Pulp and Circumstance
By Carol Seajay
Early in 1966, when we were both 15, my girlfriend and I found a lesbian pulp paperback, We, Too, Must Love, on the bookshelf of another Senior Girl Scout. We “borrowed” it, devoured it, and returned it before its absence would be noticed. I was thrilled by what I read: that we could support ourselves and make our lives together, and that there were many other women like us. My sweetie, on the other hand, was terrified by what she found in the same pages. But she was the one who found the courage to go to the newsstand down the block from her Catholic girls’ school and special order every book referenced in We, Too, Must Love that wasn’t yet out of print, and then every additional book referenced in those. (Blessings on the newsstand boys who sold us the books with a minimum of grief.) Katherine V. Forrest’s anthology, Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965, brought back these memories and more as I read through the selection of excerpts from 22 classics from the heyday of the pulp novel. Forrest cheerfully prefaces each excerpt with the original publication’s lurid cover and sensational jacket copy, providing an entertaining introduction to these books for the generations who started reading after the pulps disappeared, as well as for those who never understood what all the fuss was about. The best reason to read the old pulps is that they’re fun. But there are other reasons: readers in their twenties and thirties will recognize their own lives and dreams in the “differently gendered” Beebo Brinker, heroine of Ann Bannon’s much loved and frequently reprinted tales. Those who appreciate edgy episodes can revel in the day when a single kiss could make a woman both an outcast and an outlaw. And historians will note the guidebook-like qualities of many of the books and the way they disseminated new ideas throughout the culture.
An estimated 2000 lesbian-themed novels were published as part of the great pulp paperback boom inspired by the success of the “pocket books” published for soldiers during World War II. The new paperbacks cost as little as a quarter and were readily available in drugstores and newsstands all over America. While many of the lesbian pulps were quick knock-offs intended to tantalize and intrigue male readers, the earliest books, in particular, were intelligent and thoughtful, written to illuminate rather than sensationalize.
Two of my favorites from the era, Women’s Barracks (1950) and The Girls in 3-B (1959), both of which are highlighted in Lesbian Pulp Fiction, exuberantly served up a smorgasbord of new options for women, as the characters leave home and explore work, careers, living arrangements, and an impressive range of both heterosexual and lesbian relationships. While their covers were designed to appeal to prurient interest, I suspect that sales of these two books, to both women and men, were also driven by the sheer thrill of discovering new options and seeing them validated in print. Both books were ultimately empowering: even a reader who made the most traditional of marriages could come away feeling she’d had a choice and had made the best one for herself. And lesbian readers? All in all, the lesbians in these books come out pretty well—better, perhaps, than their heterosexual counterparts. When you weigh their lives, hopes, and romantic successes against the straight women’s, a little closeting and some familial or work disapproval don’t seem so bad compared to out-of-wedlock pregnancy, date rape, being jilted by married men, or, in Women’s Barracks, the painfully frequent deaths of boyfriends, fiancés, and shiny new husbands in the war.
Tereska Torres based her World War II novel Women’s Barracks—published under the tag line, “The Frank Autobiography of a French Girl Soldier”—on her years in the London-based Women’s Division of the Free French Army. The book sold two million copies in the US between 1950 and 1955, and another 2 million in translation and in later American editions. It continued to sell in reprint editions. By way of comparison, Khaled Hosseini’s contemporary best-seller, The Kite Runner, sold about as many copies as Women’s Barracks—yet in 1955, the population of the US was only 55 to sixty percent of what it is today. Neither book has single-handedly changed the world – but both have opened a lot of doors in a lot of people’s minds.
Valerie Taylor’s The Girls in 3-B is a veritable guide to moving to a big city and setting up a life there. 3-B was so popular that its themes were echoed in a comic strip, “The Girls in Apartment 3-G” that ran in daily newspapers for forty years, although without the book’s lesbian content. Reading—or rereading—these tales is all the richer when one remembers the realities of the times when they were first published: classified ads were segregated into “Help Wanted/Male” and “Help Wanted/Female.” Women’s professional career options were pretty much limited to teacher, librarian, or nurse, and working class women didn’t fare so well, either. Women could be (and were) fired for wearing pants to work, and the idea of equal pay for equal work wasn’t yet a gleam in anyone’s eye. Sexual relationships between women were generally considered immoral, criminal, or a symptom of underlying mental illness. They could land a woman in jail or a psychiatric institution, with or without electric shock treatments. The pulps remind us how much courage it took in the fifties and pre-feminist sixties to pursue a life with women, and how utterly thrilling it could be to discover these secret, underground worlds. They remind us, too, of how subversive women’s dreams and lesbian lives were in the face of the postwar wave of conformity that swept America in the fifties.Many of the pulps that followed Women’s Barracks and 3-B focused specifically on lesbian experience: Vin Packer (Marijane Meaker)’s Spring Fire (reprinted 2004 by Cleis Press) is the tale of a motherless, tomboyish college girl “done wrong” by an older sorority sister. Ann Bannon’s beloved Beebo Brinker series (all currently in print from Cleis), follows the adventures of a group of girls as they make their way to Greenwich Village.
