Paperback Portals: the Legacy of Lesbian Pulp Fiction
May 25, 2018 9:05 PM   Subscribe

World War II made paperback novels popular in the U.S. thanks to Armed Service Editions, which evolved from earlier failed book drives. G.I.s came back home with their little books, and wanted more. After pulp magazines died off (because of the war efforts), pulp paperbacks flourished, first with hardcover titles repackaged for an audience grown used to portable Army editions, but soon came the "lascivious and streetwise stories that made steady work for a generation of writers," including potboilers and pin-ups that showed gay and bisexual women they were not alone.

Lesbian pulp fiction was published in the 1950s and 60s by many of the same paperback publishing houses that other genres of fiction including westerns, romances, and detective fiction. Among the "virile adventure stories" of lesbian and bisexual women that was often written by men for men, there were "pro-lesbian stories" that were generally written by women. These novels were notable (brief excerpt of academic article by Yvonne Keller) in the history of lesbian literature, between The Well of Loneliness by British author Radclyffe Hall in 1928 (Wikipedia), which was banned after publication, and the explosion of lesbian-feminist publishing in the early 1970s, because these books supported a generation of women in a way that the broader culture did not. Thanks to the pulp fiction boom of the 1950s, the door was opened for a wide range of books. As noted in the Atlas Obscura article by Natasha Frost:
The pro-lesbian novels are the ones that changed women’s lives, and in so doing, passed the test of time—the books of Marijane Meaker, Valerie Taylor, Artemis Smith (Annselm Morpurgo), and Ann Bannon. These authors wrote for women, and it showed. “I did hope women would find them and read them,” says Bannon, a doyenne of the genre, now in her mid-eighties. “I wasn’t quite sure enough of my skill or ability to reach them, or even how widely the books were distributed, to hope that they would do some good in the world. But I certainly had that in the back of my mind.”
Ann Bannon provides a lot of fantastic history of lesbian pulp fiction in a discussion with Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Juliana Delgado Lopera at the San Francisco Public Library titled "From Sleaze to Classics," named because the fact that "anything about homosexual romance in those days was sleaze, no matter how beautifully written, no matter how heart-felt, no matter how well-intentioned or well-styled, it was ... dangerous literature."

To find more lesbian pulp fiction, there's The Lesbian Pulp Fiction Project, a wiki for all things lesbian pulp fiction, as well as the Lesbian Pulp Fiction article on Wikipedia.

If you're looking for more on the old Armed Service Editions, here's Books In Action: Armed Services Editions, a lengthier write-up in a free eBook on
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
This is wonderful! Thanks for providing my long weekend reading!
posted by komlord at 9:41 PM on May 25, 2018

Nice work! I have a 1945 paperback of The Dunwich Horror, so reading the first few links here made me really curious about the publisher. Googling for Bart House eventually turned up this brief history [PDF], which led to this site full of vintage book cover scans (previous FPP from 2005) and its history of mass-market paperbacks [PDF], which overlaps some with the links here and with Wikipedia but offers some details like cover scans from earlier 'digest'-sized paperbacks.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:29 PM on May 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is a subject dear to my heart.

For modern readers, the high water mark for these will almost certainly be the works Ann Bannon. While the first book in her series mostly follows the not-all-that-wonderful pattern Marijane Meaker was forced to set in Spring Fire (more on that in a second), as the story unfolds across the full series it lets the characters from that book grow and change, as well as introducing new ones. The books soon treat the readers to rich characters, complex emotions, and -- as was so rare for the period -- happy endings. Her books were written quickly for the pulp market, and it shows a bit in the prose, but these are good books worth reading.

For those who have a historical interest in lesbian pulps, the first pulp with lesbian content is generally agreed to be Women's Barracks by Tereska Torrès. It's not an absolutely terrible book, but it's not all that great, either, and all mentions of relationships between women tend to be followed by a "and all women like that were terribly unhappy" kind of comment, which was very likely imposed by the publisher.

Similarly, the first pulp novel with a lesbian relationship as its central plot element was Spring Fire by Marijane Meaker (writing under the name Vin Packer). To get published, she was required to lay down a pattern which became all too common in lesbian pulp literature, and was repeated many times after -- girl meets girl, girl gets girl, one girl goes insane for no obvious reason and the other girl goes back to dating an extremely boring male love interest instead. If you can get past that, the book is OK. But honestly, it's kind of hard to get past that.

