‘Bad art friend’: should fiction writers ever lift stories from other people’s lives?

Great writers have always been inspired by friends and lovers, but a viral article has revived the moral arguments around muses. In the age of the internet, does using someone else’s story feel like a violation?

Name: The muse.

Age: Ancient.

Appearance: Let’s start with “complicated”.

Before we start, can I tell you something strange that happened to me recently? No, you can’t! Please don’t.

Why? Because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, will rip it off and pass it off as their own.

But it’s a good story. Stop it! Didn’t you read Who Is the Bad Art Friend? yesterday?

Bad What Friend? It’s the title of a punishingly long article in the New York Times that has set the world alight. It’s hard to sum up succinctly, but the story of Who Is the Bad Art Friend? is basically this: a woman donated her kidney to a stranger, and then a second woman wrote a story about donating a kidney to a stranger.

Right. And it all kicked off. Nobody comes out of it particularly well, but it begs the question: are writers allowed to mine the lives of others?

Yes. But isn’t there something vampiric about leeching off someone else’s experience?

James Gandolfini routinely called the writing staff of The Sopranos “vampires” for exactly that reason, and that was the best television series ever made. But isn’t there a line where things become creepy?

No. I mean, what about Cat Person?

Oh here we go, Cat Person again. At the time it was published, Kristen Roupenian’s short story was heralded as lightning in a bottle; the perfect summation of the female experience. But then this year we learned that Roupenian had wholesale lifted the experience from a woman named Alexis Nowicki, who subsequently wrote a first-person essay about it.

Who would be a muse, eh? Loads of people, that’s the thing. Dante wrote about his childhood crush Beatrice di Folco Portinari in The Divine Comedy. Jane Austen used an old flame as inspiration for Mr Darcy. Charles Dickens based numerous characters on his lover Ellen Ternan. It was all fine and nobody minded.

So what changed? Two words: the internet. Online, everybody gets to create a bubble where they are the star of their own finely honed story. So when someone else mines their life for a different story, it feels more like a violation. Also, who’s to say that Ternan enjoyed being written about? She couldn’t complain on Facebook.

Does this story have a moral? Yes: it’s that writers are terrible people and you should cut them all from your life immediately.

OK, so can I tell my story now? Oh, fine, if you absolutely have to.

I accidentally put a pair of pants in my pocket instead of a face mask. Great, well, keep an eye out for a short story about that, then.

Do say: “Writers often glean from the lives of others.”

Don’t say: “But that doesn’t mean we all have to read a 10,000-word thinkpiece about it afterwards.”

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tired of tea scum? How to banish it for ever – and make the perfect cuppa
Scientists have discovered what causes the waxy residue on the surface of your tea, with possible solutions ranging from a drop of lemon juice to moving house

08, Sep, 2021 @2:04 PM

Article image
Make mine a micro-job! Why working one day a week is the secret of happiness
The cheeriest employees are those who spend most of their time at leisure, research has confirmed. Is this the end of the 40-hour week?

22, Mar, 2021 @1:24 PM

Article image
Yours for £1: what would you do with a traditional red phone box?
BT is putting 4,000 phone boxes up for adoption. Many have already been turned into libraries, defibrillator stations, even tiny art galleries

15, Mar, 2021 @4:09 PM

Article image
What’s the buzz? Why the cottagecore garden trend is great for bees and biodiversity
The interiors trend will also be seen outside this summer – bringing colour, life and beauty to our green spaces

05, Apr, 2021 @1:05 PM

Article image
Phenomenal facial hair: are you ready for the circle beard and double moustache?
What were people bored in lockdown bound to do? Create new trends that make no sense at all. Welcome to your new hair nightmares

08, Jul, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The brilliance of brown lawns: why your grass shouldn’t always be greener
Watering our gardens is wasteful and mowing them a nightmare for biodiversity. So is it time to embrace long, brown grass or more radical options such as patchwork lawns?

02, Jun, 2021 @1:18 PM

Article image
Cheugy: the word you need when passé or basic just won’t do
It’s the new buzzword for being off-trend, but if you fit the description, never fear. Being a bit cheugy is acceptable and probably unavoidable

03, May, 2021 @4:31 PM

Article image
Small dogs: why are tiny hounds more aggressive than big ones?
Not only are little dogs more likely to lash out, they also tend to be less obedient and less well house-trained

05, May, 2021 @3:53 PM

Article image
Nicolas Sarkozy is back! And he’s more rightwing than ever
The former French president “Sarko” is returning to politics and in a new book he sets out his vision for France: a big non to multiculturalism

24, Aug, 2016 @2:38 PM

Article image
Horny dogs: what can Boris Johnson do about his pet Dilyn’s romantic urges?
It’s important to remember that dogs don’t hump things only for sexual reasons – it could be that they are overexcited, attention-starved or have a bladder infection

28, Jul, 2021 @3:10 PM