Retro Fandom Friday – “Is Fandom Terrible and Should We Cut Them Off: Y/N?”

Friday , 22, July 2016 2 Comments

Planet Stories LogoIn the previous issue, the editorial staff of Planet Stories put it to the readers whether or not to ax the Letters section. Given that sentiment regarding the Vizigraph typically ranges from it being a worthless waste of space to the only part of Planet Stories worth reading, there are strong arguments both for and against keeping the letters section that saw future big names, like Lin Carter and Damon Knight, and contemporary contributors today thought of as “the greats” in their hallowed pages grousing about SF, but ongoing debates about moral and cultural relativism, race and how much sex should be in science fiction in the letters section (including those claiming that implicitly and explicitly American SFF protagonists lead to bigotry and those making the case for polygamy and throwing out all sexual taboo*) seem to have triggered some frustration among fans and editors alike.  While there had always been some friendly ribbing of the readership, the last few columns by  Paul Payne seemed to show some genuine exasperation behind the usual hyperbole.  It’s worth noting that Payne would be out as masthead editor after two more issues.

Lots of heavyweights chimed in on the subject in the Fall 1949 issue:

On the keep side, Alfred J. Coppel, Jr. offers his “two cents worth”: “It does reduce total story wordage, it’s true, but from the writer’s standpoint at least, the reader comments are well worth the type and paper they consume.”

E.E. Doc Smith, playing the OG card “As an old reader of Planet-since Vol. I, No. 1”, votes Keep.

James Blish points out “eliminating La Vizi would increase your yearly story budget by about 20,000 words, at 5,000 words per issue” but “would automatically make Planet the biggest money’s worth in the field-more stories for less cash outlay on the reader’s part, with very little additional expense to your firm.”

Henry Hasse notes “The Viz seems about equally divided between the insipid little blatherings and the more serious stuff, such as the racial debate waged currently in your columns I’ve not intention of entering into the latter; it’s doing all right for itself.”

A penitent Robert A. Bradley votes keep while doing the 1949 equivalent of saying “Sorry we crapped up your comments section.”:”We have played false to the magazine we wished to see grow, and we have played false to the public by making the Vizigraph a battleground for our personal opinions. That we thought to enliven its pages and make it an interesting feature for reader and author alike does not excuse us for making it a parade of vulgarities. We have a house to clean-and we have no broom with which to clean it.”

Radell Faradel Nelson took umbrage to the editorship’s claim in the previous issues that a ‘few rabid fans’ were dominating and driving discussion in the letters section, and goes on to rant about “old fen” and “new fen” before saying PS should “Set a precedent and run a tale with a Negro hero.”

On a happier note is this praise for Leigh Brackett from Rodney Palmer: “[Queen of the Martian Catacombs is] in the style of Burroughs, but it seems to me it’s much better than Burroughs (though there’s unquestionable magic in Burroughs’ work). I love this type of story. I had fun reading it, I don’t care what anybody says about it, I don’t care who calls it hack, tripe or juvenile. I liked it. I liked Beast Jewel of Mars even better. Please don’t stop. More, more and more of Brackett and Mars adventure.”

Edwin Sigler on the other hand feels Brackett’s women need to cover up: “The fact that she insists on sticking naked dames in a story robs it of all effectiveness. A woman under certain circumstances will display her body, but you can’t make me believe that a woman will deliberately run around naked in weather as cold as it is supposed to be on Mars.” I’ll bet Sigler doesn’t care for Burroughs’ Mars stories either. Brackett Babes Bayonetta Controversy of Their Time?! Put on some more clothes, dear, it’s chilly out on the slopes of Pavonis Mons and you don’t know who you might offend.

The thing about letters sections is that they take up space; space that would otherwise cost money to fill with sci-fi stories, if it didn’t go straight to advertisers.  It’s cheap content,connects readers of the publication, and fosters a sense of community the way that web boards and social networking do today. So long as it didn’t ultimately drive readers away by straying too far into controversy or general obnoxiousness, it would behoove the editorial staff to keep it. What is a bit surprising (to both the editorial staff and myself) is that the “keep” vote was less than overwhelming: 51.5 in favor of keep, 38.2% ditch, and 10.3% didn’t care either way.

Honestly, if I were a contemporary PS reader, I would’ve probably voted to ditch the Vizi – there’s a lot of vapid stuff in it, including some aggressively stupid and obnoxious commentary. But as someone who can look back at what was going on in fandom in the distant days of yore, it’s great fun to read and see that, for better or worse, SF fandom really hasn’t changed all the much.

*:Note that the first Kinsey Report had just come out the previous year.

When I get back around to the Summer 1949 issue (which I really should’ve done first), I may spotlight some of the more bizarre and odious letters, the likes of which perhaps prompted Payne (or Malcolm Reiss) to consider throwing the Vizigraph overboard. But for the next few weeks, I’ll be hopping into the Wayback Machine and looking the June 1932 issue of Astounding Stories to mix things up a bit.


  • Carrington Dixon says:

    Yes, the pulp letters columns shared many of the pluses and minuses of latter day blog comments. Reading them today is fun for all the reasons you mention.

    It is worth noting that many of the digest magazines that replaced the pulps in the early 1950s did NOT have a letters column. Astounding continued to publish letters but those letters became more and more about the editorials rather than about the stories.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, I have absolutely loved going back and reading them, though I’m sure that many editors probably saw dealing with them a chore whose costs outweighed the benefits of the cheap filler.

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