Pulp Fiction: Lesbian
PULP FICTION: LESBIAN
Lesbian novels published during the "Golden Age" (1950–1965) of pulp paperback production are chronicles of resistance that provided early forums for challenging fixed and conservative systems of gender and sexual identity.
Post–World War II Contexts
The novels of Claire Morgan, Ann Bannon, Valerie Taylor, March Hastings, Paula Christian, Randy Salem, Marijane Meaker (under the pen names of Vin Packer and Ann Aldrich), and Marion Zimmer Bradley were particularly influential as they debated and defined possibilities for new individual and group identities during a period inU.S. cultural history that was intensely hostile to preceived internal and external threats. These included the twin menaces of communism and homosexuality, often invoked by the medical or social "experts" who appeared in the prefaces of many pulp fiction narratives. Lesbianism, they claimed, was a sociological disease and a cause for grave national concern. It could not be "cured" but must be "understood" as a tragedy.
For many authors, however, publishers' policies and obscenity codes permitted only negative representations of lesbians. The Comstock Law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1873 had banned the circulation or sale of novels deemed obscene. In 1952 when the House Un-American Activities Commission conducted its purges of lesbians and gay men from the government and military, the House of Representatives Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials (the so-called Gathings Committee) debated whether Tereska Torres's lesbian novel Women's Barracks (1950) possessed any literary merit. That these novels were published in this environment is evidence that censorship, repression, and oppression did not go unchallenged.
American Popular Fiction and Pulps
As a genre, lesbian "pulps" (so-named because of their cheap, acidic pulp paper content) did not exist as such prior to the 1950s. They did, however, emerge from two distinct strains in American publishing history. First, nineteenth-century dime novels and serial publications featured increasingly sensational adventure and romance fiction. The audiences developed by this market eagerly embraced the mass distribution of paperback fiction that was launched in 1939 by Avon Pocket Books and was followed by dozens of other publishers. World War II Armed Services Editions, distributed to soldiers, continued to develop reader tastes for sensational fiction. When, in the 1950s, Fawcett Gold Medal started to market original fiction, including lesbian fiction (long a staple of soft pornographic fiction for male audiences), these paperback books were sold in drugstores, bus stations, and other public venues, attracting both straight and LGBT audiences by their colorful covers and captions.
Second, fiction identifiable as "lesbian," sometimes arguably, existed in American fiction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and perhaps earlier, before pulp paperbacks brought that fiction to millions of readers. Some early twentieth-century lesbian texts were reprinted as pulp paperbacks. For example, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) was reprinted in 1951, Lilyan Brock's Queer Patterns (1935) in 1951, Gale Wilhelm's modernist text We Too Are Drifting (1935) in 1955, and Diana Frederics's Diana: A Strange Autobiography (1939) in 1955.
Sexologists and Case Histories
As negative as many pulps needed to be to conform to existing obscenity laws and publishers' mandates (lesbianism could not be represented in a positive way), lesbian readers appreciated the opportunity to read almost anything at all about other lesbians. One of the greatest strengths of the Golden Age lesbian narratives is their refusal to forfeit desire as it marks the characters' individual, gender, and sexual identities. Late nineteenth-century German sexologists had reconceptualized homosexuality from a sin to a disease by developing a byzantine system of sexual taxonomies that had become publicly codified as "inversion" before Hall's widely-read Well of Loneliness was published. The concept of inversion was central to the portrayal of Hall's protagonist Stephen Gordon and continued to be central to the self-images of figures in pulp romances a half-century later. Meanwhile, Sigmund Freud provided a discourse of the self that acknowledged sexual drives as universal and disrupted the clear division between "normal" and "perverse." His work was widely read at the time of the pulps' production, and his terminology, too, found its way into their narratives.
Inside the texts, however, some pulp heroines protested. Frances Ollenfield in Valerie Taylor's Return to Lesbos (1963), for example, contemplates leaving her husband Bill after falling in love with Erika Frohmann and visits a minister, Dr. Powell, for counsel. She fears he will "think it was a neurosis. They were always harping on that: retarded development, parental rejection, childhood trauma, inherited tendency. As if straight people didn't have all the same things to cope with" (p. 115). Making this point in her discussion with Dr. Powell, Frances tells
him, "Straight people almost never realize that what seems abnormal to them might be perfectly normal for someone else" (p. 119).