Other pulps have extensive publishing histories as well; several were among the top five bestsellers the year they were published. Kensington Press recently reprinted all six of Paula Christian’s novels, which were republished previously in the late seventies and early eighties in spiffy leatherette-covered collector’s editions. Naiad Press republished Ann Bannon’s five Beebo Brinker novels and three of Valerie Taylor’s novels in mass-market priced Volute Press editions in the early eighties.
As glad as I am to see so many of these books back in print, I’m puzzled that the authors of otherwise impeccably researched articles about the pulps seem to feel compelled to “diss” the feminists of the eighties. They generally imply that feminists (an apparently monolithic group) disavowed or were embarrassed by the lesbian pulps and by the “roles” the characters “played.” While there were certainly feminists who critiqued the books as they were republished, historians need to remember that it was the task of feminists to look at everything sex- and role-related and to take apart every assumption. Arguing about everything, even things we agreed on, was as essential in the feminism of the seventies and eighties as drinking beer and nibbling popcorn from one’s girlfriend’s palm were in the bars of the fifties. Many women who were both lesbian and feminist, myself included, had cherished the books during their first incarnations and were thrilled to see them reprinted. Most if not all of the publishers who re-issued the books identified as feminists, and feminist booksellers threw parties to celebrate the reprints and sold tens of thousands of copies of them to a fascinated readership throughout the seventies and eighties. If there were feminists who disavowed the books, they were only part of the story. It’s also important to remember that the contemporary understanding and usage of roles now is different than it was in the fifties and in the eighties. Roles today are seen much more as options, fluid and changing, accessories to the soul, perhaps, to be tried on and taken off , with a take-what-you-like-and-leave-the-rest attitude, until the fit is right – at least for the moment. Such flexibility was perhaps a dream for many a fifties lesbian, and a goal, but not yet a practicing reality, for those supposedly critical eighties feminists.
As I celebrate the urge to bring the pulps into the canons of both lesbian and mainstream literature, I am also disappointed by publishers’ continued lack of attention to more literary lesbian work. They are guilty of promoting, by omission, the lesbian-phobic assumption that lesbians have no significant tradition of high-quality literary writing. Lesbian Pulp Fiction needs a companion anthology of lesbian writing from the literary side of the aisle, including authors like Willa Cather, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Mary Renault, Violette Leduc, and May Sarton. Some of the books that lesbians read passionately in pulp editions arose from a literary tradition, such as Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt and Gale Wilhelm’s We Too Are Drifting—originally published in 1935 by Grayson Publishers, resurrected by Modern Library in 1950, then reprinted as a 25-cent pulp by Lion Books in 1951 with the tag “Better than The Well of Loneliness.” And I’d add excerpts from Dorothy Baker’s novels Trio and Cassandra at the Wedding (recently republished in the New York Review Books’ Classics series), and from Jane Rule’s exquisitely tormented novel of restraint, This Is Not for You (just reprinted by Insomniac Press)—one of the few tales of the era (Valerie Taylor’s Erika Frohmann series being another) that considered the intersections of racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. Lesbians in the fifties also read nonfiction pulps, which acted as guidebooks to a lesbian future as surely as the novels did. To truly understand the history of changing lesbian identity, we need Lesbian Pulp Fiction—and we need anthologies of literary work and nonfiction as well.
Carol Seajay cofounded San Francisco’s Old Wives Tales bookstore in 1976; published The Feminist Bookstore News from 1976 through 2000; and recently launched a new publishing company, Books to Watch Out For, which publishes the online and print book review magazines The Lesbian Edition, Gay Men’s Edition, and now More Books for Women, which debuted in October. You can find her at www.BooksToWatchOutFor.com.