bad art friend: the case for normalising consent in literary works

Image: Pablo Decan, New York Times. Used as reference

The Question:

Who is the bad art friend? The one who takes inspiration from your life and finds personal gain in it without informing you openly what they are doing? Or the one who doesn’t allow you to use your precious lived experience in order to let their mind wander to make art?

The easy answer is: all of these clauses are important. As an artist, extraction of others’ lives for your personal gain is already bad enough in terms of creative ethics, worse if you are not being transparent in what you are affects another person. So too is holding your life so precious that no one can play with a notion of it. If two artists who have both learned how to make fiction together cannot find accord in the presence of one’s work in another’s, that’s a communication problem, something that comes from a place of defensiveness, not openness.

The Context:

This piece is a response to an article that appeared in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. The article discusses how one writer used the text of another writer’s facebook post as the basis and wording for a short story that gained great publicity. If you haven’t read the article, a summary follows for context, but I highly recommend reading the full piece at some point.

(In short: Dawn Dorland writes a post about her kidney donation in a private writing group on Facebook, and finds echoes of this in a short story written by her co-writer and friend, Sonia Larsson. Sonia has used the kidney donation character in a story that explores different cultural layers to make a point of the white saviour complex, but it bothers Dawn that in private conversations between the two of them, Sonia has refused to even acknowledge her friend’s kidney donation. When Dawn brings this up, Sonia makes the point that all art comes from real life but ultimately, Dawn sues Sonia for using her personal life in a story that wins Sonia competitions. The question the New York Times article explores is: Who is in the right in this complex, nuanced case?)

Part 1: Consent for personal gain

This is my thesis: if an artist takes a piece of someone’s life to make art from it, I believe the subject deserves both to know and be asked for permission to be represented in a piece of art. No matter whether the purpose of that art is greater than the inspiration, no matter whether the subject whose lived experience was borrowed from is not the point of that story in the end, or whether their experience is going to be transformed. Even if the author’s argument is that all fiction is derivative or that the person they are going to represent is part of the problem (or just an annoying human being), it is worth letting the subject know: ‘Hey, I based a character off your social media representation of your kidney donation, and used her in a short story to make a point about the white saviour complex, among other things. That’s not necessarily what I think of you, but it’s the character I wrote. I hope it’s okay with you that I send this out into the world. If you would like to read it, I would be happy to share a draft with you.’

Even in fiction, where characters are formed to such a large degree from flashes of real people in authors’ lives, people “turned upside down”, as the original article says, to shake out all their insecurities and fears, imaginary lines drawn to the orbital rings of their dreams, it is worth considering the ethical implications of bringing work based on someone’s lived experience as a filter without which work cannot fairly go out into the world.

Maybe I feel this more strongly because I am a development economist, and having worked to collect field data on poverty, I have seen firsthand how communities are ravaged by survey teams just looking to ask questions and not come back with any solutions to their problems. It seems extractive to me to use a person’s story or pain without their knowledge or consent in order to reap benefits of your own without giving back. When Sonia took from Dawn’s kidney donation experience to craft a story that later won awards without so much as a “By the way…” or “That was brave” and “Do you mind if I use some part of your story to illustrate a greater point in my work?”, some part of that exchange feels unjust and deceitful to me.

My field requires the presence of consent forms before every field interview. Psychology does too. Medicine requires a signed and coherent understanding of all the risks in a particular treatment before taking it on. Movies and photography sold on stock image sites where the artist profits from their work require consent forms in order to show people’s faces. If any invasive, extractive, profit-making process requires this, why doesn’t writing? Writing takes a person’s innermost story and exposes it to the world through the lens of interpretation of an author’s words and feelings. The subject should have a say in whether they wish to open themselves up to that kind of scrutiny, shouldn’t they?

I acknowledge that I am part of the problem. A book of poetry I published last year has a thick section based on people I have dated and people I have left behind. I have in most cases left things vague or unidentifiable, and in these cases, I don’t think this is a problem, because no one is identifying the subject, perhaps even themselves. The work is strongly about me and how my lens on the world bends and amplifies over time than about placing a magnifying lens on anyone else.

