February 8, 2016, by Michael Jennings
Lesbian pulp fiction: then and now
How queer were the 1950s? We tend to think of this as a period of conservative retrenchment and censoriousness, but Jennifer Terry has suggested that, by the 1950s, homosexuality had become ‘a national obsession’ in the US, due to both the expansion of medical and scientific research into the topic and to the burgeoning visibility of gay and lesbian subcultures in major American cities such as New York and San Francisco (Jennifer Terry, An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p6). This is the era of Alfred Kinsey’s sexological research – his Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male was published in 1948, and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female followed in 1953 – but it is also the era in which the subgenre of lesbian pulp fiction enjoyed huge success, with authors such as Ann Bannon, Marijane Meaker, Paula Christian and March Hastings selling millions of copies of their books.
Pulp novels were small format paperback originals, so called because of the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. Designed to be pocket-sized, they developed from the pulp magazines of the 1930s, were sold in outlets such as drugstores, bus depots and railway stations, and were intended to be highly disposable: Ann Bannon once commented that the pulp novel is the one you buy on the way home from work, read on the bus, and leave on the bus when you reach your stop. The lurid covers of the lesbian pulps proclaimed the titillating nature of their content, but the suggestive titles (‘Return to Lesbos’, ‘Women in the Shadows’, ‘These Curious Pleasures’) and salacious images – often of half-undressed women – were countered by more moralising taglines about the dangers of homosexuality (‘The novel that dares to tell the truth about a perverse love’, ‘A problem that must be faced’). After Tereska Torres’ Women’s Barracks was a surprise hit for Fawcett Gold Medal press in 1950, presses such as Beacon, Midwood and Fawcett began commissioning authors to write formulaic tales of lesbian relationships between college girls, or seductions in the shadows of Greenwich Village bars. Ann Bannon’s ‘Beebo Brinker’ series was a notable hit, following a cast of characters across several years and through changing fortunes, and introducing the infamous butch character Beebo with all her charm and swagger; Marijane Meaker also enjoyed great success (as Vin Packer) with Spring Fire (1952) and (as Ann Aldrich) with her series of non-fiction stories of lesbian life, beginning with We Walk Alone (1955). In The Ladder, the magazine of the first US lesbian organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis, readers gleefully swapped opinions about their favourite titles, and Barbara Grier – writing as ‘Gene Damon’ – included brief reviews of pulp novels in her ‘Lesbiana’ column.
Yet the editors of the presses gave strict instructions to their authors that homosexuality could not be presented as ‘attractive’, and the novels accordingly tended to feature unhappy endings in which women renounced their lesbianism for the love of a man, or wound up in an asylum, or were left miserable and alone. For decades, lesbian critics dismissed the genre as homophobic ‘trash’, or simply ignored it, until – in very recent years – new editions started appearing from presses such as Naiad and Cleis, along with critical scholarship and even an off-Broadway theatre production of Beebo Brinker; Patricia Highsmith’s Carol, recently adapted into a much-admired Hollywood film, was originally published as a pulp novel, The Price of Salt (1952), under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. How, then, should we think about this material now? Is it merely a marker of a more miserable past (what the Lesbian Herstory Archive in New York describes as ‘survival literature’)? Is it historical evidence of an incipient LGBT movement before Stonewall? Or is it simply kitsch fun to be enjoyed in the present? For me, it is all of this and more, and since a friend first loaned me a copy of Bannon’s Odd Girl Out, back in about 2005, I haven’t been able to stop reading.
Join us for ‘Lesbian pulp fiction: then and now’ at 6.30pm, Wednesday 10 February in A30 Lecture Theatre, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, University Park. Book online.