exact words from her letter she might have something to complain about but I don’t think it’s plagiarism,” Celeste texted. At most, Celeste said, Sonya would probably have to change a few lines. No big deal.

But while Sonya had already told other GrubStreet writing colleagues like Sari and Whitney that the story’s letter had begun as a verbatim “grab” from Dawn’s Facebook page, Celeste did not seem to know this. Perhaps even Sonya herself had forgotten the details of her own story’s origins by this point. A lot had happened in the world in 2016 and 2017—the election, and Trump winning, and the first year and a half of the Trump presidency. That summer, the news of undocumented children being held in camps along the southern border was all over social media. It may have felt like the longest two years that anyone could remember. To some people, the year 2015 may as well have been a lifetime ago.

“I honestly don’t even know how they might compare,” she texted, referring to the real and fictional letters. “I’m worried there is similar language in there, but can it even be plagiarism if it was basically from a FB post? Gah!”

The next day, Norah at the Boston Book Festival got in touch with Sonya. Their lawyers indicated that Dawn might have a valid claim, “but one that would likely need to be decided by a jury.” She asked Sonya on the festival’s behalf to redraft the letter in the story to “avoid any resemblance in structure or language to the original.” Paraphrases would need to be avoided. Simply substituting words and phrases would not be enough to avoid potential legal claims. She had six days to make the changes.

That same day, June 8th, Sonya registered a U.S. copyright for “The Kindest,” including the fictional donor letter, prior to rewriting it. Two days later, on June 10th, Dawn registered a copyright for her own original donor letter.

Rebecca at ASF suggested to Dawn that maybe it was better if she and Sonya talked it out amongst themselves:

“As far as the larger question, setting aside the similar language in the real and the fictional letters, of the broader similarities between Sonya Larson’s story and your lived experiences, I have every sympathy towards your feeling exploited or exposed by that. But that seems to me to be, potentially, a personal betrayal within your friendship, not a matter of publishing ethics. If we were to aim to remove from publication every fictional story in which the author has borrowed heavily from real life, we would find ourselves with very little left, and a lot of understandably upset authors. Writing, as you wrote in your initial email, can be an ethically fraught calling.”

Rebecca wrote again a day later to tell Dawn that Sonya had retained a lawyer, and passed along his contact information.

“Good luck, and I hope you receive a satisfactory response!” she wrote.

Dawn replied that “she and her attorney” were pursuing legal remedies. The editor of “a prominent literary magazine” had told her that when faced with a similar situation, his own magazine had verified the evidence, consulted with the editorial board, retracted the plagiarized text, published an apology, and barred the offending writer from publishing with them again. “This literary editor told me that he and his magazine responded swiftly after receiving evidence from a writer claiming plagiarism,” she said. “They were never contacted by lawyers.” Did Rebecca consult with any members of ASF’s board?

“This has put me in the position of having to spend thousands of dollars to defend my right to my own work,” Dawn wrote.

On June 18th, the Boston Book Festival got back to Dawn. They said they had requested that Sonya redraft the letter in her story, and hoped Dawn would be satisfied. But Dawn was not getting the responses she had hoped for. She told Jennifer Grotz of Bread Loaf that she would be including her response in an article about plagiarism in the writing community, and that “other writing programs of similar repute” had responded quite differently. She also expressed her dissatisfaction to the Boston Book Festival. Simply changing the text in the story had not been one of her three suggested options. But the BBF thought it was done with the matter.

“At this point, as far as we’re concerned,” Norah wrote to her, “this is purely a personal matter between you and Sonya.” As a small organization with a small staff, they could not devote any more time to the issue.

“I find the BBF’s erasure of me and my writing from this process quite disturbing,” Dawn replied.

Dawn contacted The Boston Globe. She spoke with reporter Graham Ambrose and sent him the festival’s emails, which she saw as an acknowledgement of plagiarism, with the only recourse being a rewrite of Sonya’s version of the letter, and no public nod to Dawn at all.

But on June 25th, ASF removed “The Kindest” from its website.

“I hope this helps you find some resolution and closure to your natural concerns,” Rebecca wrote.

Sonya, meanwhile, was frantically googling plagiarism scandals.

“…they’re literally all from nonfiction books,” she texted Whitney. Last year, Whitney had signed her million dollar book contract, and was likely having a busy professional life of her own. Her texts indicated that she did not remember the letter she once made fun of, either.

Sonya’s problem was that she needed to rewrite her fictional letter so that it differed from Dawn’s real one, but she no longer had a copy of the original.