But poetry is also about the details, and there are details. Talismans in relationships, moles in souls, loss in everyday objects, and the intangible, non-fungible steady love that roots the relationships that have worked in my life. These are all present at the very fore in my book, and for some of them, I was in a place with the person whom they are about to be able to ask them about it. For other more painful ones, it would have meant opening up lines of communication that were welded shut years ago to avoid exactly that.

So I own that perhaps we should make this a common practice. I say this from experience on both sides, being the writer and the person written about. I talk about this having experienced the particular sting of wondering whether a piece on the internet I sometimes go back to was really about a voyage or whether it was all code for our deteriorating relationship. I push for transparency and consent from the inner workings of a doubt about whether all the pain I carry in my writing and publish openly online is being read by the person who caused it.

If consent were a practice in published writing as it is in other conversations, it would force those who make art, especially incisive, florid, spew-it-all-out art (though when is art not that?) normalise having conversations with those to-be besmirched, deified, ransacked souls. At least, that’s one way it could go.

The other is that the more ethically bound of writers feel less able to be honest in their writing, and those that don’t care continue not to. And here, I make the distinction that I argue for consent in published writing, where the words we spew onto the page in a tumult of passion crawl out from being deep dark, scribblings to be burnt at our deaths to being little burnished starlings released en masse.

And what if you’re the literary subject in question? You don’t have to be involved in it after production. You don’t even have to publicly acknowledge that you were the source of inspiration or the spark for a conversation on social justice. You could do this if you wanted and it would give you the option to be a part of the story. But that’s not the point. The point is, whenever a writer is depicting a person’s pain or journey in a public way, they shouldn’t have to find out about it by reading and surmising about it. And if literature courses or writing groups stress so much on writing what you know and whom you know, as well as on the business of getting published, then part of that should center on informing and seeking consent from those explicitly detailed in your work. (Disclaimer: If this is a thing that already happens in literature courses, do let me know.)

Part 2: A precious life

The other part of this discussion, the Dawn Dorland part, is about holding your life so precious that no one can make art with it. It’s worth remembering that we live our lives in constant interpretation in other people’s eyes. We are not just what we do, but also how we are seen.

I think that in this context, a larger question is how we can learn to be at ease with other peoples’ perceptions of us and be sure in our own images of ourselves, in spite of the light cast on various aspects of it at any given point. Individually and collectively, we have to start making space for the entirety of people’s personalities, as well as for the fact that we all see things through the filters of our perception and their presentation. But if we can move towards being more sure that perceptions of things don’t change their true essence, then perhaps our souls can also be lighter about playing with these perceptions for ourselves. Think of it as your writer friend putting on a funky eyeliner or accent or superhero cape on some part of you, drawing out a long fictional storyline that everyone knows isn’t the whole truth.

The article mentions that Donna and Sonia were both part of the same writing group, where inevitably they learnt to take from real life and turn it into art. But as with any art, the act of that transposition changes the nature of the subject from truth to storytelling, and we should interpret it as such.

Conclusion: Same face, two sides

The Dorland-Larsson case is hardly easy to take sides on, so I would rather take the side of ethics. When writing about people and using their stories, there are things that writers can do to make the world of published writing more honest, transparent and consensual while also creating a space where subjects feel celebrated and honoured instead of excavated for someone else’s gain.

If you are a creator, your subject’s knowledge can even help your art become more layered and nuanced. The conversation bringing up your use can serve as a jumping off point to discuss their perspective, and that can pave the way to build a million branches of feeling in your work.

For those being represented in part or full in a work, knowing they are part of a work can be an opportunity to remember that art is one part of life, not the entire truth. That someone felt impressioned enough to make something inspired by you can be angering or touching or even uplifting, but it’s important to remember that you get to shape your own narrative. You know yourself best.

Being honest with another person when they are the explicit focus of your piece or vice versa is worth it. However that conversation goes, I vote we make honesty and transparency more of a consistent practice in mainstream published writing.

Question:

Did you read the Dorland-Larsson article? What do you think? Who would you side with?

Many thanks to Hannah Töpler for her keen eye on edits.