Vanity Fair, September 1916
THE PROPOSED AUTHORS’ UNION
Probably to be Followed by an Amalgamated Association of Injured Readers
By P. Brooke-Haven
IT is apparent from the official manifesto sent out by the Authors’ League, that there is a feeling of unrest just now among authors. The purlieus of Washington Square are humming like a hive, and out in Indiana hands horny at the finger-tips with years of labor at the typewriter are being waved in enthusiastic and militant gestures. The rafters of a thousand country homes on Long Island and elsewhere are ringing with impassioned words. The fine old Berserk spirit of the American author is awake. His blood is up; you can hear it simmering. Behind his tortoise-shell-rimmed glasses his eyes flash wildly. Somebody has reported that a stray dollar was seen at large the other day, not owned by any man of letters, and the authors are showing their resentment at this abominable thing by threatening to affiliate themselves with the American Federation of Labor and to go on strike if it happens again. “On May 18,” says the announcement, “at a special meeting of the council, the sub-committee appointed by the Executive Committee of the Authors’ League to investigate, consider, and report upon the advisability of the League’s affiliating itself with the American Federation of Labor, reported that, after careful investigation and consideration of the matter, it was its unanimous opinion that affiliation was highly desirable.” Before these words are in print, the spectacle may be seen of Robert W. Chambers smoking his pipe in bed, while his empty dinner-pail hangs idly on its hook, and of Gouverneur Morris frittering away his time at pinochle at the village inn, instead of doing his eight-hour day in the sugar factory. The country will awake one morning to find its supply of fiction turned off as with a tap, thus instantaneously throwing out of employment a thousand writers of blurbs, and sending James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy and Harrison Fisher straight to the bread-line.
SUCH a momentous crisis in the affairs of the nation calls for careful thought. The rights and wrongs of the matter must be sifted. There is no doubt that the authors have a strong case. A moment’s reflection is enough to convince any unprejudiced observer that theirs is a dog’s life. An author to-day is so sweated that half of the time he must think that he is living in a Turkish Bath. He has to try to make both ends meet on a pittance wrung out of serial rights, second serial rights, book rights, syndicate rights, dramatic rights, and motion-picture rights; and, with the price of gasoline in its present buoyant condition—honestly, dear old John D. must be painting the barn, or saving up for a trip to New York, or something, the way he keeps putting it up—it is getting to be a pretty serious problem for the poor devils whether they will be able to keep up their country homes without having to sacrifice the yacht or a couple of footmen.
IT must be obvious to anyone with any knowledge of the delicate, high-strung, artistic temperament, that a writer cannot give the public of his best when he is worried with these sordid cares. You know how it is with an author. From the moment he springs out of his milk bath and puts on his gold-leaf underclothing, he has to be completely unruffled, or else he finds himself marrying off the hero and the heroine about twenty thousand words too soon. In my investigations into the conditions of this deserving and downtrodden class of the community, I have come across scores of heartrending cases. I have heard piteous tales of unfortunates who have been absolutely unable to wring more than ten cents a word from their taskmasters. Ten cents! A dime! What you give a hat-check boy for someone else’s hat! That is the price of a portion of what the editor who buys it admits in large print with black borders is the most stupendous and gripping narrative of lurid passion ever evolved by Man since the last number of the magazine, when the author’s last story appeared. It may be weak of me, but I cannot contemplate this state of things without finding salt tears coursing down one side of my face and up the other. The iron enters my soul, and I lose my appetite.
AND even this, if we may credit the Authors’ Bulletin, is not the worst: for authors agree that they are more fairly treated by the magazines than by any of the rest of the capitalistic vampires who suck their life-blood at so much per drop. It is apparently with the motion-picture magnates that their chief grievance lies. The head of a motion-picture firm was seen not long ago paying his own fare in the subway, which shows that that he had kept back a portion of his wealth which should rightly have come to his authors.
HERE, however, frankly as we are in sympathy with any movement for the amelioration of the oppressed class, we cannot quite follow the argument. It would seem that authors expect to be paid real money for motion-picture scenarios. But everyone who has ever wasted fifteen cents on admission to a Bijou Dream, or a Mammoth Palace, knows that the just reward for the perpetration of these ghastly ebullitions of lunacy would be about six months at hard labor. Instead of being grateful that up to now a mawkishly sentimental Legislature has failed to prosecute, authors are kicking like steers. I strongly advise the League to drop this plank in its platform and to try to convince its members that they are fortunate to be still at liberty. The public is muttering revolt against the committers of scenarios, and wholesale arrests may be expected at any moment. In connection with which it may seem invidious to make distinctions, but it would be a graceful act if the authorities would begin with the man responsible for the late Queen of the Roses. They could then turn their attention to the author of “The Iron Hook.” These are, of course, merely suggestions. They can arrest anybody without going wrong.
IN the matter of the stage, authors have a legitimate grievance. No remuneration is excessive which is designed to compensate a novelist for the agony of seeing his book dramatized by the hired assassins usually detailed by the management of a theater for that purpose. Here the League has a clear case, and we wish it luck in its enterprise.
There is, however, another side to all this affiliation with the American Federation of Labor which those behind the movement seem to have overlooked. They may gain something by their activities, but they run a grave risk of putting ideas into people’s heads which will act to their detriment. At present nobody has thought of founding a Readers’ Union; but this may spring into being any moment.
An author is notoriously a self-centered person. He does not reflect that other people besides himself may have grievances. He has omitted to reflect how patient we readers have been, and how meekly in the past we have submitted to outrages far grosser than those which caused the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, and the march of Coxey’s Army. Consider how amiably we behaved when we were engulfed by the wave of sex stuff which authors suddenly decided to let loose on us a few years back. We did not murmur when every story in our favorite magazine which did not deal with the emotions of the “Woman Who Did,” gave an exhaustive account of those of “The Husband Who Wanted To.” We were not organized then, so we were helpless. But with organization becoming the fashion like this, we may take steps at any time. The next time authors spring this sort of thing on us, they may be shocked to see us striking in a solid body, picketing the newsstands, and manhandling everybody who tries to get into Brentano’s.
A READER is a person. He has his rights, like everybody else. He is entitled by the above-mentioned Declaration of Independence to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is a fact which authors in their egotism overlook. They continue to heap on us their stories about the young district attorney with a conscience and high ideals, who falls in love with the Boss’s daughter at the moment when he has got her father up a tree and is reaching for a brick. They spare us no jot or tittle of their descriptions of the state of mind of the artist who cannot get a model for his masterpiece. They expect us to submit without a protest to the young man from Yale who visits the imaginary kingdom of Paranoia and carries off the Princess after fighting a series of duels with the Prime Minister, the Crown Prince, the Commander-in-chief of the Army, and a band of hired assassins. They unload on us every possible kind of detective that occurs to their disordered imaginations. Is it too much to expect that some day we shall band ourselves together and rebel? Just about the time when the word has been passed round among authors to go on strike because some editor has refused to give Jack London another fifteen cents a syllable, they will find themselves with another war on their hands. They will be attacked in the flank. With a muttered, “When in the course of human events——” we readers will obey the just orders of our leaders and cease to read. After all, magazines are not a necessity. If we want fiction, we can always read the Turkish war-bulletins and the headlines in the Evening Telegram.