James M. Cain, Popular Novelist, Argues to Strengthen Authors' Rights, 1946

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Author James M. Cain and fan, circa 1950s.

Novelist and screenwriter James M. Cain promotes his idea for an American Authors Authority that would treat literature as "property." Though it never caught on at the time, Cain's plan offers insight on present-day debates about copyrights. 

Interviewed in what sounds like a scripted dialogue, Cain asserts that authors for too long have permitted their works to be copyrighted by producers or publishers and then allowed the rights pertaining to those properties to be sold off piecemeal, "so that all that remains to the author is…nothing of value whatever." If, however, he signed over his copyright to an American Authors Authority, it would oversee how that copyright was used, making sure the author's rights were not infringed upon, the way a bank protects and oversees a depositor's money. The generalized resistance he is running into, Cain claims, stems from writers resenting all talk of economics. Writers resist seeing their work as property rather than a form of inspired creation. The more organized opposition to him is based on the fear that such an organization could impose conformity and free speech restrictions on its members. (One can hear, in certain coded phrases, the accusation that this type of regimentation borders on Communism.) Cain insists that the Authority "will not deal with ideas, just protect and enforce rights." When the interviewer innocently queries what all the "fuss" is about, Cain answers that perhaps his idea is so obvious people can't see it. "I specialize a little in obviousness. Some of my books are about things that everyone knows but nobody ever admits." For example, he goes on to explain, his first novel (The Postman Always Rings Twice) was about the idea that some women don't like their husband and wish he were dead. "That one," he points out, "still sells half a million copies a year." 

Few writers have received such wildly varying estimations of their work as Cain. Born in 1892, he worked for newspapers and magazines until his first novel, published in  1934, made a sensational impact. As the website detnovel.com recounts:

"Postman was probably the first of the big commercial books in American publishing," writes biographer Roy Hoopes, "the first novel to hit for what might be called the grand slam of the book trade: a hard-cover best-seller, paperback best-seller, syndication, play, and movie. It scored more than once in most of these mediums and still sells on and on, even today." The novel set a new standard of hard-boiled-ness; it was so tough that the New York Times' reviewer called it a "six-minute egg."

This story of a married woman and a drifter who conspire to murder her husband shocked the readers and audiences of its day. Beyond the lurid subject matter, much of the credit for its success must go to Cain's style. Racy, poetic, yet at times thuggish, it captured a tone and stratum of American society that had not yet been treated in fiction. Cain addressed this himself in a Paris Review interview:

Let's talk about this so-called style. I don't know what they're talking about — “tough,” “hard-boiled.” I tried to write as people talk. That was one of the first arguments I ever had with my father — my father was all hell for people talking as they should talk. I, the incipient novelist, even as a boy, was fascinated by the way people do talk.

Cain relocated to Hollywood, where he did not have much success as a screenwriter. But two other novels he wrote, Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943), were made into successful films. Cain resented the "hard-boiled" label he had become known by. In later works he attempted other styles, notably historical fiction, but never with anything like the same results as his tales of predatory woman on the make, weak-willed men badgered into committing horrible violence, and the general sense of blood-lust lurking just beneath the surface the American Dream. It was this "noirish" atmosphere brought to even the most brightly lit suburban supermarket that appealed particularly to Europeans. As William Preston Robertson wrote in The Guardian:

No one would rate Cain a Nobel-worthy man of letters —  except maybe Albert Camus, who admitted basing his existentialist work The Outsider on the Cain template. Nevertheless, at the very least Cain deserves a seat alongside the other major fiction-writers of his day. He deserves to be taken seriously, not as some kind of a miner hammering out rough ore for the Hollywood refinery, but for what he was: a first-rate writer of fiction. 

The proposal Cain is making in this talk ignited a firestorm of controversy and highlighted a split in the literary community still very much in evidence today. As the film historian Richard Fine puts it:

...The AAA exacerbated a split between East and West Coast writers, who disagreed over whether writing should be treated as a money-making business or as an artistic (and poorly paid) calling. Among politicians, a move to unite all writers into a single organization smacked of Communism and sowed seeds of distrust that later flowered in the Hollywood blacklists of the McCarthy era.

As for Cain himself, he left Hollywood and settled in his native Maryland, where he continued to write novels. He comes across in later portraits as stubborn and cantankerous but true to his calling and utterly contemptuous of the literary homogenization that had taken place since his heyday. In his obituary in The New York Times, he is quoted as saying:

Novel-writing has to be learned but it can't be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative writing courses — writers make their decision to write in secret. The academics don't know what. They don't know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter. 

Cain died in 1977. He was 85 years old.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.