In October of 2021, The New York Times published a long article called ‘Who Is The Bad Art Friend?’, a story of kidney donations, poetic license, and vicious authors falling over one another to write damning words about those they publicly called their friends. Within hours of it hitting the internet, it had become the story of the day. And then the day after that. And then the day after that.

The thrust of ‘Who Is The Bad Art Friend?’ is simple. Seven years ago, an aspiring author named Dawn Dorland donated a kidney, a selfless act motivated – at least on first glance – by pure charity. Rather than let this act remain anonymous, Dorland instead posted about it frequently across the internet, particularly in a digital writer’s group she was part of. One of the members of that group, Sonya Larson, began murmuring to other authors about what she saw as Dorland’s shameless desire for attention, turning Dorland and her donation into a particularly damning punchline.  

But rather than keep her takedowns to private messages, Larson wrote a not-so-veiled short fiction story about Dorland and her perceived bent towards self-celebration. Titled ‘The Kindest’, the story draws heavily on Dorland’s life, and turns her into a warped and twisted version of herself; too arrogant and self-involved to behave in a genuinely charitable way, motivated only by pride and sickening grandiosity. Flash forward a few years, and Dorland had launched legal action against Larson over the story, a protracted battle that serves as the climax for ‘Who Is The Bad Art Friend?’

There is a good reason that the fallout between the two writers so firmly captured the attention of the internet. It’s not just the tone of ‘Who Is The Bad Art Friend?’, the writing is unabashedly gossipy, filled with back-and-forths between Larson and Dorland that are laced with enough invective to make your toes curl. It’s that the story provided an opportunity for the internet to agonize over a very old argument, given new life in the era of streaming and a fixation on true crime: who has the right to tell another’s story? 

This Is Your Life

We tend to believe that we are the authors of our own life story – that we have an essential and inalienable hold over our own narratives. There is nothing, so one cultural myth goes, as sacrosanct and personal as our identity. 

As such, those who adopt this view on identity consider the act of turning another human being’s life into art to be one steeped in ethical conundrums: an issue of consent and privacy, where the wishes of the subject must be valued over the artistic decisions of the author.

These are the people who took Dorland’s side in the ‘Who Is The Bad Art Friend?’ argument. They are also the people who have a bone to pick with the recent glut of “ripped from the headlines” media content, from Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, a fictionalised version of the media fallout after the release of Pamela Anderson’s sex tape, to Inventing Anna, a series following the rise and fall of Anna Delvey (real name Sorokin), a socialite who scammed her way through America’s upper class. 

In each of these cases, a real-life story – with, in many cases, real-life victims – has been shaped into fiction, often without the subject’s consent.

Anderson herself pushed against Pam & Tommy being made, while Sorokin wrote an angry letter about the series from her jail cell. 

Inventing Anna, 2022, Netflix

But to believe that you and only you can tell your own story is to believe in a shaky foundational premise. Such an argument rests on the idea that each of us is hermetically sealed away from the world, and hold important and relevant insight into ourselves that no others hold. 

It is the case that we know certain things about our lives that others do not. But we are embedded in a web of social relations, and in the imaginations and minds of all those we encounter. We are not, in fact, the faultless experts on ourselves. Our personality, such as it is, is shaped and tested in the minds of those who receive us. The delineations between “my story” and “your story” or “our story” are shakier than it might first appear. We are constructed by the world, not sat in opposition to it. 

Pam and Tommy, 2022, Hulu

Why This Argument? Why Now?

People’s sacrosanct belief in the importance of their own personal identity – treated as though our narratives about ourselves are delicate pieces of crystal we hold close to our chests, too fragile to let anyone else hold, is tied to a growing retreat from structural and systemic issues, and an embracing of personal ones. The ultimate social currency is often not based in the story of many, but the story of one. “I am me, and nobody else could be me, and for that reason, nobody else could tell my story but me.”

On the whole, the creative scope of the streaming giants, particularly Netflix, and major Western movie studios, has changed tremendously, from the cultural to the individual. Adam Curtis, the documentarian, has pointed this out, bemoaning the fact that there are few artists looking to describe how life right now feels. In America, Australia and the UK in particular, mainstream creatives have limited desire to capture any experience that expands beyond very particular lived ones, that are presented as isolated, and unique. 

The theorist and philosopher Christopher Lasch covered this decades ago, in his groundbreaking work The Culture of Narcissism. He addressed what he saw as a tendency to go inwards: faced by a souring political climate, Lasch argued Americans had traded a hope for big change, with a fixation on smaller, more intimate and cosmetic shifts.  

It is no surprise then that, though arguments around the ethics of storytelling have been waging for decades, they have been given new poignancy by the frequency of creative projects that fixate on only one life, and the increasingly popular belief that we are alone, and lonely, and utterly unlike even those from our same cultural and class background.

The beauty of art is that it need never be blinkered in this way. I am not advocating for only one type of art, the cultural instead of the personal and I don’t believe that Curtis or Lasch are either. That’s one way of falling into precisely the artistic stalemate we find ourselves in. It’s not hopping from one mode of storytelling to another, it’s mixing the two, providing a rich, mainstream creative palette.   

In fact, the problem is a creative fixation, one that has begun to dominate swathes of cultural discourse and entertainment. A generation of storytellers have settled themselves into a rut, hashing the same old beats over and over, telling stories with the same foundational premise – we are not like each other. In turn, that means our questions about so much mainstream art are becoming repetitive, the discourses surrounding ‘Who Is The Bad Art Friend?’ and Pam & Tommy and Inventing Anna just familiar talking points shot weakly through with a desperate, failing dose of adrenaline.  

The question, asked over and over again, is: “Who can tell my story?” But perhaps we should ask why we even consider it “my” story in the first place.