Posts tagged ‘F. Orlin Tremaine’

Amazing-June 1936


The development of a professional writer is marked by a number of stages, each identified by a particular event. My own development was accelerated by the fact that by the time I was 14 or so I had come to know people — Johnny Michel and Don Wollheim — who had actually sold works to professional science-fiction magazines.

(Well, “sold” is putting it a bit strong, since neither of them had really been paid for their work. In fact, that’ s why they had come to Geegee Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League in the first place; to put pressure on Hugo Gernsback to pay the writers for his Wonder Stories by denouncing him to his most loyal fans, the ones who had joined his club.)

Anyway, I listened to them reverently, and in fact learned a great deal. One of things I learned was that, surprisingly, the editors of science-fiction magazines were in some ways indistinguishable from ordinary human beings. They went to offices to work — well, I knew that because I had discovered on my own the existence of writers’ magazines that actually gave addresses for those offices. I had even experimentally tried mailing one or two of my early stories to one or two of those sf markets. What I learned additionally from Donald and Johnny was that you could go in person to some of those offices, and that some of those editors, sometimes, would actually talk to you.

That particular nugget of information was worth actual cash to me. As I had learned from my study of Writers Digest, I could mail in my stories — and had done so. The catch to that was that I was required to enclose postage for the return trip in the (likely) event of rejection. That had amounted, in the last story I had submitted by mail, to 9¢ in stamps each way, total 18¢. While the cost, if I delivered them in person, would be only a nickel each way for the subway. (Plus, of course, whatever price could be put on my time for the 45 minutes each way it would take for me to do it — but, then, nobody else was offering to buy any of my time at any price.)

That represented a nearly 50-percent reduction in my cost of doing business, or even more — much, much more! — if I had enough stories to submit to make a continuing process out of it. I could, say, take the subway to editor A’s office to pick up rejected story X and at the same time submit new story Y, then walk (no cost for walking) to the office of editor B to try story X on him. And there was no reason for me to limit myself to a single story each way at each office.

The only thing that could prevent me from working at that much greater volume was that I hadn’ t written enough stories to make such economies of scale pay off, and that, boys and girls, is how I became a literary agent.

Continue reading ‘Early Editors’ »

Part 2 of Review of the Campbell-Swisher Letters

John W. Campbell in 1957 (from

John W. Campbell in 1957 (from

Fantasy Commentator
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.

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Fantasy Commentator 59-60

Fantasy Commentator
Sam Moskowitz and A. Langley Searles Memorial Issue, Special Double Issue, Nos. 59 & 60.

When John W. Campbell, Jr., washed out of MIT by failing to pass their German course, he didn’t stay in Massachusetts. Instead, he returned to his mother’s home in Orange, New Jersey. He had left some close friendships behind, though, and one of the first things he did after relocating was to write a letter to his Massachusetts friend Robert D. Swisher, a pharmaceutical chemist working for the Monsanto Corporation.

That was the first letter of many, and they were all carefully preserved, misspellings, factual errors and all, by Swisher, and then by his widow. Now they are published, under the guise of an article in the late A. Langley Searles’ fanzine Fantasy Commentator, published as a memorial tribute by Searles’ widow, Alice Becker, M.D. The issue contains nothing but the letters. Its length — 156 large pages — is within accepted book publishing standards. So let’s call it a book, the two of us, all right?

This book, then, contains all the letters John wrote to Swisher over a period of more than twenty years, from John’s early attempts at writing science-fiction stories of his own through his triumphal masterminding of the world’s best science-fiction magazine and his intoxication with L. Ron Hubbard’s invention of Dianetics, followed by his final rejection of that cause — though not of the validity of many of its principles which, called by one name or another, he apparently subscribed to until his death.

