The Boston Book Festival canceled its One City One Story event in 2018 amid a dispute over claims of plagiarism between two Boston writers. Since then, the legal battle has only escalated, and now the spat is generating further buzz after The New York Times published a piece exploring the drama.
The Times dissects the dispute in a piece titled “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?” that has sparked a number of opinions on Twitter — about the quest for validation, lengths to which a person can go to undermine someone else’s work, the dynamics of a white woman seeking credit for the work of a woman of color in a story of white saviorism, the perception of friendship versus acquaintanceship, and the horror of group chat messages being exposed.
After initially selecting a short story by Boston writer Sonya Larson, who is Asian American, called “The Kindest” to be distributed to Boston residents in 2018, the festival pulled back after fellow writer Dawn Dorland accused Larson of plagiarism. The two had met years earlier at GrubStreet, a non-profit writing center in Boston.
In summary, Dorland in 2015 chose to donate one of her kidneys — not to a specific recipient, but rather to someone on a transplant list who needed the organ. In a private Facebook group of friends, family, and writers from GrubStreet, she chronicled the journey, including at one point writing a letter to the recipient. Dorland claims Larson plagiarized that letter in “The Kindest,” and she embarked on an extensive, still-brewing legal course to attain acknowledgment that a similar letter in Larson’s story contained Dorland’s words. Larson maintained that Dorland’s kidney donation served as a point of inspiration for a story but said that the work is fiction, has an entirely different plot, and has denied plagiarizing the post.
Here’s a look at how the dispute has escalated since Dorland made her initial plagiarism claim.
Boston Book Festival cancels One City One Story event amid legal pressure from Dorland
In July 2018, Dorland’s lawyer sent the Boston Book Festival a cease-and-desist letter to demand they stop their plans to distribute the story for One City One Story. Larson responded by getting a lawyer who said that demand amounted to “harassment, defamation per se and tortious interference with business and contractual relations,” according to the Times.
That same month, Dorland’s lawyer suggested settling with the festival for $5,000 and credit to her at the bottom of the story or a link to a kidney-donor site. Larson did not want to negotiate after she learned that Dorland had contacted editors at The Boston Globe alleging Larson had plagiarized, according to the Times.
The festival at first asked Larson to rewrite the part of the story that Dorland alleged was plagiarized and wrote a statement to go with the story that would acknowledge the changes, the Globe reported in 2018.
The festival eventually canceled the entire One City One Story program over the escalating dispute — with Dorland’s lawyer raising the demand to $10,000 — after Dorland discovered online an early audio version of the story that contained language even closer to her Facebook post.
“This is not a happy choice for us, as we have already sunk resources, time, and effort into this project. We are a tiny nonprofit with a very small staff, and we need to turn our attention now to our central mission, which is producing the Boston Book Festival,” Deborah Porter, the founder and executive director of the festival, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe at the time.
Larson said in an e-mail to the Globe at the time that while Dorland’s experience inspired the story, she did not plagiarize her words.
“Fiction writers regularly encounter ideas in the world — whether from ads, catalogues, tombstones, or tweets — and we re-imagine and transform their elements for completely fictional narratives,” read Larson’s e-mail to the Globe. “Let’s keep this in perspective: Ms. Dorland’s letter was not art; it was correspondence that she posted on Facebook.”
Dorland increases the demand again
In September 2018, Dorland’s lawyer raised the demand to $15,000, according to the Times. She also demanded that Larson promise to pay Dorland $180,000 if she violated the terms of the settlement. Part of Larson’s contract with the festival meant that if Dorland sued, Larson would take on the costs, according to the Times.
Larson’s lawyer responds alleging defamation
Later that month, Larson’s lawyer responded with a list of allegedly defamatory claims that Dorland had made about Larson.
“It is a mystery exactly how Dorland was damaged,” Larson’s lawyer wrote, according to the Times. “My client’s gross receipts from ‘The Kindest’ amounted to $425.”
Larson sues Dorland
In January 2019, Larson sued Dorland and her lawyer, accusing them of defamation and tortious interference.
Dorland files a counterclaim
In April 2020, Dorland filed a counterclaim against Larson, saying she violated the copyright of her letter and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. In February 2021, a judge threw out the claims of emotional distress.
A subpoena reveals messages from a group chat
A crucial part of the tale comes when a subpoena reveals conversations between Larson and other members of the literary group to which Larson and Dorland both belonged.
Among the messages, the Times reported, was one in which Larson describes using Dorland’s post in her work.
“I think I’m DONE with the kidney story but I feel nervous about sending it out b/c it literally has sentences that I verbatim grabbed from Dawn’s letter on FB,” Larson texted two friends in January 2016, according to the Times. “I’ve tried to change it but I can’t seem to — that letter was just too damn good. I’m not sure what to do … feeling morally compromised/like a good artist but a [expletive] person.”
The litigation continues
The question of whether Larson’s story violates the copyrighted letter is still being decided.
Amid the Twitter discourse surrounding the story, a number of writers have weighed in. Among them is Celeste Ng, a Cambridge-based author and friend and fellow writing group member of Larson’s who is mentioned in the Times story, who noted that Dorland pitched the idea of the article to the Times.
I’m getting sick of clarifying the same things, so— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) October 5, 2021
1. Dawn pitched this article to the NYT herself.
2. She was not part of our writing group or friend group. I met her once. Most of us didn’t know her well (if at all). I’d never heard anyone mention her name before this.
Globe Correspondent Graham Ambrose contributed to this report.