“Were you in that FB group?” Sonya asked.

“I think so?” Whitney replied.

On July 2nd, Dawn emailed Eve Bridburg, founder and executive director of GrubStreet, to register an official work complaint against Sonya.

“Two independent arts organizations have now substantiated my claim that Sonya plagiarized my writing in her short story,” Dawn wrote. As a GrubStreet instructor herself and a former GrubStreet student, she found the “theft” of her text by a Grubstreet director to be “problematic, to say the least.” She hoped to be referred to a human resources professional. While she seemed most upset about the personal aspect of the betrayal, she and Sonya were also coworkers at an organization that produces the very thing she felt that Sonya had stolen: writing.

In addition to her complaint about the perceived plagiarism, she mentioned that Sonya had blanked her at the 2017 Muse conference, causing Dawn to later have a panic attack and lasting insomnia.

“Yet another interaction that gives me pause,” Dawn wrote, “is a conversation in which Sonya instructed me, as someone she perceives to be white, not to write about race.”

The cumulative effect was that Dawn had not felt welcome at GrubStreet’s 2018 Muse conference.

“Eve, I urge you to initiate whatever personnel policies GrubStreet has in place for complaints of this magnitude. In the absence of such policies, however, I might suggest persuading Sonya to apologize to me formally, or GrubStreet’s facilitating a reconciliation between us. If your approach to my allegations is extreme, I would also be comfortable with your suspending Sonya from her position as Director of Race and Advocacy and/or Director of the Muse Conference, with or without pay.”

“I come to you and the GrubStreet staff and board vulnerably, Eve,” Dawn went on, “trusting that you will hear and honor the pain and distress that one of your leaders has caused another writer financially (we spent our last $2500 retaining a lawyer to help me defend my work), professionally, and not least, personally.”

Eve replied that she had forwarded the letter to Ian Chio, GrubStreet’s Director of Finance and Administration, which, Eve said, included HR.

On July 3rd, Dawn’s lawyer Jeffrey Cohen of the Cohen Law Group sent a letter to the Boston Book Festival on Dawn’s behalf. His client had tried to amicably settle the matter by requesting an acknowledgement, but was “rudely” rejected, he wrote. The BBF had already admitted infringement, he continued, and the letter was to serve as a formal cease and desist from copying, printing, or distributing “The Kindest” until the matter could be corrected.

“Do not test our resolve in this regard,” he wrote, “or our willingness to reach an appropriate solution.”

The festival had ten days to supply Dawn and her lawyer with the supposedly “non-infringing” rewrite of the story. If they failed to do so, Cohen would proceed with legal action to prevent publication and demand penalties for statutory copyright infringement that “could be as high as $150,000.”

“The shortness, and quite frankly the rudeness of your prior response to our client will not be considered favorably by the court,” Cohen wrote. “Again, the purpose of this correspondence is to confirm your admission of infringement and likely liability as a result thereof. However, our purpose is also to genuinely provide BBF the opportunity to correct this situation…”

Two weeks later, they received a reply from Sonya’s lawyer, James Gregorio.

“The allegations presented in your letter are absolutely, unequivocally, entirely, irrefutably, demonstrably false, frivolous, and without merit,” he wrote, underlined and in bold. He demanded they supply Sonya with a copy of Dawn’s original donor letter, along with evidence of any duplication or similarities.

“Be advised: Your client’s actions constitute harassment, defamation per se, and tortious interference with business and contractual relations,” Gregorio wrote. “Demand is hereby made that your client cease and desist from any and all defamatory communication regarding my client, including without limitation any contact regarding this matter with any media organization, and with her employer.”

The trouble was that GrubStreet was not only Sonya’s employer, but Dawn’s employer, too. Sonya had used Dawn’s donor letter in her story, even if it had changed over time. Whether or not it counted as plagiarism or copyright infringement seemed to be up for some debate, but now Dawn was being forbidden from even discussing it, or going to HR with a concern about a fellow employee. Furthermore, Sonya’s lawyer said that if the Boston Book Festival were to withdraw Sonya’s story, they would consider it to be Dawn’s fault. If Dawn were to attempt to sue, then Dawn’s own lawyer would himself be sued under Rule 11 sanctions.

“Rest assured, Ms. Dorland will be held accountable,” Gregorio wrote.

Cohen’s legal partner, Michael Hanna, was quick to reply on Dawn’s behalf, and enclosed a copy of the original donor letter, as requested.

