The Hole Story: Fake News and Parenting in Early Fandom

For collectors of early fan material, discovering that a recovered treasure is incomplete is more than disappointing. It leaves a gap in the record that spurs a quest to fill the void.

In at least two surviving copies of The MSA Bulletin from January 1940, there’s a conspicuous hole. Why would someone clip out a section of the generally mundane column “Items of General Interest?” These publications did not include coupons.

The MSA Bulletin, v2n1, January 1940

The origin of this mystery dates to June 1938 and an interaction between a young fan from Skowhegan, Maine and the powerful editor of a professional pulp.

James S. Avery appeared to be a rising star in early fandom. He was all of 17 when he excoriated John W. Campbell, Jr. and his publication in a letter to Astounding Science-Fiction. In November 1938, he assisted Harry Warner, Jr. with the launch of Spaceways, a prominent fanzine that ran for 30 issues through 1942. By September 1939 he was a founding member of the Maine Scientifiction Association (MSA) and editor of its club organ, The MSA Bulletin.

Astounding Science-Fiction, v21n4, June 1938

Meanwhile, on July 5 1939 the New York Daily News saw fit to print this brief item in the “Hollywood” gossip column by Danton Walker:

Street & Smith was the publisher behind Campbell’s Astounding. The company noticed – and took exception. But some science fiction fans also found time to read the newspaper. Donald A. Wollheim amplified the rumor in an article in Fantascience Digest penned in August 1939.

Fantascience Digest, v2n5, July-August-September 1939

Wollheim may have missed the terse, marginal retraction that appeared on July 7 in the Daily News.

Campbell also kept an eye on leading fanzines. Fantascience Digest received a threatening letter from Street & Smith and promptly printed a polite retraction.

Fantascience Digest, v3n2, January-February 1940

Campbell also contacted James V. Taurasi, editor of the weekly Fantasy News. Taurasi seized on the opportunity to attack his “notorious” enemy, Wollheim.

The response from Wollheim was inevitable and predictable.

Science Fiction Weekly, v1n2, February 25 1940

Taurasi had inserted a personal diatribe in the middle of a quote from Campbell, potentially confusing the reader. Campbell objected; Taurasi demurred.

Fantasy News, v4n10, February 25 1940

In their hysterical article, Fantasy News also revealed the explanation for The Hole:

“…in the January 1940 Maine Science Fiction Association Bulletin [sic], this same libellous [sic] statement appeared in exaggerated form, over the name of James S. Avery…”

Campbell’s revenge for Avery’s acerbic 1938 letter to Astounding, served cold? We suspect the ever-attentive editor hadn’t forgotten.

It appears that the MSA was in the midst of mailing issues of the January 1940 issue of the Bulletin when they became aware of the transgression. What to do with the fanzines they’d already printed? With an impoverished treasury, we believe the club elected to salvage the run by clipping out the offending article.

Fortunately for the obsessive historian, at least one intact copy escaped.

The MSA Bulletin, v2n1, January 1940.
From the collection of Sam McDonald

Unfortunately for Jim Avery, the consequences of his error were not limited to paper cuts.

Fantasy News, v4n12, March 10 1940. Perhaps our favorite fanzine headline of all time.
The MSA Bulletin, v2n2, March 1940

Under threat of legal action, Avery’s parents intervened, barring their son from all fannish activity.

“To them I must bow down…”

Science Fiction Weekly, v1n1, March 3 1940

The MSA Bulletin, v2n2, March 1940

But fortunately for Jim Avery, parents usually forgive. In short order he rejoined the MSA and retained his post as Associate Editor of Spaceways.

The MSA Bulletin, v2n3, April 1940

In 1940, fans and professional editors enjoyed and distained a love-hate relationship. Editors depended on fans to drive subscriptions. To varying degrees, the pros listened to fans and supported their efforts. Following the trail blazed by Charles D. Hornig, Mort Weisinger and Raymond A. Palmer in the 1930s, more prominent fans were joining the professional ranks — including Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim and Robert W. Lowndes. These later crossovers often promoted fans quite directly by publishing their stories, covering their conferences and printing reviews of their fanzines. None of this stopped fans from raking the editors over the coals for the quality of the stories in their magazines — or spreading rumors regarding their commercial standing. “The Hole Story” represents this fraught co-dependency in microcosm.

This post is a preview of material in development for The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom, Volume Two: 1940. Stay tuned for more!

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