As a document bearing on these matters, this is not merely a good, readable book. It is an invaluable one, and the credit for the clarity and completeness that make it such a pleasure to read belongs in no small part to its editor, the late Sam Moskowitz. The source material Sam had to work with was a clutch of actual letters, many of them handwritten and some not easy to decipher, and a considerable fraction of them comprising little more than technical descriptions of the cameras, lenses and films for which the two correspondents shared an affection. All of that photography material Moskowitz skillfully redacted away. What remains is the next best thing to a detailed personal diary of the life of a stand-out major figure in the field of science fiction.

Continue reading ‘The Campbell Letters’ »


Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, from left, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1944.

Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, from left, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1944.

The Asimov store and apartment were just off one corner of the immense Prospect Park, on Windsor Place. I lived, with my mother, on the opposite corner, on St. John’s Place near where Eastern Parkway runs into Grand Army Plaza. It was a neat neighborhood to live in, with not only the Park but the fine Brooklyn Museum just across the street. I spent a lot of time roaming the park, which is a beauty, sometimes with Cyril Kornbluth or some other Futurian, more often alone.

Sometimes I would find myself at Isaac’s end of the park, and if the hour was respectable (as sometimes it wasn’t, since several of us Futurians had devil-may-care attitudes about sleep, and in those years Prospect Park was never closed), we might walk the extra block or two to drop in on Isaac. (Two notes here in the interests of full disclosure. I did also have some thoughts of the free malted that Mrs. Asimov was likely to offer me. And I did sometimes suspect that Cyril’s interest involved Marcia, Isaac’s sister. But maybe I was wrong about that. I don’t think anything came of it.)

As his brother, Stanley, began to mature into the role of full participant of candy-store chores, Isaac’s responsibilities began to ease a little. That was a good thing, since he had a busy life. In addition to his interest in science fiction, he had taken on another challenge. His father had given him a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That was a gift that might have perplexed some teenagers, but not Isaac. He knew what books were for, so he picked up Volume 1, turned to the beginning of the A’s and began to read. He told me it was his intention to read all the way to the end of the Z’s, but whether he made it all the way, I don’t know.

Isaac Asimov, 1940

    Isaac Asimov, 1940.

Isaac and I were pretty much of the same age. (We couldn’t be sure just how close, because neither of his parents was sure when his birthday was — sometime in the fall to mid-winter of 1919–1920, while mine was November 26th.) When we were both seventeen, we both made a major change in our educational status. Isaac graduated from high school and began college (and kept on with schooling until he reached the Ph.D. — one of the only two Futurians to get that far, the other being Jack Robins). While I quit school entirely and never went back.

Around about then, both Isaac and I formed the habit of visiting science-fiction editors in their offices. Isaac concentrated on a single one, John Campbell, who had recently replaced F. Orlin Tremaine as editor of Astounding.

What Isaac did was write an actual story, leave it with Campbell and come back a month later to get the rejected manuscript (which he then mailed off to Amazing Stories, who bought it right away), along with a thirty-minute lecture on what Isaac did wrong and what he should have done right. So Isaac wrote a second story, trying to do it as Campbell had described. That got the same treatment; bounce with lecture from Campbell, acceptance by Amazing. And the third story was the charm. It was accepted by Campbell, as were scores of others over the next decades.

While I had followed a different course entirely, visiting nearly all the sf magazine editors there were — now a couple of dozen, as science fiction was having an unexpected boom. Nominally I was an agent offering them stories by my clients. I don’t think I made any actual sales, but when I confided to one of the new editors, a kind man named Robert Erisman, that I, too, would like to be an editor, he pointed me in the direction of Harry Steeger’s pulp chain Popular Publications, currently in the process of adding a number of new titles to their list.

I went there and offered my services to Steeger. Wonderfully, he took me on, allowing me to create two new science-fiction magazines, and suddenly Isaac had a new fallback market for the stories John Campbell didn’t want, and I had a prolific contributor.

That was quite a happy time for both of us, but what then came along was World War II.