“Given your request for a copy of the Work,” he wrote, “it appears that the positions expressed in your letter were taken without ever having reviewed the Work. Now that you are in possession of the Work, we are certain that you will agree that it is not only possible that your client copied the Work, but that it would be impossible for your client to have independently created her version of the Work that is included in the short story “The Kindest,” without having copied the Work. As you can see, certain portions of “The Kindest” are included almost verbatim from the Work, and the entire letter portion of “The Kindest” is indisputably adapted directly from the Work. There can be no reasonable dispute in this regard that your client has infringed upon our client’s copyright…”

While Gregorio’s letter had been inflammatory and threatening, Hanna’s was markedly not. He stressed that their goal was to reach a mutually agreeable solution for all parties, including for Sonya. He was not asking for money, and mentioned no dollar amount. The potential $150,000 mentioned in his letter to the Boston Book Festival had been a worst case scenario figure, if the festival had decided to publish the fictional letter without changing it, which Sonya had already agreed to rewrite.

“Our client’s position in this matter, at least to this point, has been extraordinarily conciliatory,” Hanna wrote. “Frankly, despite the tone of your letter and the failure to include any law or facts upon which your positions are based (including your threat to seek Rule 11 sanctions), our client remains willing to settle this matter without a full recovery of the damages to which she may be entitled. However this willingness could change should your client continue to make baseless threats or take any action to interfere with our client’s rights.”

He noted that the Boston Book Festival was reluctant to go ahead with publishing the story without Sonya having first reached some kind of agreement with Dawn.

“It appears that your failure to reach an agreement with our client would not be in your client’s best interest,” Hanna wrote.

Meanwhile, Graham Ambrose at The Boston Globe, having been provided with the Boston Book Festival’s emails by Dawn, decided to go ahead and write an article about it. He reached out to Sonya for comment. She spoke with him on the record, but also planned to send an essay, which she was under the impression that The Globe would be obligated to include in the story. In the essay, she defended her right to artistic freedom, and framed her story and what Dawn was doing about it within a White Savior narrative. She sent it to the Chunky Monkeys to get their feedback.

“It seems quite clear that DFD [short for Dawn Fucking Dorland] and this Globe reporter are working in cahoots,” Sonya told her writing group. She attached her essay, which was not present in the court documents. Almost immediately, the messages of support poured in from her friends. They agreed that the essay was brilliant, but some suggested it was too long. There was too much analysis, and not enough of a concise, clear denial of plagiarism.

“Generally, I think it behooves you to say as little as possible,” wrote Christopher Castellani, the artistic director of GrubStreet, “but I also understand the reason behind wanting to write this. And I can’t wait to write my own response if this ever gets out into the world. My mission in life is going to be to exact revenge on this pestilence of a person.”

“I’m not sure how your lawyer represented it to you,” Calvin Hennick replied, “but the Globe is in no way obligated to include this full statement in their story. They’re going to pick what they want, and because of that, I’d give them a lot less to choose from—and to make basically every sentence say in some way ‘This story is fiction, and is not plagiarized from Dawn Dorland’s anything.’”

The Boston Globe published the article on July 26th, and framed the accusations of plagiarism and/or copyright infringement the way that the Boston Book Festival had to Sonya: plausible, possibly actionable, but up for debate.

But by an odd coincidence, the article came out on the same day as another story about a publishing controversy, a Los Angeles Times feature about alleged lit world grifter Anna March. The story about Dawn, Sonya, and the fictionalized kidney donation went unnoticed by the literary media and on Twitter.

“LOFUCKINGL at the thud with which this article has landed,” Calvin wrote in the Chunky Monkey group email.

Chris Castellani, who had vowed revenge on Dawn, wrote:

“It is taking every ounce of strength I have not to post on DFD’s wall, ‘I just saw the article and I want to say how sorry I am. You must feel so embarrassed and ashamed that the Globe chose to write about your petty behavior. I remember you once showed some promise back when you were taking classes at Grub. That your Facebook posts from 6 years ago now constitute the bulk of your creative work, and you’re going to such pains to protect them from inspiring infinitely better writers, must make it hard for you to get out of bed in the morning. Courage, DFD! It may not be too late to get a job with the postal service or the North American Midway.”

Chip Cheek shared an anecdote about running into Dawn at a baby music class recently in Los Angeles.

“She was her old charming, sunny self,” he said. “[…] we exchanged numbers and (within an hour) she texted me lots of stuff about LA real estate and how she wanted us over for dinner and that she could introduce us to other parents of young children—etc., etc.—as if she had read our minds and understood exactly what we lack in life right now (i.e. friends, good real estate advice), and Katie and I were like, ‘Fuck, can we just use her to meet people??’”