Also of note during this period is The Price of Salt (sometimes called Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (writing under the pen name Claire Morgan). Published the same year as Spring Fire, it was perhaps the only non-pulp lesbian novel of the period, at least in English (I think there may have been some others written elsewhere, particularly in France) -- although it did have a pulp paperpack edition after the hardcover. Anyway, it would remain one of the only arguably non-pulp lesbian fiction books (besides a few works like the significantly earlier, and truly awful except as a piece of historical interest, The Well of Loneliness) for a decade, really. The Price of Salt is very good, and, like the later works of Ann Bannon, completely avoids the "lesbians must die, go insane, or end up with a man" template all too common for the period. Happy endings, yay! Like Ann Bannon, I'd recommend it for those reading for pleasure as well as those reading for research.

The first unquestionably post-pulp lesbian novel is probably Jane Rule's Desert of the Heart, written in 1964. Also good and highly recommended.

I haven't read Valerie Taylor or Artemis Smith, but I will note that the reason I haven't read Valerie Taylor is that I was told by a trusted friend that The Girls In 3-B, probably her best known work at present, wasn't worth reading for fun. Obviously I can't confirm or deny that for certain.
posted by kyrademon at 1:58 AM on May 26, 2018 [19 favorites]


I have the Niad press reprints of the Ann Bannon books, and I used to have a few other lesbian pulp books (maybe including Valerie Taylor? I don't recall for sure) in a much older printing (that I found, unexpectedly, in a book bin at a porno shop)

The first unquestionably post-pulp lesbian novel is probably Jane Rule's Desert of the Heart

And the film adaptation imprinted on a large number of queer women of a certain age. I think it also led to the sudden resurgence of Patsy Cline music in the gay community in the late 80's.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:20 AM on May 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

Anyway, it would remain one of the only arguably non-pulp lesbian fiction books (besides a few works like the significantly earlier, and truly awful except as a piece of historical interest, The Well of Loneliness) for a decade, really. kyrademon

I first read "The Well of Loneliness" at 15. I was a lonely baby dyke and found "Stephen Gordon" a hero. She didn't die, she didn't kill her lover, she wasn't driven insane by her sexuality. She did drive an ambulance in WWI France, as did many other lesbians. De gustibus non est disputandum.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:08 AM on May 26, 2018 [7 favorites]

> "De gustibus non est disputandum."

I can't argue with that. :)
posted by kyrademon at 6:12 AM on May 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was very grateful for years that military cargo pockets were exactly the right size to fit a paperback. I had no idea it was by design of the paperback rather than the pocket! Hurrah for learning things!
posted by corb at 6:55 AM on May 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Naiad reprinted Taylor's Erika Frohman series and published several of her contemporary books in the 80s; CUNY's Feminist Press reprinted The Girls in 3-B, Stranger on Lesbos (which I infer that Barbara Grier didn't reprint because there's an unsavory lesbian character) and the sequel/Frohman Return to Lesbos.

Stark House has reprinted several of Meaker's Vin Packer books and 2 of the books listed on a Taylor character's shelf: Take Me Home and North Beach Girl(both written by men).
posted by brujita at 8:56 AM on May 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Publishers certainly imposed moralistic endings where lesbianism is unmasked as a form of insanity and characters either die or find heterosexual relationships, but I think it shouldn’t be lost that they were doing so in part because of how law enforcement used obscenity prosecutions to target homosexual material. As in Hollywood or the comics industry, many publishers were likely enthusiastic censors, but the ill-defined boundaries of obscenity law meant that anyone who published books that did not affirm heterosexuality was putting themselves at substantial legal risk. A work could be deemed obscene on moral grounds even if it contained no sexually explicit material and the publisher could be held liable. This created a huge incentive to censor anything that pushed at the boundaries of heteronormativity. The historian Whitney Strub has written some fantastic stuff on this subject.
posted by vathek at 9:02 AM on May 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

A good overview of the subject is Lesbian Pulp Fiction (Link to the Kindle version of the book), which contains critical and historical commentary along with excerpts from many of the stories.

And if you want to see book covers, previously on Metafilter.
posted by lhauser at 6:59 PM on May 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

And if you want to see book covers, previously on Metafilter.

What a difference 15 years makes on MetaFilter. The first comment was "fap fap," and it wasn't much of an outlier free om other comments.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:33 PM on May 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

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