restricted access James M. Cain and the American Authors Authority (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Fine. James M. Cain and the American Authors Authority. Austin: Texas UP, 1992. xv + 286 pp. $35.00 cloth.

With the publication of James M. Cain and the American Authors Authority, Richard Fine presents the first comprehensive consideration of James M. Cain's widely reviled and hotly debated idea for copyright reform for modern American writers of nearly every medium. Indeed Roy Hoopes's biography of Cain, David Madden's critical study of Cain's fiction, Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund's The Inquisition of Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960, and Nancy Lynn Schwartz's The Hollywood Writers' Wars, to name a prominent few, consider the fate and importance of the AAA, but none manages the scope and depth of treatment achieved here.

The study's initial chapter, "The Origins of the Profession of Authorship," clearly and engagingly establishes the foundation for much that will follow. Fine cogently traces the development of professional authorship and the publishing industry to reveal the profoundly ingrained attitude that writers are gentlepersons first, foremost, and always, and only incidentally professionals with "careers" and incomes. From the days of Tudor England up through the twentieth century, Fine demonstrates the ways in which first booksellers and later corporate publishers have exerted extraordinary, and often unfair or illegal, control over writers' works. Even a writer as successful and financially secure as William Dean Howells, in 1893, described the situation explicitly and is quoted by Fine: [End Page 369]

People feel that there is something profane, something impious, in taking money for a picture, or a poem, or a statue. Most of all, the artist himself feels this. He puts on a bold front with the world, to be sure, and brazens it out as business; but he knows very well that there is something false and vulgar about it: and that the work which cannot truly be priced in money cannot be truly paid in money . . . . in trying to write of Literature as Business I am tempted to begin by saying that Business is the opprobrium of Literature.

By mid-twentieth century, with the growth of international publishing and the emergence of film and radio as major media for writers' works, it was obvious that some adjustments in copyright practices were in order. Cain, a writer as financially successful as almost any in his day, had nevertheless been victimized severely by reigning publishing practices, and Fine's abbreviated history of Cain's compensation for The Postman Always Rings Twice grimly reveals the widely practiced methods of commercial exploitation. Inspired by what he understood of ASCAP's (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) methods of assigning rights for performances but not perpetuity, Cain devised the notion of an author's authority that would act as a licensing agency overseeing permissions and generally protecting writers. Although the idea grew out of his association with a union (the Screen Writers' Guild), the AAA would not itself be a union.

However, this, and many other points, were lost on those who debated its feasibility and potential efficacy. The bulk of the book is given over to the machinations of each side in the debate, and it is eminently clear that Fine has done a thorough and scrupulous job of meticulously researching his subject. Copious details of correspondence, meetings, arguments, etc., abound. These details, vital as they are, often become tedious, though the brief portraits of some of the principal figures are fascinating. Allegiances, despite all the allegations about the Authority's Communist affiliations, divided along anything but ideological lines.

In the concluding chapter, Fine enumerates the reasons for the plan's defeat. Cain's tough talk and abrasive personality put off many potential sympathizers as did tactical mistakes by some of the AAA's supporters, the nation's mounting hysteria over the reputed Communist infiltration of Hollywood and the media, the anti-labor fight waged by the Hollywood studios and publishing firms, and the quarrels over turf by competing unions. However as Cain and Fine reveal, writers, more than any other single force, were most responsible for the plan's undoing. Cain was forever pragmatic in his view of the writer...


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