But in an earlier email, Sonya had warned against attacking Dawn.

“In terms of any response,” she had written, “I really don’t want any of us to start trashing Dawn personally. (Not that I think you would, but it seems important to emphasize.) My statement is aimed at defending myself and not attacking her. And with legal stuff still pending, I don’t want any Chunk to get accused of defamation or slander.”

Then in August, Dawn found yet another place where “The Kindest” had been published, by Brilliance audio. This time the donor letter in the story was even closer to her original. The Boston Globe decided to write a second story. Before it was published, Sonya tried to coordinate with her audio publishers about what to say. Her editor, Yael Goldstein, asked Sonya to clarify what had happened with Dawn since the time she had learned that Sonya wrote a story about a kidney donation, before speaking to the newspaper.

“Was it that Dawn emerged from the mist with her accusations?” Yael asked.

“Dawn contacted me on 6.30.16, to say that she’d learned that I had written a story about a kidney donation, and was very angry about it,” Sonya texted. “She seemed to think that she had some ownership over the topic of kidney donation. And that made me think, ‘Hmm. I wonder if there’s placeholder text still in there that I should change.’ It made me realize that she is very obsessive.”

“PLEASE don’t tell him any of this,” Sonya added, meaning The Boston Globe reporter.

This second story did not go viral, either, but the bad press and legal pressure had reached a tipping point. On August 13th, the same day that the story dropped, Deborah Porter of the Boston Book Festival wrote to Sonya with the bad news.

“I am sorry to say that Norah and I have made the decision to cancel One City One Story this year,” she wrote. She said that Dawn’s lawyer had come back and wanted to change a previously approved acknowledgement that the festival had agreed to include with the story. They could not spend any more resources or risk future law suits. They did not see a way forward.

Less than three hours later, Jennifer De Leon, one of the Chunky Monkeys and a board member at GrubStreet, emailed Debbie and Norah to express “sincere shock (and disappointment and sadness and frankly, anger)” at the cancellation of One City One Story, and urged them to reconsider on Sonya’s behalf.

“This issue is so much bigger than Dawn vs. Sonya,” she wrote. “It’s about the white savior narrative taking over the mic, the pen, what have you, and once again, taking over the page. Please help change the script. For all of us.”

But her attempt to go to bat for Sonya had backfired.

“I am wondering what gives you the right to be angry about our decision?” Deborah replied. “That story should never have been submitted to us in the first place as it carried a threat of lawsuit from the get-go and about which we knew nothing. Sonya Larson withheld that information from us. If we had known, we would not have chosen her story. In retrospect, once the plagiarism claim was made, we should have picked a different story.” She stressed that the festival was now out some $13,000, with no hope of reimbursement.

Half an hour later, Deborah sent an additional email to Sonya, with the subject line “Cease and Desist.”

“Please ask your friends to stop writing to us on your behalf,” Deborah wrote. “Our decision is final. Just in case no one has said this to you, you should never have submitted a story to us that had a plagiarism claim against it and then continued to withhold that information from us when we picked the story. It seems to me that we have grounds to sue you for reimbursement of the $10,000 we have sunk into printing ‘The Kindest’ plus legal fees.”

On August 31st, Dawn resigned from her position as an instructor at GrubStreet.

In her reply, Eve Bridburg cc’ed both Alison Murphy, who had once promised Sonya that they would “ice out” Dawn if she made a fuss about the kidney story, and Chris Castellani, who had said just a month before that his “mission in life” was going to be to “exact revenge on this pestilence of a person,” meaning Dawn.

“Please know that we spent many hours investigating your claims, treating them very seriously, and protecting your privacy,” Eve wrote.

Dawn contacted The Boston Globe once again, to see if they would be interested in a larger story about GrubStreet’s inadequate response to a workplace complaint and her subsequent resignation. But The Globe decided to pass.

Now Dawn’s lawyers were seeking reimbursement of legal fees to the tune of $15,000, and threatening higher if Sonya and her lawyer did not enter into a good faith negotiation to reach an agreement. But Sonya was not willing to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever, even by accident, despite the stern words from the Boston Book Festival, in turn accusing Dawn of being the sole cause of the conflict.

Things began to spiral from there.