After suffering a nervous breakdown, Val MacGregor in Christian's This Side of Love (1963) experiences a break between her "self" and how she is perceived and judged by others. She attempts to express this to her psychiatrist Dr. Rosen, "[A]t the moment there is no me! I'm only the projection screen many emotional yards away from the film over which I have no control" (p. 240). This same sort of distancing is experienced by Diana, the protagonist of Frederics's novel, when she reads a book on homosexuality: "I was, then, a 'pervert,' 'uranian,' 'homosexual'—no matter, all added up to the same thing. I was subject to arrest! I was grotesque, alienated, unclean!"(p. 20).
Cultural Work of the Pulps
Just as recovered nineteenth-century women's fiction demonstrates cultural and literary importance that belies dismissals of it as "domestic" and "sentimental," many post–World War II lesbian narratives provide their audiences with thoughtful, articulate characters and well-written passages. The best of these texts suggest that women can and should become physically and sexually active, noncompliant with traditional gender socialization, financially independent through work, and self-sufficient emotionally.
Several scholarly articles provide commentaries on the pulps and their historical and cultural importance. Books featuring reproductions of cover art and rhetoric, with commentaries and bibliographies, allow contemporary audiences to experience the visual impact of the pulps and to appreciate their history.
Pulp fiction disturbed and attracted mass audiences because it offered glimpses of taboo eroticism, questioned comfortable assumptions about social good and evil, sold itself through beautiful cover art, and provided moments that challenged the premises of established gender and value systems. Figures in these romances often debate the truth or falsehood of their own apparent clinical identities as "inverts,""perverts," and "narcissists," doomed to wretched lives "in the shadows" of conventional, "decent" existence. In debating whether their own lives resemble the models of abnormality and unnatural behaviors and desires that psychosocial experts ascribe to them, many figures renounce these negative images of their lives, relationships, and subjectivities. In Claire Morgan's The Price of Salt (1952), one of the first lesbian romances to permit the lesbian pair to remain happily together by the text's conclusion, Therese Belivet is puzzled by her love for Carol Aird but distances herself from popular negative stereotypes: "She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that" (p. 91).
In addition to challenging stereotypes, pulp authors augmented lesbian culture by inserting references to earlier pulp titles in later novels. These self-referential moments provided cultural reinscriptions that both preserved memory of the pulps as artifacts and promoted their readership. In Taylor's A World without Men (1963), for example, Kate Wood attempts to learn more about Erika Frohmann by exploring her books. When Kate refers to texts such as Aldrich's We Walk Alone, Christian's Edge of Twilight, and even one of Taylor's own titles, Whisper Their Love (p. 46), she authorizes not only the texts themselves but the lesbian existences the texts narrate, performing crucial cultural work for lesbian audiences. Sometimes characters in pulps position themselves against pulp stereotypes, affirming their ability to courageously choose love over a closeted existence (Christian, Love Is Where You Find It, p. 122). In addition, characters come out to each other by discussing pulp titles (Taylor, Return to Lesbos, pp. 45, 75) and use pulps as sexual conduct manuals (Bannon, Beebo Brinker, p. 78). These constitute instances of historical self-invention, when a marginalized literature establishes its substance by referring to its having been published in a prior moment in time.
The cultural work begun by the pulps continued through the work of subsequent authors of lesbian romances. The novels of Rita Mae Brown, in particular Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), and novels published by Naiad Press throughout the 1980s and 1990s, continued to provide lesbians a place in print. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first century circulation of zines and the public and private revolution effected by the Internet have provided additional venues for challenging dominant cultural assumptions and positions.
Many pulp best-selling authors—Bannon, Christian, Taylor—were themselves working women, writing to support children or establish economic independence. Their fiction reflects a respect for the "normalcy" that society denied them. Taylor, for example, recalls her determination to write "stories about real people—women who had jobs, families, faults, talents, friends, problems; not just erotic mannikins" (Garber, "Round-table," p. 1). Hastings describes the joint acts of writing and reading: "Together we [author and audience] share a mutual trust in possibilities, we believe our world can materialize, we expect it to—and the novel brings forth that expectation" (Garber, "Part II," p. 8). For Bannon, the best known of pulp's lesbian authors, "I knew I was constructing a world that I was fascinated with and wanted to be part of. This is the way I could join it" (Blackwell, p. 35). Christian echoes these authors when she states, "My object was to reach out to the heterosexual readers, to make them see that one isn't a destructive pervert just because of lesbianism. The perversion was in society's attitude, forcing us all to live double lives, constantly in fear of being found out and persecuted….These are not sex books….They are books about feelings" (Introduction to a 1981 reprint of her 1965 novel Amanda).
