Biographical / Historical
Between 1950 and 1965, over 500 distinct lesbian pulp novels were published in the US. These novels were exceptionally influential on lesbian communities in a time where LGBT media was extremely limited. Sold at the counters of grocery stores and in other common shops, these novels became a tangible way for many women to interact with a community they would otherwise have been unable to access. Some of the best loved books were the work of lesbian or bisexual women, many of whom—such as the influential Artemis Smith (Dr. Annselm L.N.V. Morpurgo) and Ann Bannon (Ann Weldy)— went on to become vocal activists and scholars in LGBT matters. Authors of this genre generally used pseudonyms for publication, which helped conceal their identity both as writers of explicit content and potentially as lesbians. Pseudonyms frequently crossed or confused the author's gender, such as in the case of Kay Addams (male author Orrie Hitt), Randy Salem (lesbian author Pat Perdue), and March Hastings (lesbian author Sally Singer). Some writers chose to use multiple pseudonyms, such as Gilbert Fox (published under Dallas Mayo and Paul Russo, among others), and some chose to use a separate name for each genre of pulp novel which they produced. This practice had the benefit of concealing some authors' outright connection to lesbian culture but was also a practice of pulp more generally. Because pulp was poor quality literature, due primarily to the constraints of cheap publishing and quick production, writers often intended these novels to be their introduction to large publishing houses. Authors would begin by writing pulp and then, once they had become accustomed to the industry, would move onto more serious works without having trashy pulp as part of their reputation.
The majority of lesbian pulp novels are original stories created for mass production by American writers. A few key exceptions to this rule existed. The first was reproductions of older lesbian literary works, including Radclyffe Hall's influential The Well of Loneliness (original 1928), Lillian Hellman's script for the play The Children's Hour (original 1934), and Anna Elisabet Weirauch's The Scorpion (original 1919, published in German). The other exception is international works, which would be translated and printed in pulp for the US. Tereska Torrès's Women's Barracks (1950), the novel which started the lesbian pulp genre, was translated from its original French for its mass production in America. Other translated works include Lucie Marchal's, The Mesh (original French, published as pulp in 1959), Francoise Mallet's The Loving and the Daring (original French, also known in English as The Illusionist, published as pulp in 1952), and Torrès's By Cecile (1963). Many of these republished works are among the most favorable to lesbians, as they reflect personal experiences of the author or are canonical entries into broader lesbian literature. While many of the best-regarded novels in the genre were written by lesbian or bisexual women, the bulk of what was produced by American publishers was by male authors for a male audience. Considered perverse erotica, lesbian pulps were written and marketed towards male gratification.
These pulp novels occupy a conflicted space in lesbian culture. Because they were published and distributed en masse, these books became a way for closeted lesbian and bisexual women in areas where there were no strong LGBT communities to find self-recognition and connection with others. Some found the books changing how they thought of their sexuality, particularly if they had only experienced straight relationships. However, buying and keeping these books could be taboo, despite their general popularity. Purchasers often tried to buy lesbian pulps as covertly as possible, and many took advantage of the disposable quality of pulp and abandoned or destroyed the books when they had finished reading them. Publishers were willing to produce lesbian novels because they were an extremely profitable genre, but the US Post Office refused to deliver "explicit" materials, including any promotion of lesbian relationships—regardless of the actual sexual content within. Authors circumvented this issue by creating narratives which appeared to condemn lesbianism. Characters would frequently be killed, go insane, convert back to heterosexuality, or be otherwise fatally punished in the conclusion of the book. In others, the entire novel's plot would include a pervasive element of shame or corruption when a young woman would be manipulated into a lesbian relationship. Compounding these issues is the trite or formulaic nature of the plots, which were often a product of the hastened publishing schedule and low budget for production. These factors create difficulty for many in the current lesbian community to relate to the condemning nature of the genre, particularly as many works of far better quality in both writing and representation have appeared in recent decades.
The cover artwork of these novels is another important aspect. Although there were some strong communities of LGBT women, particularly in urban areas, many had difficulty finding or accessing them. Particularly for those who lived in rural areas or with deep homophobia, the covers of pulp novels would be the first time they saw themselves reflected in popular culture. Lesbian pulp covers usually contained a depiction of two or more women, at least one of whom was exhibiting an identifiable lesbian desire. Common themes included women undressing in private or in communal rooms, women ignoring men in favor of gazing at another woman's body, or women in the midst of a romantic encounter. These covers generally teased at the sexual content within the books, which was typical of all pulp romances. Every identified artist for this collection's covers is a man. Although some women did paint for pulp novels and magazines, they would be frequently relegated to less controversial subjects, such as demure heterosexual romances, and in the rare case horrors, mysteries, and thrillers. Many of the artists for the lesbian novels also produced for many other pulp publications. Artists would receive the covers as an assignment from their publishing company, often without any contact with the author. Because of the tight production schedule, they would often be working off skimming the book's contents, its (publisher-generated) title, or in the lucky case a plot synopsis. Due to this, although some covers hint at community subgroups such as butch and femme aesthetics, they are generally inaccurate to the fashion of real lesbian communities.