Over the following months and years, Dawn would try to reach out to people in the writing and publishing world to tell her side of things. She tried again to complain to GrubStreet higher ups about her treatment by GrubStreet employees while she was also employed there, saying that Sonya had created a hostile work environment, but her attempts went nowhere.

“Respectfully, after a thorough investigation, we consider this matter closed,” Eve wrote to Dawn in January 2019. “We will not be engaging in further communication on this front.”

In December of 2018, Dawn herself sent an email to Sonya’s new lawyer, Andrew Epstein, indicating that she intended to sue. But in January of 2019, it was Sonya who finally sued Dawn first—as well as her legal team, Cohen Law Group, under Rule 11 sanctions—as James Gregorio had threatened to do back in July. Dawn later countersued for legal fees.

Because Sonya was now officially suing Dawn for defamation, all of Sonya’s correspondence over text, Slack channel, and email suddenly became discoverable information, since it was now on Sonya to prove that she had not plagiarized Dawn’s letter or infringed on her legal copyright, in order for her suit to have merit. Although Dawn had gone to the trouble to officially register a copyright for her letter, all letters are in fact automatically protected by copyright law, with the rights belonging to the letter’s author. The most famous case having to do with this is probably Salinger v. Random House.

After much delay, and much back and forth between the lawyers, with the fees for both sides only mounting in the meantime, the discovery documents began to trickle out.

There was a viral New York Times story, followed by extremely intense online bullying of first Dawn and then, as the court documents started to make their way onto Twitter in the form of out-of-context screenshots, Sonya and Celeste Ng. Related stories came out in nearly every publication one could think of, from the new Gawker to Vanity Fair. “The Kindest” received a negative review in The New Yorker, which said bluntly “the prose is bad.” Think pieces claimed the Bad Art Friend saga was about privacy, social media, plagiarism, creative freedom, mental illness, class, race, you name it. Steve Almond, formerly of the Dear Sugars podcast (whom Dawn had reached out to), and a GrubStreet board member, wrote an article for WBUR calling Dawn a narcissist but saying the conflict was the fault of the patriarchy. Becky Tuch, one of the Chunky Monkeys, left the group and officially apologized to Dawn in a Twitter thread, asking for some sort of internal review of the events at GrubStreet.

“Dawn is a kind person who became a scapegoat for reasons I'm still working to understand,” Becky tweeted.

And here we are now.

I haven’t included every single snipe, every twist and turn in the texts and emails, but I’ve tried to give a fair representation of what went down. If I’ve messed up or missed something that you think is important, please let me know. If you want, you can look through the documents yourself which can be found here. (You’ll want Larson v. Perry documents 1, 16, 21, 25, 26, 29, 30, 31, 34, 45, 49, 52, 55, 56, 59, 75, 77, 78, 82, 84, 85, 86, 89, 96, 99, 104, 107, 110, 112, 118, 120, 121, 124, 128, and 151.)

So who is the Bad Art Friend? And was “The Kindest” worth it? Is it any good? Was Dawn really all that annoying, or did she just have the misfortune of acting like Ned Flanders while looking like a J Crew model? Was she actually bragging about her altruism, or was she simply an activist for a good cause? Was there something else in Sonya’s story that set Dawn off besides the copied letter? Was Dawn herself insensitive about race? Did she behave like a White Savior when she donated her kidney, or when she objected to Sonya’s use of her letter, or elsewhere? Did she deserve what happened to her? Did Sonya’s use of Dawn’s letter in a short story constitute plagiarism or copyright infringement? Did Sonya deserve what happened to her? Were Sonya and her friends cruel? Did Sonya end up being victimized? Was any of this, in some way, gendered or sexist? What the hell is going on at GrubStreet? Is this really a case of workplace harassment dressed up as a literary cat fight between two women? What do we owe each other as human beings, be we friends, acquaintances, strangers or enemies, when we place each other inside our art?

Was any of it preventable, and by whom?

As this post has once again gotten far, far too long, I’ll have to tackle all that in a later installment. In the meantime, I have to get back to my real work.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Regardless of what happened in this particular conflict, Asian American writers and other writers of Asian descent do face many unfair challenges and obstacles in the publishing world. One way that you can help is by supporting the Asian American Writer’s Workshop. They have launched a campaign on Kindful to raise $75,000 to help support their next thirty years of service, working to empower and amplify marginalized voices. Please consider donating today.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this post accidentally referred to the Boston Book Festival as the BFF instead of the BBF. I regret the typo. It also previously stated that Whitney Scharer had sold her novel The Age of Light in early 2018. It was sold in September 2017. I regret the error.