Greatest Literature banner

Cain image

James M. Cain

1892–1977
Novels, stories, plays
On greatest lists ▽ On greatest lists △
Greatest Literature

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

Mildred Pierce (1941)

Greatest Novels

Mildred Pierce (1941)

Greatest Novellas

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

Double Indemnity (1943)

Greatest Stories

• "The Baby in the Icebox" (1932)

Crime and Mystery

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

Double Indemnity (1943)

James M. Cain

THE AUTHOR | THE WORKS | VIEWS AND QUOTES

On books, writers and writing

1944

In one respect [the short story] is greatly superior to the novel, or at any rate, the American novel. It is one kind of fiction that need not, to please the American taste, deal with heroes. Our national curse, if so perfect a land can have such a thing, is the "sympathetic" character.... I take exception to this idealism, as the Duke of Wellington is said to have taken exception to a lady's idealism when he told her: "Madam, the Battle of Waterloo was won by the worst set of blackguards ever assembled in one spot on this earth." The world's greatest literature is peopled by thorough-going heels.

Introduction to For Men Only

1946

I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics, and have little correspondence in reality anywhere else. Young writers often imitate some older writer that they fancy, as for example I did when I used to exchange with my brother You Know Me Al letters, except instead of baseball players we had the sergeants of 1918. We gave wonderful imitations of [Ring] Lardner, and some traces of them, for any who care to look, can be seen in my book Our Government.... Yet if he can write a book at all, a writer cannot do it by peeping over his shoulder at somebody else, any more than a woman can have a baby by watching some other woman have one.... I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammett in my whole life....

I owe no debt, beyond the pleasure his books have given me, to Mr. Ernest Hemingway.... Just what it is I am supposed to have got from him, I have never quite made out, though I am sure it can hardly be in the realm of content, for it would be hard to imagine two men, in this respect, more dissimilar. He writes of God's eternal mayhem against Man, a theme he works into great, classic cathedrals, but one I should be helpless to make use of. I, so far as I can sense the patterns of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination. Of course the wish must really have terror in it; just wanting a drink wouldn't quite be enough. I think my stories have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex, or any of the things usually cited by way of explanation, that gives them the drive so often noted.... Thus if I do any glancing, it is toward Pandora, the first woman, a conceit that pleases me, somehow, and often helps my thinking.

Preface to The Butterfly

1977

A lot of novelists start late—[Joseph] Conrad, Pirandello, even Mark Twain. When you're young, chess is all right, and music and poetry. But novel-writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can't be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative writing courses! The academics don't know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter....

The book that stands up for me is the one that sold the most copies; that's the only test for me and that one was The Postman Always Rings Twice. It didn't sell as many in the first edition as The Butterfly did. But there's the silver kangaroo over there on the shelf that Pocket Books gave me when The Postman passed the million-copy mark. That must have been thirty years ago. The thing still goes on....

I read a few pages of Dashiell Hammett, that's all. And [Raymond] Chandler. Well, I tried. That book about a bald, old man with two nympho daughters. That's all right. I kept reading. Then it turned out the old man raises orchids. That's too good. When it's too good, you do it overagain. Too good is too easy. If it's too easy you have to worry. If you're not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn't going to, either. I always know that when I get a good night's sleep, the next day I'm not going to get any work done. Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It's not all inspirational....

How do I see myself as part of the Literature of Violence? I take no interest in violence. There's more violence in Macbeth and Hamlet than in my books. I don't write whodunits. You can't end a story with the cops getting the killer. I don't think the law is a very interesting nemesis. I write love stories. The dynamics of a love story are almost abstract. The better your abstraction, the more it comes to life when you do it—the excitement of the idea lurking there. Algebra. Suspense comes from making sure your algebra is right. Time is the only critic. If your algebra is right, if the progression is logical, but still surprising, it keeps.

Interview with The Paris Review

THE AUTHOR | THE WORKS | VIEWS AND QUOTES