That affected more people than just the two of us. Campbell suddenly discovered that editing the best science-fiction magazine in the world was no longer enough to satisfy him. Through friends, he found out that the Navy was willing to set up a small research facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to take on problems that the established teams weren’t handling, and set himself to help the war effort by recruiting people to staff it. Robert A. Heinlein was an easy choice: former Annapolis man himself, invalided out as a j.g. and desperate to get back into uniform. L. Sprague de Camp because he, too, couldn’t pass the physical for actual combat. Isaac was a natural. And there was also a good-looking female lieutenant better known by the name she acquired a few years later, Ginny Heinlein.

I’m not sure the team ever made much progress in their researches, but they did give it the old Navy try. Especially Isaac, who was yearning to find some kind of high-tech career to follow, since he had learned he was never going to be a doctor. No medical school would accept him, because there was a sort of gentlemen’s agreement to limit the number of Jewish doctors threatening to convert the whole practice of medicine into a Jewish specialty. So quotas had been established, and they were all filled.

(Many more parts to come.)

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(*Before Campbell)

Astounding Stories, December 1933

Astounding Stories, December 1933

The title of Astounding Stories was kept in its new, Street & Smith incarnation, the inaugural issue came out, and the new editor was named F. Orlin Tremaine.

Tremaine was not, of course, well-versed in science fiction. He was a Street & Smith veteran whom the management thought could do a creditable job of running a magazine in almost any field, even one unfamiliar to him. Tremaine thought so too, or at least thought that he could learn everything he needed to know about what sf readers wanted in a magazine from what the readers themselves had to say.

The primary source Tremaine had available for his instruction was fandom itself, now bigger and more active than ever before. All over the country, fans were organizing themselves into clubs, and almost every club began publishing its own fan mag (the coinage “fanzine” had not yet been invented). And what was in the fan mags? Almost always, there were critical discussions of almost every sf story published in any magazine. Tremaine studied these and kept in touch with some of their editors, thus greatly flattering those fan editors as he learned.

And Tremaine had one other resource for learning what fans wanted. That was — well — me.

You see, I had formed the habit of dropping by the offices of all the pro mags now and then to drop off manuscripts submitted for them. A few of them were written by me, others by fan friends and would-be writers, for whom I functioned as a literary agent, but that title didn’t begin to mean anything until some of us began to sell, quite a lot later on. At first Tremaine would send a (very) junior assistant out to the reception room to take the current collection from my hands, or, a little later, to return them as rejects, But then, once or twice, Tremaine himself began to come out and to chat with me for a few moments. And then — wonderful day! — he actually took me to lunch. I was then about sixteen. It was the most grown-up thing that had ever happened to me, and, oh!, how jealous all my fannish friends were when I told them about it

I don’t know if Tremaine had other secret agents at work in fandom to supply him with intelligence. I do know that he made good use of what he learned. He tumbled quickly to the fact that fans liked to believe that sf was in some way important and that you didn’t have to specify where in any story the importance lay. He used that wisdom to create a whole line of what he called “thought-variant” stories. He never said what thoughts they were meant to vary, nor was I ever able to deduce what unifying principle of thought-varying they were good for. No matter. The title sounded good and portentous, which I’m sure was what Tremaine was aiming at.

Tremaine’s Astounding was actually a better magazine than any of its competitors, at least (arguably) until Wonder mutated into Thrilling Wonder. What it didn’t do was produce a new group of major writers: L. Sprague de Camp and who else? In fact, the only other science-fiction writer I think of as a Tremaine discovery was called Warner Van Lorne, a name generally supposed to be a pseudonym hiding the identity of the real author, who perhaps was F. Orlin Tremaine himself. (Tremaine denied it.)

But then Tremaine returned to supervisory duties. Street & Smith cast about for a replacement to edit Astounding. They settled on an MIT dropout in his twenties. He had no editorial experience, but had written a few quite good stories of his own. His name was John W. Campbell, Jr., and he turned out to be the greatest editor sf has ever had.


(Continue this fascinating story when I get around to writing it.)

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