Some cover artists of the novels remain unidentified, which can be for a multitude of reasons. First, in the early 1950s many pulp publishers did not allow artists to keep the rights to their work, and so the paintings were considered the sole property of the company. Some publishers would even reuse covers, as is the case for Kay Addams's Warped Desire (1960) and Richard Villanova's Her Woman (1962). Although artists were eventually given more rights, many were unable to claim important works as their intellectual property. Second, because of the controversial nature of the genre, many artists chose not to include specific covers in their portfolio. Like the authors, pulp was sometimes considered a way to launch a more extensive fine arts career, although successful artists often committed to long-term work in the industry. It was far more acceptable to use works from other pulp genres like mystery and horror as promotional and professional material. Paul Rader is one of the few artists who was able and willing to sign his covers. Many pulp illustrators were fresh graduates of New York art schools, but Rader entered the industry later in life. Rader's work was exceptionally suited to the demands of romance and lesbian pulps, because he was notably better at depicting "sexy" bodies than painting for other genres, like sci-fi. When Midwood Books was founded in 1957, he was one of the first to paint for them and quickly became a favorite of the publisher. Six of the novels in this collection have covers that can be attributed to Rader.
Lesbian pulps were the backdrop to an extensive fight over the right to produce and sell explicit content. The publication of Women's Barracks is famous as the event which precipitated the formation of the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials from 1952-1953. The Committee ultimately accomplished little in restricting pulp novels, but it did cause editorial changes to the book (the addition of a disapproving narrator) and demonstrated political attitudes towards the genre. In 1956, a bookseller was punished with 30 days of imprisonment for selling copies of Mark Tryon's Sweeter than Life, republished after the lawsuit as The Twisted Loves of Nym O'Sullivan. This case was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Smith v. California (1959) decision, which voided the California law preventing the sale of "obscene" content on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment right to free speech. Over the course of the 1960s, lawsuits continued to erode the restrictions on explicit content. Rather than boost the lesbian pulp genre, however, this caused its collapse.
The expansion of publishers' rights meant that the Postal Service could no longer deny delivering lesbian-friendly or pornographic novels on content alone. However, mass publishers were not willing to print works which portrayed lesbianism positively or which increased the amount of graphic content. Smaller presses and collectives began to emerge, which were able to siphon the market for pulps with novels that were better written and more satisfying for their audiences. Unable and unwilling to meet this new competition, publishers like Midwood and Beacon-Signal turned towards the other genres of pulp fiction. The year 1965 marks the end of the lesbian pulp era. Though lesbian fiction had improved in quality, smaller presses were unable to reach the same closeted and isolated women that pulps appealed to as they were considerably limited in their geographic distribution by the size of their operations and the cost of shipping. For many lesbians who had relied on pulps in lieu of community, their access to LGBT content became incredibly restricted in the coming decades. However, lesbian pulp fiction incentivized a new generation of writers to produce better literature through the 1970s and 80s. Publishing houses like Naiad Press were established, which were able to support the ambition of these new authors. Although genuine pulp manufacture had ceased, these presses would continue to reprint the most influential lesbian pulps for the next generation to enjoy. (Written by Sara Kunkemueller.)
Blakemore, Erin. "Pulp Fiction Helped Define American Lesbianism," Jstor Daily, 2019. Accessed through https://daily.jstor.org/pulp-fiction-helped-define-american-lesbianism/.
Fonesca, Sarah. "Reality Is a Drag: I'd Rather Live in Lesbian Pulp Fiction," them, Mar. 2019. Accessed through https://www.them.us/story/lesbian-pulp-fiction.
Frost, Natasha. "The Lesbian Pulp Fiction That Saved Lives," Atlas Obscura, May 2018. Accessed through https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/lesbian-pulp-fiction-ann-bannon. Hermes, Joke. "Sexuality in Lesbian Romance Fiction," Feminist Review, no. 42, Autumn 1992, pp. 49-66. Accessed through https://www.jstor.org/stable/1395129.
Keller, Yvonne. "'Was It Right to Love Her Brother's Wife so Passionately?': Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965," American Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2, Jun. 2005, pp. 385-410. Accessed through https://www.jstor.org/stable/40068271.
Munroe, Lynn. "The Notebooks of Paul Rader," Lynn Munroe Books, n.d. Accessed through http://lynn-munroe-books.com/list64/RaderHome/RaderNotebooks-home.htm.
Rabinowitz, Paula. "Slips of the Tongue: Uncovering Lesbian Pulp," American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, Princeton University Press, 2014, pp. 184-205. Accessed through https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvdxq.11.
Many cover artists for this collection identified through: "Pulp Covers: The Best of the Worst," n.d. Accessed through pulpcovers.com.
Saunders, David. "Alphabetical Index of Pulp Artists," Wild American Field Guide to Pulp Artists, n.d. Accessed through https://www.pulpartists.com/index.html.