Behold, the seductive, subversive world of lesbian pulp fiction

BY ROXY BOURDILLON

Madame Butch, Demon Dykes, Satan Was A Lesbian. No, I’m not brainstorming riot grrrl band names. I’m getting your attention, using the titillating titles of mid-century novels.

You see, when I hear “pulp fiction”, I don’t think of Uma Thurman in a black wig dragging on a cigarette. I think of the saucy, sapphic paperbacks that sold in their millions in the 1950s and 60s. I picture the colourful, kitsch covers that decorate my bookshelves. I imagine the handsome butches and glamorous femmes that live and love in their pages. I smile at the enchanting descriptions of New York’s Greenwich village, a bohemian paradise where women dance to the jukebox in gay bars run by the Mafia. And I’ll admit it, I grin knowingly at those luscious sex scenes, all soft caresses, ardent lovemaking and convulsing with desire. The characters are constantly ravenous for each other and I’m into it. What can I say? I like my erotica in juicy technicolour, bursting with passion, and just a little bit trashy.

But far from merely being artfully packaged smut, lesbian pulp is a crucial part of our lez literary canon and a gorgeous documentation of queer herstory. The earliest example was Tereska Torres’ 1950 army romance Women’s Barracks. Recounting illicit affairs between butch officers and their femme subordinates, it sold a cool 2.5 million copies.

Pulps were mass distributed, disposable and easy to hide. They were available at chemists, corner shops and airports. Yes, they had lurid covers showing pneumatic pin-ups, heavy-lidded with desire. Yes, the taglines were a tad sensationalised: “An intimate picture of women in love… with each other!” And yes, they were deliberately marketed to attract horny straight men, but – and this is the important part – our clever queer foremothers found them too.

And when they did, they changed everything. These throwaway paperbacks showed queer women, often for the first time in their lives, that they were not alone. You have to remember, this was way before The L Word or queer YouTube. Homosexuality was viewed as a contagious disease and doctors were beavering away to come up with a cure. Lesbians married men in the vain hope it would solve their sexuality. Queer women underwent conversion therapy, they were sent to asylums, some even committed suicide. It was a time of isolation, despair and panic, but these books provided a lifeline. In Between The Sheets: My Sex Life In Literature, Donna Allegra writes, “It was absolutely necessary for me to have them. I needed them the way I needed food and shelter for survival.”

In my quest to learn more about my favourite sapphic subgenre, I speak to Ann Bannon, author of the legendary Beebo Brinker Chronicles, “queen of pulp fiction” and one of my personal literary heroes. Ann is everything I hoped she’d be; bright, engaging, a fascinating vault of queer knowledge, and more than happy to share her extraordinary story. In the 1950s she was a young suburban housewife with a husband, two kids, and a secret side hustle writing lesbian novels.

“I know they saved lives,” she says matter-of-factly down the phone from California. “There was a woman who told me she was in such pain it was unbearable. On the way to jump in the river, she picked up a paperback at the drugstore on a whim. It was one of my books. She said, ‘I got fascinated. I read through it. I saw a way forward, because I knew I was not the unique and evil human being I was described to be by others.’” The woman went home, had dinner and decided to carry on living. Ann’s book was like a reassuring hand reaching out in the darkness, giving her the strength to keep going. “You just had such a distorted notion of what it was like to be a gay person. The pulp paperbacks made a major contribution in starting to change that.”

It’s true many of them were written by men for men, but there were brave female writers like Ann too. Theirs is the work I treasure. Scholar Yvonne Keller describes it as “pro-lesbian”. Their books have emotional depth and authenticity, as well as the prerequisite steamy love scenes. They spoke to lesbians and bisexual women, providing never-before-seen role models like Ann’s swaggering butch archetype Beebo Brinker.

Most of the writers used pseudonyms. Ann, whose actual surname is Weldy, was one of them. “My husband was very firm about this. He didn’t want to see my real name printed across somebody’s bare bosom on the front of a lesbian novel.” Even so, putting pen to paper was a frightening undertaking. Ann reveals, “I knew most of us were on the FBI list of people to keep an eye on.” It was dangerous for readers too, who risked being outed. “The hard part was not finding the books. The hard part was taking them up to the clerk, because if you lived in a small town they would very likely know your family.”

In the early days, publishers wouldn’t allow pulp authors to give their characters happy endings, for fear of the books being seized for “obscenity” by censors. Instead, queer characters were punished, marginalised, killed off, driven insane or made to renounce their sexuality altogether.

Happily, by the time Ann was writing, she could get away with creating more hopeful outcomes for her characters. And if you look hard enough, you can find comforting moments in other pulp novels too (see the reading list for recommendations).

These remarkable books even played a role in the fight for LGBTQI equality. In the introduction to her anthology Lesbian Pulp Fiction, Kathryn Forrest explains, “They told us about each other, they led us to look for and find each other, they led us to the end of the isolation that had divided and conquered us. And once we found each other, once we began to question the judgements made of us, our civil rights movement was born.”

While the majority of male-written lesbian pulps are long forgotten, the female-authored ones are still being reissued and enjoyed by readers to this day. Heard of a little film called Carol starring Cate Blanchett? It was based on Patricia Highsmith’s pulp novel The Price Of Salt. It’s the courageous queer women’s stories that live on and continue to educate, inspire and thrill us.

I’ll leave you with the last line of Artemis Smith’s 1959 novel The Third Sex, which sums it all up quite beautifully: “To Ruth and Joan, who are no longer alone.”

This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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