Great Artists Steal

That may make them shitty friends, but nothing more.

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Gretchen Felker-Martin
Ethics in Fiction

James Joyce never went back to Dublin. The author of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake wrote both novels in self-imposed exile, and both books endured such extensive censorship by the Catholic Church that they were effectively banned in his native Ireland for well over half a century. Joyce kept his distance out of disgust at the theocratic prudery and nationalism which reigned in the Ireland of his day, but it seems reasonable to deduce that his lifelong refusal to return to the city of his birth, the city in which every one of his major works was set, had at least a little something to do with all the people he’d pissed off by slipping them into his work.

A century later, we’re still recapitulating different permutations of that relationship. Just this summer the writer Alexis Nowicki published a lengthy piece in Slate about how Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story Cat Person reflected intimate details of her personal life. Last week, Twitter tore itself apart debating the moral and ethical minutiae described in a New York Times Magazine article called “Who Is the Bad Art Friend,” in which a writer of color used a white writer’s kidney donation as fodder for a short story.

But what responsibility does a fiction writer have to the real things and people that inspire them? What are the moral dimensions of the different types of borrowing from reality which make up a vast percentage of all fiction? Copyright law provides one framework for viewing the issue, but as an outgrowth of the carceral justice system it biases all analysis toward the protection of private property in an increasing profusion of different forms. Is a Facebook post proprietary? Can you copyright a conversation, or a real person’s appearance, or the way the porch of your apartment looks at night?

Every author takes from life. Many of Marcel Proust’s characters were heavily inspired by his lovers. Dante wrote his living political and artistic enemies into The Inferno in less than flattering light. Joyce wrote unsparingly about his actual neighbors, and in April Daniels’s Nemesis series of superhero novels the most outrageously over-the-top screeds on gender and biology voiced by the books’ TERF villains are drawn straight from their real-life counterparts. Most authors change a few details, swap out names and cities. Others don’t. “I’ve asked myself why [Kristen] Roupenian might have chosen not to change even a few key details,” Nowicki wrote in Slate, discussing the long process by which she attempted to make sense of the way Roupenian mined her life for details during the writing of “Cat Person.” Nowicki expressed anger and frustration, as well as sympathy for Roupenian’s position: the author was an MFA student whose work suddenly and unexpectedly exploded onto the national stage, placing her square in the gaze of a difficult and noisy audience.

Many writers who portray real people and events in an unflattering light receive some kind of pushback. Joyce’s soured relationship with Ireland, Dante’s strained relations with the Florentine power blocs known as the Black and White Guelphs — and while no formal system of judgment governs such matters, it seems common sense that the price for writing something unflattering about a real person is that said person may get angry about it, become alienated from you, and push back with their own writing and public declarations. One imagines that a man like Joyce understood the bargain he was making. If one wished to sum it up in more colloquial terms, “talk shit, get hit” seems to cover the matter. So, accepting that the inclusion of real people in fiction may provoke strong feelings in the parties so included, is the writer then bound to address those feelings? In a word, no. In two, fuck no.

The reappearance of reality in the funhouse mirror of fiction is by definition an inevitability. What does any writer have to draw on for their work but their own experience of living? Consider Oscar Wilde’s lover John Gray, who long after Wilde’s death still resolutely denied that he had served as the inspiration for the story’s titular portrait subject. Consider the lifting of Soup Kitchen International restaurateur Al Yeganeh’s persona for the famous “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld — Yeganeh is rumored to have shouted profanity at Seinfeld and members of his crew after the episode’s airing. When ultra-rich newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst learned of Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane, inspired in part by his life and persona, he set to work trying to ban and discredit it, claiming it defamed his good name (ironically, Welles credited Hearst’s outrage in part for Kane’s popularity).

The economic and cultural dynamic is radically different in the case of “The Bad Art Friend.” The story centers on a writer named Dawn Dorland, who donated a kidney to a random person and created a Facebook group to talk about it. One person she invited to the group, a writer named Sonya Larson, eventually authored a short story based on Dawn’s online missives. When it turned out Larson had more or less plagiarized one of Dorlan’s posts, she called Larson’s professional connections to demand they keep the short story away from festivals and publishers. Larson sued for tortious interference, Dorland counter-sued, and matters spiraled from there.

The controversy has further exposed a long-running thread in contemporary art discourse: widespread illiteracy surrounding the common practices of fiction writing. To my mind “The Bad Art Friend” is a clear case of Larson being kind of a jerk who didn’t do her due diligence in adapting reality to fiction, and Dorland being a narcissistic nightmare — as though no one in the history of art had ever lifted something more or less wholesale from the public or public-adjacent sphere.

Armchair adjudicators can bleat all they want about copyright law and plagiarism, but part of art has always had a smash-and-grab approach to real people and events. If real connections — whether mutual friendships or a combination of irritable appeasement and parasocial attachment like Dorland’s and Larson’s — suffer in the process, that’s part of art’s potential cost. Push the world, the world pushes back, and all of a sudden you can never go back to Dublin.

Some writers are scrupulous about asking for permission from the people who inspire them; others just blur the details. Ultimately these issues are for the artist and their subjects and sources to handle between them. Resorting to the law only serves to further empower and legitimize a system which has no interest in the rights of the marginalized, and the court of public opinion lacks all ability to process nuance. With each new furor over the artist’s supposed obligations to the things that inspire them, onlookers pour more conflicting emotion and incoherent moralizing onto fundamentally personal issues. There is no scenario in which the publication of a short story for which a writer made less than $500 (Larson made $435 for the story) justifies attempted career sabotage and a protracted legal battle, no matter how rude its author was in snatching a few personal details or semi-public lines of correspondence from one’s life.

The editorial sensibilities behind the two articles seem intimately related. Publish the dirty details of an unscheduled, unregulated fight between complicated human beings — providing none of the tools or cultural context people might make use to understand such a conflict — and then sit back and watch the clicks roll in, watch the crucible of Twitter render whatever it is down into a molten, bubbling lump of the stupidest and most hateful knee-jerk perspectives imaginable. And for what? The fundamental work of the artist will always be to interpret the world around them, to pick things up and turn them over, examine them as Larson does’ — which is surprisingly generous to its Dawn-inspired character — in new light and different contexts.

The artist’s business is also in keeping with the thief’s: to spot what is valuable and then to bring it by skill and planning where it might be moreso. How many millions of books contain conversations lifted in part or in whole from their authors’ lives? How many hateful, despicable tightwads and sneering movie villains are just thinly-veiled reinterpretations of a screenwriter’s parent, or ex, or high school bully? How many loving caresses written and filmed were born as daydreams about secret loves? Should an artist cover their tracks as a matter of both professionalism and common courtesy? Yes. If they don’t, should they be subject to legal penalties? Don’t be absurd. No, the cost of stealing poorly is that people know you did so. Easy enough to see the kind of bad will that can bring. Of course, there’s the famous adage: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” I would add that the very best artists are those smart enough not to get caught.