Part 2 of Review of the Campbell-Swisher Letters
Sam Moskowitz and A. Langley Searles Memorial Issue, Special Double Issue, Nos. 59 & 60.
On October 5, 1937, John W. Campbell’s world changed. The powers at Street & Smith, on F. Orlin Tremaine’s advice, appointed him to replace Tremaine as editor of Astounding Stories. That must have been a shock to Campbell, who’d been worriedly wondering who would get the job, as well as a solution to the worst of his money worries.
I had guessed elsewhere the his weekly paycheck was probably $35, but I was wrong. Actually it was $30. Yet that was a sum the young Campbells had only dreamed of having — was enough, indeed, to permit him to buy a Ford (presumably on the installment plan), and thus to manage, among other things, that long desired trip back to New England to visit old friends. But that didn’t happen right away. Getting used to his new job kept him jumping
He would have liked to start afresh, with a lineup of stories that he had chosen in the first place, and edited to make them more like the stories he himself wrote, in the second. He didn’t have that luxury. Tremaine had bought a number of stories, which now sat in the magazine’s inventory and had to be published. This appeared to have filled the magazine through its January 1938 issue; Campbell’s first editorial, in the December 1937 number said February would be a “mutant” issue. It didn’t say what part of the magazine would get mutated. It turned out to be the stories.
The magazine did not show the effect of a new hand at the tiller very quickly. That wasn’t John’s fault. No magazine can show the full effects of a new editorial policy overnight. Not only are there the inventory of stories bought under the old policies to work off, but it takes a while to let the contributors know what the new policies are.
What John did with the submissions that kept coming in was first to give each one a fair reading (sometimes this may not be much more than the first page; you can tell), and then divide them into two parts. The ones he didn’t have any interest in got a printed rejection slip. The ones that had something good about them got a typed note from John saying what he liked about the story and what about the story kept him from buying it. Those went back, too. But sometimes they came back again revised to the Campbell prescription and then got bought, and more frequently the next stories Campbell got from that writer were closer to his wishes. (How do I know so much about John’s reading habits? Because he described them to me, and they were so eminently sensible that, when I became a pro editor myself, I adopted them as my own.)
There are two points in the letters where John talks about dealings with me. Both of them are wrong. In the first one, he says I bragged to him that my Astonishing Stories sold more copies than his Astounding. That’s incorrect, though. I didn’t know about the difference in sales figures or I certainly would have bragged about it all over town.
The other is in the discussion about putting a non-Jewish pen name on the stories by Milt Rothman that I sold him as Milt’s agent. In the letters, John says he thought it better not to tell me about his reasoning because it might cause misunderstandings. But he did tell me. That led to my advising Milt to do what he said, in fact. On that one, I do have a theory to explain it. I think when he wrote the letter he hadn’t told me his reasoning, but then changed his mind and on a later occasion did tell me.
Well, this got longer and more detailed than a review should. I apologize for that, and in general for taking so long, when all I really wanted to say was if (1) you want to be an editor, or (2) if you’re interested in Campbell as a person, or (3) if you just like a good read on a science-fiction subject — why, then, this is a book for you.
- The Campbell Letters
- Astounding: The Campbell Years, Riding High, Part 1, Part 2
- Me and Alfie, Part 6: John W. Campbell and Dianetics