"Come here, Laura." She looked unearthly as she spoke, with her black hair tumbled, her cheeks crimson. ...They stood motionless, so close that they touched. ...Laura shook all over. She couldn't talk except to repeat the other girl's name over and over, as if she were in a trance...Neither of them heard the phone ring, felt the chill of the rainy night, knew of anything except each other.
So reads a passage from Ann Bannon's I Am a Woman, one of scores of pulp novels about lesbian love and sex published during the paperback industry's most sensational era. In 1950, twelve years after Pocket Books published the first mass-market paperback, Fawcett began to feature the twilight world of women-loving women with its successful Gold Medal imprint series. Other publishers followed suit; soon the genre was so firmly established that readers could choose among several formulas or subgenres of lesbian pulp fiction: lesbians in institutions, love triangles, lesbians "saved" by straight men, etc. With their camp cover art and lurid prose, many of these books appealed to readers across lines of gender and sexuality, desires and tastes; although the narratives undoubtedly satisfied the prurient interests of many straight readers, they also catered to an entire generation of lesbian readers, who were anxious to find a reflection-albeit distorted and often cruel-of their own lives in a work of fiction.
Lesbian pulps were titled and pictured in "codes" that helped lesbians pick them out from amongst a drugstore rack filled with similar, often lurid, titles: a cover with a brunette towering over a reclining blonde, often with a man in the far background; titles with "strange", "odd" or "shadows" in them. The pulps gave some women a glimpse into a world that wasn't easy to access outside of large cities. The popularity of the pulps made them available to women across the country, providing some sense of comfort and inclusion. However, lesbian characters rarely fared well in these novels, their potential for happiness ruined by censure typical of the period: a woman engaged in illicit pleasures of one kind or another had to suffer a downfall to balance out the licentiousness of her actions. This "moral lesson" redeemed lesbian pulps from the ranks of mere pornography under the pretense of providing a public service. In addition, these stories sent a not-so-subtle message to lesbians about their place in society. "Frank" (code for "sexually explicit") stories warned readers about: the predatory older lesbian; the dangers of a poor father-daughter relationship; the susceptibility of orphans; the perils of the big city; the "immaturity" of lesbian sex; and the general misery of a lesbian existence.
"Scientific research" was another popular premise around which to base these novels. Kinsey's Sexual Behavior of the Human Female came out in 1953, and Masters and Johnson's Human Sexual Response was published in 1966. Although these books were not intended to be prurient, the case studies apparently sparked the imaginations of pulp authors. Once again, pornography could be disguised as something socially acceptable, and the books had the added lure of being "based on a true story." Bea Campbell's Orgy of the Dolls, for example, claims to be comprised of "actual case histories", and offers a bibliography. However, "Orgy of the Dolls" is not a particularly scientific title, and the "case histories" are filled with an incredible amount of detail for something sprung from a therapist's notes. One of the "patients" even refers to Kinsey's book in regard to her "condition." Group living situations-or female-oriented workplaces, such as department stores or hospitals-were a popular setting for lesbian pulps; apparently, prolonged proximity among women inevitably results in a hotbed of lesbianism.
These novels give us the flavor of the times (1950-1968) with regard to sexual mores and public attitudes toward lesbian sexuality-which, judging from the popularity of the books, amounted to a love-hate relationship. Although the 1950's and early 1960's have been portrayed in the media as a desexualized time (i.e., "Happy Days"), that image betrayed by these books, which paint a Hugh Hefneresque, hedonistic lifestyle. They are also a lesson in unintended consequences: during a period when pulps in book and magazine form flourished in many genres (detective stories, science fiction, horror, westerns, and gay male pulps), what publisher could have expected that these books, initially written by and for men, would strike such a cord with women?
Many well-known authors wrote pulps under other names, including Mists of Avalon author Marion Zimmer Bradley (as Lee Chapman, Miriam Gardner, Morgan Ives) and popular and prolific mystery writer Lawrence Block (Jill Emerson, Sheldon Ward, Andrew Shaw). Lesbian pulps began to disappear by the 1960s, but the strengthening gay and lesbian rights movement prompted at least two lesbian publishing houses to reissue titles in the 1970s, signaling a critical reappropriation and recontextualization of these works. In order to facilitate study of this unique and complex genre, the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Duke University now offers a growing collection of lesbian pulp novels. The collection includes several literary antecedents to the lesbian pulp genre (see Radclyffe Hall and Gale Wilhelm, below); and many books in their original pulp format, as well as several pulps later reprinted in paperback by Naiad Press, Inc.
This bibliography of texts and sources was compiled by Maureen McClarnon, 2000.
First edition compiled by Diane McRay, 1995.
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