How a Viral Feature is Made

Robert Kolker and his editor Raha Naddaf explain how The New York Times Magazine‘s longform sensation “Who’s the Bad Art Friend?” came to be

When Robert Kolker first received a tip this past January that would become the most talked-about longform story in recent memory, “Who’s the Bad Art Friend?” in The New York Times Magazine, he didn’t think much of it.

A fiction writer named Dawn Dorland had emailed Kolker asking that he bring a reporter’s point of view to a legal dispute she had with another writer. In 2015, Dorland had donated a kidney to a stranger and created a private Facebook group to provide updates on the process to family and friends. One of those friends—or so Dorland had thought—named Sonya Larson included one of her posts to the group in a short story about a kidney donor she was writing. Dorland felt it was a betrayal of their friendship and subsequently launched a relentless, yearslong fight to have Larson’s story pulled from publication.

“I was not immediately interested in pursuing it,” Kolker told Off the Record. “But then I thought about it over a week or two and thought about what the dispute might have to say about art and appropriation.”

He wrote up a pitch for his New York Times Magazine editor, Raha Naddaf, whom he’d worked with before on several stories at The Marshall Project and New York Magazine. Her reaction was immediate. Kolker’s pitch, she explained, had “all these fascinating, irresistible qualities, and I knew in Bob’s hands it could be a lovely story.”

As a writer, Kolker thrives in the grey areas of tangled legal disputes and murky ethical quandaries without apparent good and bad guys. A feature he wrote for New York in 2004 about a public school embezzlement scheme was adapted into the film Bad Education starring Hugh Jackman. His first book, 2013’s Lost Girls, traces the unsolved serial murders of sex workers on Long Island, which last year was turned into a film of the same name starring Amy Ryan and directed by Liz Garbus.

Kolker’s most recent book, Hidden Valley Road, published in 2020, traces a family whose members had an extraordinarily high incidence of schizophrenia. He was first approached by two sisters who asked him to tell the family story. Then, too, Kolker had doubts about getting involved in such potentially messy subject matter.

Kolker said that he and Dorland went back and forth about whether she would agree to speak on the record for the story. He thought it would be essential to have both her and Larson’s participation. Kolker made sure to establish trust and understanding with both women in off the record interviews before the piece officially got underway in late February.

“I’m a little concerned that some of the response to the story suggests that Dawn and I had an idea and The Times ran with it, and that just isn’t true. It was more complicated than that,” Kolker said. “My approach is non-prosecutorial. I’m not out to find out who’s right or who’s wrong. I’m out to examine and find out everybody’s rationale.”

That approach could be why “Bad Art Friend” has provoked such voluminous and polarizing “Kidney Discourse” on Twitter. The story avoids rendering any judgments on who is to blame in the saga, leaving it open to multiple readings: Which is the greater crime, neediness or pettiness? What is worth more, privilege or popularity? The story sets at loggerheads ideals that usually do not compete, artistic offerings and humanitarian compassion, and questions how much we’re allowed to demand praise for either.

And, yes, Kolker and Naddaf have been reading your tweets.

“It’s been a super exciting week,” Kolker said. “And I’m aware that things come and things go, so I’m pretty sure the coverage will peter out eventually. But it’s been fun.”

In the end, they both said, the discourse became a kind of meta exploration of the theme of the short fiction Larson wrote, “The Kindest,” which set off the whole dispute with Dorland. “The story really is a Rorschach test, the same way that the story within the story is a Rorschach test,” Kolker said.

Some readers have taken to Twitter to complain that they bailed halfway through the nearly 10,000-word piece, finding it directionless and insignificant. Kolker said there was a draft that could have avoided this, but it would’ve come at too great a cost. It was Naddaf’s idea, he said, to remove the nut graf that would have summarized the whole story at the top of the piece and to wait “to deploy certain explosive bits of information until later in the piece.”

For the readers who stuck through it to the end, the narrative-changing evidence it uncovered was enough to win over others on Twitter who praised the work as a masterpiece.

“What appealed to me was a slow drip of a story where what starts out as discrepancy then builds into a dispute, and then from a dispute it builds into something involving lawyers, and then it in builds into something involving the media, like The Boston Globe, and then it involves the federal courts,” Kolker said. “You know, just how does something so small grow into something so big?”