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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Plagiarizing in the artistic community

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Copy and Paste dialogue on a computer screen.Graphic by Mass Media Staff

If you recently logged onto Twitter, or whatever your social media of choice may be, there’s a good chance that you stumbled onto the phrase “Bad Art Friend”. Something with a name like that could have been about practically anything, but everyone talking about it seemed to be referring to very specific ideas. It all started when Boston-area writer Dawn Dorland donated a kidney to a stranger. She was bothered by her friend Sonya Larson’s silence on the topic. After discovering that Larson had written a short story about a woman who sold her kidney, she felt that her life had been plagiarized and reduced to how someone else viewed her actions. Larson stated that she had simply used Dorland’s kidney donation as an inspiration, but had created an entirely new character and situation from that (1).
This conflict eventually turned into a legal battle. When the New York Times recently published an article on the entire situation, people took to the internet—as they always seem to do—to leave their opinion on the subject. Was this plagiarism, or was Larson merely inspired by real-world events? Who was in the right here?
The article made sure to gather the opinions of their peers in Boston. Both of these writers went to the GrubStreet writing center and shared many of the same acquaintances. Overall, the writers—at least the ones mentioned in the article—seemed to back Larson up. Dorland, however, pointed to the fact that a letter in Larson’s story, titled “The Kindest”, was an almost word-for-word copy of a letter that she had written and publicly posted after donating her kidney. There isn’t a clear “gotcha” moment in this story that proves one person right and the other one wrong. This case doesn’t present any easy answers.
Strangely enough, this isn’t the first time an article has sparked discourse around plagiarism this year. Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” recently had attention put on it because of Alexis Nowicki’s claim that it was based on her. In an article she wrote for Slate, she discussed how her relationship with an older man was discovered by Roupenian and made into an acclaimed short story (2). In Nowicki’s case, more than just a letter was plagiarized. Specific events and circumstances were completely unchanged. The main character was from the same hometown as her and was dating a man with a matching description.
Nowicki says that it is the mistranslation of her life that truly bothers her. “What’s difficult about having your relationship rewritten and memorialized in the most viral short story of all time is the sensation that millions of people now know that relationship as described by a stranger,” she wrote in her previously mentioned article (2). It is clear that from the points of view of both Dawn Dorland and Alexis Nowicki, their lives were not merely inspirations for stories, but exploited and molded into something inauthentic. So, where was the line crossed?
The answer isn’t all that clear. For example, I’m sure a few people reading this don’t find one or both of the examples above to be plagiarism at all. That’s what makes this such a hot-button issue. There are simply no easy answers. If it helps, Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines plagiarism by saying it is “to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source” (3). A lot of students may be under the impression that plagiarism is word for word, but cases like this show how ideas and even lives can be plagiarized. If you’re unsure when you are creating, it’s probably best to listen to your heart.
1) https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/05/magazine/dorland-v-larson.html
2) https://slate.com/human-interest/2021/07/cat-person-kristen-roupenian-viral-story-about-me.html
3) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiarize

About the Contributor
Kyle Makkas, Humor Writer