For every high-quality Bannon or Taylor romance, however, the publishing market produced dozens of pulps whose covers, contents, and endings delivered precisely the punishing messages they promised. Hastings's publisher informed her that happy lesbian characters violated the "moral code" (Garber, "Part II," p. 8). Bradley's editor mandated that the lesbian characters must "discover men and/or come to an unhappy end, thus reaffirming heterosexuality" (Garber, "Roundtable," p. 4). Accordingly, in lesbian author Christian's The Other Side of Desire (1965), for example, Carrie Anderson is bored by her husband Paul, betrayed by her lover, and returns to her husband, concluding, "Even a normal gesture such as hand-holding [with him] took on a new significance for her; it was normal" (p. 156). In Fletcher Flora's Strange Sisters (1960), lesbian Kathy Galt commits suicide after the death of a beloved aunt, her abandonment by two lesbian lovers, her rape by a male acquaintance, and the loss of her job.
Yet few lesbians had had the opportunity, before the 1950s, to compare themselves or their lovers to accessible characters in fiction—whether stereotyped or not. Exceptions include the self-sacrificing Stephen Gordon in Hall's Well of Loneliness and fragmented figures in modernist American texts. The insanity of Robin Vote in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1937), the Stephen Gordon–like self-sacrifice of Jan Morale in Wilhelm's We Too Are Drifting, and the emotional exhaustion of Adele in Gertrude Stein's Things as They Are (1951) presented complex, frustrated relationships to their readers. Elisabeth Craigin's Either Is Love (1937) and Frederics's Diana both offer difficult relationships but also articulate discussions of current theories of sexuality and their relevance.
The enormous popularity of lesbian texts among lesbians in the twentieth century demonstrated a market for fiction that would suggest answers to questions of gender and sexual identity. The depth of this hunger took the male-dominated publishing industry of the 1950s and 1960s by surprise. Dick Carroll, editor of Bannon's bestselling Fawcett Gold Medal Books, and many other publishers had not anticipated the lesbian audience that would buy them in such numbers.
For some writers and their lesbian audiences, the texts featuring depressed or angry characters became sites where, at a minimum, private truths could appear in print or even confront public censure. For many other readers, these texts simply became the only home and family they possessed, and lesbians became adept at ignoring punitive moral messages in even hostile texts and enjoying the narratives' confirmations that other lesbians existed.
Lesbian sexuality had long been a staple of pornography for male audiences, but the readers of lesbian romances—American lesbians—were often geographically and socially isolated and rarely saw themselves mirrored in the society around them or in the fiction available to them. They longed, in other words, for literary representations of ordinariness. The pulps provided this mirror by departing from the high culture of Hall, Barnes, and Stein (which until then had signified literary lesbian identity) to tell the stories, primarily, of working-class women.
Authors were deluged with letters from readers, grateful to see that their stories were not unique. Even later readers like lesbian author Dorothy Allison remarked of Bannon's Beebo Brinker, "Suddenly I wasn't reading porn, I was reading my own history" (Wolt, p. 22). Non-white audiences, however, did not find their histories represented by authors of diverse races and cultures. Although black lesbians are chronicled in histories, they rarely appear in the Golden Age texts. Loving Her, a novel concerned with an interracial lesbian relationship, was published by black author Ann Shockley in 1974 but this text falls outside the era of Golden Age pulp publication.
Ann Bannon's romances have survived through reprints by Timely Books in the 1970s, Naiad Press in the 1980s, and (as the Beebo Brinker Chronicles) by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the 1990s. In 2001, they were reprinted by Cleis Press. Most other pulp novels remain long out of print. Although most pulp novels were discarded or destroyed, the acid in their paper ensures the eventual self-destruction of those that survived. It is ironic that the very medium that permitted their mass circulation—cheap paper—has left most in a condition too fragile to be read. Growing numbers of archives purchase and protect pulp novels as they become increasingly valuable and rare, acknowledging their value as material artifacts of a unique cultural history and as spectacular exemplars of opportunistic marketing.
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——. Love Is Where You Find It. New York: Avon, 1961.
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——. This Side of Love and Edge of Twilight (1963, 1959). New York: Belmont Books, 1966.
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see alsobannon, ann; highsmith, patricia; literature; pulp fiction: gay; rule, jane; shockley, ann allen; taylor, valerie; wilhelm, gale.