For Sale: Kidney Story. Never Authorized.

What material is acceptable to "steal" for literature? And how much does it need to be changed?

By now you’ve probably read the Kidney Person saga or at least some of the one million tweets about it. As a story, the article is well written and full of wild and gossipy tidbits. It’s also perhaps a bit ethically sketchy in parts—personally I wouldn’t have included mean private text messages from writers who weren’t Dorland or Larson (the right to snark in private should be sacred!) yet maybe that’s why I’m not a journalist—but it’s definitely worth a read. It’s also pretty wild how much other big writing world news it overshadowed

The internet has spent plenty of time debating the various issues brought up by the the whole affair. Some of these debates are interesting or important like the litigiousness of American society, the etiquette of “friendship” in the social media age, or the sketchy nature of the creative writing industrial complex. This thread from Helen Rosner about “the tension between writers who define themselves via their writing, and writers who define themselves via "being a writer” was spot on.

Other debates were, in the way of The Discourse, just bizarre. I saw one claim that the real problem with the story was that the recipient of the kidney had been “erased” from the NYT story (as if he would want to be brought into this mess?!).

Mostly I’m thankful that I’ve never met any of the people involved so can just watch from afar. But there are some angles that interest me in terms of this newsletter. Mainly questions of what motives one needs for art and what are the ethical boundaries of appropriating real world material. Although before even jumping into those I have to note one thing:

There’s something both strange and telling about the entire internet debating the ethics of a story they haven’t read. The story itself isn’t available online (unless you purchase an anthology), but even if it was most people wouldn’t read it because… most people don’t read short stories. As a story writer I certainly wish that wasn’t the case, but c’est la vie.

The real gut punch of the entire article for me wasn’t any of the gossip or drama. It was the note from Larson’s attorney that her grand total earnings from the short story were $425 dollars. All these lawsuits and all this drama over something that basically no one read? Hard not to be a little depressed by that fact as a fiction writer, or the fact that the NYT article is more likely to be optioned for a movie than the stories of either writers.

Still, putting all the drama aside there were some things that stood out to me in the discourse.

Artists Aren’t Only Inspired by Hope and Love

Many of the people who sided with Dorland in the story seemed to do so because they thought Larson and her friends were “mean girls” and that whole motivation of the story was spite. This seems right! It’s clear that Larson and her friends found Dorland insufferable and that Larson wrote the story in large part to (fictionally) rag on someone she didn’t like. But what’s shocking is that people find this shocking.

There are so many celebrated works of art that were made from spite. Hell, people regularly tweet things about how spite is their main motivation for creating art. And that’s fine. Art is all about taking ones emotions, whatever they are, and turning them into aesthetic works.

The implication from some that art can only be good if it is created out of pure and noble motives is very strange to me. It’s also an impossible standard, since one’s artistic motivations can never be fully known even to oneself. But I can promise you there are no artists whose inspirations and motives are always pure. We’re artists, not fantasy paladins. Whether the final product is valuable or ethical is another question of course….

Artists Always Steal from Real Life

Perhaps the weirdest thing for me was seeing people—even some published authors!—claim that fiction is about pure invention and you should never steal quotes or ideas or events from real life. I can’t imagine there are any authors who don’t borrow elements from their real life, whether it’s overheard dialogue, news stories, anecdotes from friends, or things posted on social media. Maybe it’s only tiny bits of life, but they are there.

The shock that artists might take from real life feels especially bizarre in the current era when “autofiction” has been the most buzzed about trend in literature for at least a decade. But autobiographical fiction dates back to the dawn of the novel, and even writers who don’t write about real life still draw from it. My novel is a science fiction noir set in a future NYC filled with bizarre technology and genetically engineered lifeforms… but there are certainly still bits of dialogue and moments taken from my own life.

How can you not borrow from real life? Our imaginations don’t exist in a void unrelated to our perceptions. You might as well ask authors to each invent their own language to never say something anyone else has ever said…

In this particular case, it also seems relevant that Larson was made part of this story by Dorland bringing up her donation in emails and in person. At that point, the story isn’t merely Dorland’s. It’s Larson’s too to some degree.

Now the more interesting question is how much you can take from real life and how much should you distort it.

What Is Legal and Ethical to Borrow and How Much Should It Be Changed?

Here though is the real rub. If we acknowledge that authors have all sorts of motivations and always borrow—to some extent—from life, there’s still the question of how much we should (legally and ethically) distort the material in art.

The legal question is complicated. There is no clear standard for what exactly can be “plagiarized” from real life for a work of art. It’s subjective, even in courts. My personal feeling is that Larson was legally in the right here. The mere act of taking a short Facebook post and putting it in the context of a short story has transformed the material into something else. At least in the later drafts where more was changed. (The whole issue is complicated by the various drafts out there.) It feels like “fair use” even if extremely mean to do. But ultimately the legal question will depend on the particular judge’s individual feelings.

Still, legality aside what Larson did was bad form ethically. Not “sue you and ruin your life” bad form, but bad form. Larson should have changed the work more. There’s no reason that the actual text quoted couldn’t have been tweaked and twisted and there’s also no reason some of the other details of the character couldn’t have been obscured. Nothing would have been lost by, say, having the character donate a liver lobe or part of the pancreas or eggs. It certainly seems like Larson wanted Dorland to know the story was about her.

There was a similar scandal recently with the viral story “Cat Person,” where the author had borrowed a bit too closely from real life. In that case, I feel a lot of sympathy for Roupenian as the details were taken from someone the author didn’t know and anyway who could have predicted the story would be come the most viral short story of recent history? Larson must have known that Dorland would find out about the story at some point, while Roupenian likely thought Nowicki never would. Still, it’s best practice (IMHO) to make sure to distort enough that someone can’t recognize.

When I steal from life, it’s because I find interesting energy in certain actions, phrases, or events. But those can always be recontextualized. Always reconfigured. If I base a character in part on someone, I always change details—job, gender, ethnicity, age, etc.—both so that IRL person doesn’t become offended and so that the character or event feels like mine.

Certainly if you don’t make those changes, you can’t be surprised when the person finds out and is pissed as hell!

So that’s my advice. Steal all you can from life. Take anything interesting you find. But do the creative work to tweak it, twist it, and make it yours. Especially if it’s taken from someone you know. You might have the artistic right not to change details, but you might face the consequences if you don’t.

If you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my just-released novel The Body Scout. The New York Times called it “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared it “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”