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Kristen Roupenian, the author of Cat Person, a viral 2017 short story in the New Yorker.Elisa Roupenian Toha

A blank canvas and the command to “Let your imagination run wild!” is what non-artists imagine to be an artist’s dream scenario. For some, no doubt, it is. And yet there are plenty who’ll admit to the panic such an open assignment induces. Pushing the limits of form – the still life or sonnet, say – is a far more doable proposition than smashing it up entirely. Creation ex nihilo is, for the most part, more myth than reality.

While in literature the art is often more in the telling than in the tale, writers still need fodder (or, crassly put, “content”) to spin their magic. The most accessible source is one’s own life, but that supply being expendable, borrowing soon becomes necessary. Alas, sometimes in the course of that pilfering, feelings get hurt. In Alison MacLeod’s new novel, Tenderness, it takes three generations before the Meynell family – who housed D.H. Lawrence during some very lean years – recover from his withering portrayal of them in his short story England, My England. (In Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place, “L,” an artist character based on Lawrence, proves a similarly boorish houseguest who insults his host in the opposite way – by not including her in his art.)

The question of who has the right to tell whose stories has boomeranged back into the zeitgeist of late thanks to a series of essays that amount to the appropriation debate writ personal. In an April essay in Slate, Alexis Nowicki described her discombobulation at reading Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 short story in The New Yorker, about a hookup gone awry between a female college student and an older man. The two characters shared a number of uncanny personal traits – a tattoo, workplace, hometown – with Nowicki and a man she’d dated a few years previously; the main difference was that Nowicki’s relationship hadn’t been slimily toxic. Not knowing Roupenian personally, she chalked it up to coincidence. It was only in the wake of her ex’s untimely death that Nowicki learned he had known Roupenian – something the writer would later contritely confirm herself.

In her 2019 essay Who Owns A Story, The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman wrote, in a similar vein, about the shock of recognizing herself in the pages of a book she’d been assigned to review for The New York Times. The novel, by Louisa Hall, seemed to appropriate aspects of her life involving her and her real-life twin’s shared struggle with anorexia. In this case, though, there was a clear, plausible link: Hall acknowledged having read a personal essay Waldman had written about her anorexia a few years before. Waldman had also reviewed Hall’s previous novel (favourably). In Hall’s new novel, the character Waldman took to be herself “ends up a desiccated, unlovable, insect-like creature,” and in The New Yorker essay she explains how her feelings about this pivoted from basic questions about appropriation to a more metaphysical position. “Is moving someone down the existence scale from ‘human person’ to ‘character’ anything like murder?” she writes. “Is moving someone up the scale anything like art?”

Dawn Dorland, the subject of journalist Robert Kolker’s lengthy recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, would no doubt pick the former. “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” – which caused a conflagration on Twitter and spawned a flood of thinkpieces within hours of its publication – details how an ostensible friendship devolved into legal and social media mudslinging after Dorland accused a fellow member of a Boston writers’ group, Sonya Larson (whom she considered a close friend), of harvesting her life for art.

“Harvesting” is germane here because the story, The Kindest, concerns a woman who donates a kidney to a stranger – which Dorland had done. And she wouldn’t, one imagines, have taken issue with the portrayal had “her” character not been presented as a needy, grandstanding narcissist suffering from “white saviour” complex (Larson is middle-class and Asian-American; Dorland white and Harvard-educated, but was raised in rural poverty and had an abusive childhood).

When Dorland first confronted her erstwhile pal about the story, Larson acted as if she were only vaguely aware of Dorland’s kidney donation. When that position became untenable, she switched tactics and admonished Dorland for being a “bad art friend” – the implication being that a good art friend would willingly sacrifice her reputation at literature’s high altar. Larson’s story had been published in a magazine and selected for a Boston book festival that planned to distribute 30,000 copies of it. Messy legal volleying ensued. Larson cited defamation. Dorland charged plagiarism, given that Larson had reproduced, nearly verbatim, parts of a Facebook post in which Dorland had cringingly extolled her own renal largesse.

Plagiarism aside, the rules The Kindest broke weren’t so much legal or creative, but social – which made its title more than a little ironic. It struck many people as the weaponization of fiction, akin to Philip Roth skewering ex-wife Claire Bloom in Deception (among other works). Larson knew Dorland would read her story, and by doing so little to disguise her as its “inspiration” – at minimum she could surely have picked another organ – she was effectively landing a double blow: signalling to Dorland that her behaviour was unseemly, but also that she wasn’t, despite Larson’s previous reassurances to the contrary, a friend. Nice writers, after all, wait for their friends and relatives to die before skewering them in their fiction.

Uglier still were texts and e-mails that surfaced between Larson and the other members of the writers’ group, who’d all rallied behind her, in which they expressed their collective glee at the taking down of the uncouth organ-peddler in their midst. Their catty language, decidedly unliterary, reads less like the minutes of a Bloomsbury Group confab than an outtake from the movie Heathers. As with any trade, fiction writing has its sausage-making aspects, but this was more like a high-school field trip to a hot-dog plant.

How to make the issue of narrative appropriation even more uncomfortable? You could start by dragging it into the familial realm. In This Story Is Mine, published last year in the Literary Review of Canada, Cecily Ross relates the terrible story of her rape by a man her father’s age when she wasn’t quite a teenager, in 1964. Years previously, Ross had channelled her trauma into a novel, but hadn’t published it. She’d also shared her story with her two daughters, one of whom is the journalist and novelist Leah McLaren, who had also read the unpublished novel.

So why was Ross writing about this life-defining event in the pages of the Review? It turns out McLaren had announced to her mother that she’d signed a book deal – a story in which she would relate Ross’s story, albeit through the prism of her own life. This Ross took as a betrayal – having already asked her daughter to abstain – and a ruthless one at that: “She saw my experience as great material, even as a chance for us to connect. I saw it as the appropriation of my story – a story that, if it is to be told at all, should be told by me,” Ross writes.

The essay was thus, in part, an attempt by Ross to beat McLaren to the punch, and she ends it on a defiant note: “This story, this one, is mine.” Will she try to block McLaren’s book? She doesn’t say, but it seems a safe bet that a happy family gathering wasn’t in the cards that holiday season, COVID restrictions or not.

Will these pieces serve as cautionary tales for future writers? Hardly. Bridges are always going to get burned for the sake of stories, good and bad. And yet when William Hazlitt said of prose that “every word should be a blow,” he presumably meant to the senses, not the ego. For anyone wanting to cast their best friend in their next novel and remain friends, then, the best advice might be this: If you can’t write something nice, don’t write anything at all.

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