Why Is My Biography of Shel Silverstein Headed for the Sidewalk’s End?

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 9:20 AM

Executors or Executioners?

Why can’t my biography of Shel Silverstein quote the works of Shel Silverstein? His censorious estate.

1310_SBR_SILVERSTEIN_ILLO

Illustration by Peter Bagge

For the last few years I’ve been writing a scholarly book about Shel Silverstein’s life and work. Yet, after five years of labor, I’ve recently come to realize that my book will very possibly never be published.

Why not? Well, certainly not because there’s a glut of other books about Silverstein. Only one popular biography exists, and I guess if you count the Shel-centric Silverstein and Me: a Memoir, by Silverstein’s lifelong friend, Marv Gold, you could up that number to two. However, these books don’t talk much about the work. A frustratingly small number of scholarly and critical studies of any type put his complex and unconventional life in conversation with his art.

And it’s not because there’s nothing to write about. Most of us know Silverstein for his children’s poetry and picture books (such as Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree), but fewer realize he got his start writing gag strips for The Stars and Stripes while serving a tour of duty in Korea. He created decades of work in a variety of genres for Playboy, and he was also an amazingly prolific songwriter (composing hundreds of songs recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Gordon Lightfoot, Marianne Faithfull, Loretta Lynn, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Dr. Dog, and My Morning Jacket). Shel authored scores of darkly comic short plays and even wrote a film script with David Mamet (1988’s Things Change).

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Silverstein’s an important figure, is what I’m getting at. He lived an interesting life, and he produced more than his fair share of aesthetically and commercially successful art. So why has there been so little critical attention paid to such a provocative and prolific character, so little scholarship striving for the Big Picture? And why might my attempt to write this very kind of work potentially never appear in print? Put simply: because of Shel Silverstein’s estate. Because it’s so damned difficult to get permission to quote from his poems and songs, to illustrate claims with reproductions of his art—even a tiny black-and-white reproduction of a comic panel or three or four lines of a song. I’m not the only biographer of an important figure who has this problem. It has to change.

It comes down to this: the Silverstein estate is especially reluctant to give out what’s called “permissions,” the right to quote from (or reproduce parts of) work protected by copyright. Last year an academic journal asked me to obtain permission to reproduce some of Silverstein’s material in an essay of mine they were about to publish. Most of the required images first appeared in Playboy; the magazine gave me an email address belonging to Silverstein’s nephew, who evidently handles this kind of thing for the estate. I wrote this nephew several times, and after a handful of attempts over the course of months, I heard back from a law firm whose name seemed to come straight out of a Shel Silverstein poem: Solheim, Billing, and Grimmer.

Sadly, I can’t reproduce their letter because it’s protected under copyright. (Recipients of letters own the letter, but the content of the letter—or scans of the letter itself—cannot be reproduced without the permission of the letter writer. You can imagine how frustrating this is for biographers.) Still, SB&G’s five-sentence missive is easy to summarize: it forbade me not only from reproducing images for this one article, but from ever reproducing any of Silverstein’s work—song lyrics, poems, images, whatever—in any context. Ever. (Not quite “ever.” Silverstein’s work begins entering the public domain in 2051. Of course, that’s assuming Disney doesn’t have copyright law changed again when Mickey Mouse once more nears the borders of the public domain. Not a great assumption to make.)

Now, I mentioned in my query that I was writing a book—and I mentioned that the book discusses Silverstein’s work for children alongside his work for adults; I also included a copy of another essay I had written on the subject, an essay that doesn’t shy away from the, shall we say, less G-rated details of his life and career: his womanizing, his songs about drugs and venereal disease, his work for Playboy. But I wasn’t asking permissions for the book. I made this clear in the request: I was asking to reproduce only a few images for this one article. And yet Silverstein’s estate decided to muzzle me completely. They closed the letter with these words: “Our clients appreciate your interest in the works of Shel Silverstein and wish you the best of luck in your other future endeavors.” This endeavor, however, they have sunk, and it’s likely to remain unsalvageable as long as they control Silverstein’s copyrighted work.

And so I came up against the hard truth of the literary biographer: It’s crucial to establish friendly relations with the estates of deceased (and more rarely, living) artists whose work is protected by copyright. You see, scholars have to request permission to reproduce more than a few lines of a copyrighted poem or song lyric. Or, more precisely, we don’t have to, but our publishers (largely academic, nonprofit university presses) tend to insist that we ask permission in order to protect themselves from lawsuits. You may have heard of something called “fair use.” One would think fair use was custom built to protect scholars and artists who want or need to reproduce excerpts from copyrighted work in the service of education or art or scholarship—and one would be right. But whether we’re protected or not, most presses prefer to play it safe and make scholars request permission.

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