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Turow: “The Protection of Copyright Is Deeply Related to the Protection of Creativity”

scott turow_speech

On Monday, June 13, Authors Guild council member and former president Scott Turow was honored with the 2016 Excellence in Creativity Award from the Copyright Society of the USA. After accepting the award, Turow made the following remarks:

Forty-five springs ago, I was a student in this state at Amherst College. My passion was to become a novelist and one of the first persons to take me seriously as a writer, was my teacher, the great American fictionist, Tillie Olsen. Tillie was an autodidact, who’d left home at age 16, committed to the two causes that dominated her life–literature and Revolution, and she went through her share of hard times as a single mother, and as an early feminist, and also as an unapologetic communist. With her eventual husband, the labor leader, Jack Olsen, who was drummed out of the International Longshoreman’s in the anti-communist purges of the early 50’s, the Olsen family spent those years with a bag packed with staples under the kitchen sink, for the expected moment when they were moved to a concentration camp at the height of the McCarthyite era.

By contrast, I was the son of a doctor, who’d grown up in upper- middle- class comfort. I was often somewhat abashed by the comparison between my background and Tillie’s. But Tillie, God bless her, had no use for the mythology that art loves suffering and that neediness is a prerequisite to great art. Self-satisfaction and a narrowly bounded life are not likely to lead to becoming a great composer or painter or novelist. But Tillie was emphatic that dire need was not the mother of artistic achievement. To that end, she often quoted William Blake, the visionary artist and poet of the 18th Century who said, “[A] blight never does good to a tree, & if [the tree]. . .still bear fruit, let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.” Creative drive can often withstand periods of blight; but as Blake says creativity is “not in consequence of the blight.”

That means that the protection of copyright so that artists can enjoy the figurative fruits of their labors is deeply related to the protection of creativity. The best of Shakespeare’s plays, Dickens’ and Tolstoy’s novels, and the Beatles’ music were all created at the apogee of success, when their creators were living in relative comfort earned by the popularity of their work. On the other hand, very little is likely to damage creative output more than a refusal to protect copyright.

About three and a half years ago, my wife, Adriane and I, travelled to Russia at the invitation of the U.S. State Department. I spoke at universities, visited bookstores–which in Russia are open twenty-four hours a day–and because I was then President of the U.S. Authors Guild was invited to meet with the leadership of Russian PEN, the international author’s rights organization. This proved to be a Dickensian moment. We walked up five floors of dark stairs that squealed and shuddered under our feet, leading to instantaneous fantasies of collapse. The paint on the walls had not been renewed in decades; the heat in the building was only enough to keep the pipes from freezing. Incandescent light was sparing. In a bare room, we met with several writers, huddled in their overcoats. This was the moment for me to get the answer to a question that had preoccupied me: why was it that I was visiting the nation of Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, a nation with one of the longest and most noble literary heritages and could not name a contemporary Russian novelist of note. Was it me or them?

The answer was that writing was becoming an occupation in which only a tiny, favored few had any hope of earning anything from their work; the Putin regime had found a way to stifle literature that was far more effective than the Stalinist Gulag. In Russia, almost any book published was pirated immediately and became available on the Internet for free. Only the few authors who were approved by the government received any help enforcing their copyrights. For most, knowing that the work of years would be stolen from them was discouraging many even from trying.

There is a lesson in that. I often muse about the relationship between art and audience. Certainly, I think the concept of art presupposes that someone will enjoy the work. Just like the old grade-school riddle about whether a tree that falls in the forest unheard makes sound, creative work that’s undertaken with no expectation that it will ever be experienced by others may not be art. Art is, most fundamentally, a form of communication. I suspect that creativity tends to be inspired by the artist’s fantasy that her or his work is destined to find an audience that places value on it. That doesn’t presuppose earning vast riches. The effort a reader makes by going to the library is enough to make most authors feel valued. But the notion that work will be stolen and tossed into the wind defeats the artistic enterprise.

My own story, when it gets re-told by the press, tends to come off as another example of how suffering is good for the soul. After being a creative writing fellow at Stanford, I made a U-turn in my life and returned to Massachusetts for law school. I was determined, however, not to let my dream of being a novelist die. After law school, I was blessed to have found an intensely demanding–and rewarding–job as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago. I also had a young family at home. As a result, the only time I could find to write fiction was the thirty minutes I spent on the morning commuter train. There, on those morning trips over several years, the first 120 pages of Presumed Innocent were written long hand.  And it’s that romantic part of the story that’s been repeated ad nauseam by journalists over the years.

But that is NOT how the novel was finished. Eventually, knowing that I was headed into private practice where my salary was going to double, I used my three months of accumulated leave time from the government to take a summer away from the law to finish my novel. Without that ‘federal fellowship’ the novel would probably never have been completed.

Because zeal, including creative zeal, is at its height when artists are young, and because the young are for more impoverished than any other age group except the old, we have been lured into this false equation between need and creativity. But that is not how it works for me. The floating wool-gathering, preoccupied state in which I get ideas or make connections are moments of relaxation, enjoying a kind of playfulness when I’m not under the attack of the anxieties that tend to freeze consciousness. Scheherazade notwithstanding, very little great creative work has come into being with a gun at an artist’s head. Instead, I frequently describe my own creative state as liberating my inner six-year old and the writing that I do most days as very much like playing with imaginary friends. Creativity and play are branches of the same tree.

At any rate, I believe that maintaining a stable system in which creativity can be rewarded is essential to creativity itself. And for that reason, I am very grateful for the award that you’ve conferred on me tonight, since it comes from a group dedicated to protecting the idea of copyright.


(Pictured above: Eric Schwartz, President of the Copyright Society of the USA; Mary Rasenberger, Executive Director of the Authors Guild; Maria Pallante, Register of Copyrights; Scott Turow, Authors Guild council member and former president)