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Lesbian Pulp Fiction: About Lesbian Pulp

Book Studies Capstone Project created by Bena Williams, Spring 2022

What is lesbian pulp fiction? 

On this page you will find a broad overview of all things lesbian pulp fiction. Toggle between the menus to find definitions of lesbian pulp fiction as well as other key terms, historical context, notable authors, publishers, and cover artists, and a list of literary themes. 

Definitions of key terms used throughout this LibGuide:

Lesbian Pulp Fiction:

Lesbian pulp fiction books share the following characteristics:

  • Published in paperback between the 1950s and the mid-1960s
  • Contains overt lesbian characters or subject matter
  • Has sensationalized cover art that allows readers to recognize the book as lesbian pulp fiction 

[This definition was adapted from The Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection at Mount Saint Vincent University.]

Williams, Bena. Photograph of Deliver Her to Evil by Sylvia Sharon, Domino Books, 1964. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

 

Virile Adventures

Throughout this LibGuide, I use the term ‘Virile Adventure’ to describe the lesbian pulps written by male authors, and some straight women.

Common aspects of virile adventures: 

  • Male centered, or with at least one male main character
  • Graphic depictions of sex
  • Illicit or perverted depictions of lesbianism 

 


Pro-Lesbian Pulps:

Williams, Bena. Photograph of Whisper their Love by Valerie Taylor, Fawcett Publications, 1958. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

This subset of pulps describes those books that were for and by women, often written by lesbian authors.

Common aspects of pro-lesbian pulps:

  • Lesbian centered
  • Sympathetic, loving depictions of lesbianism
  • Less gratuitous sex

[These definitions were adapted from Yvonne Keller's article Ab/normal Looking: Voyeurism and Surveillance in Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Cold War Culture.]

The rise of lesbian pulp fiction relied on several economic, legal, and social factors.

Williams, Bena. Photograph of Mask of Lesbos by Lee Thomas, Beacon-Signal Book, 1963. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

Queer Life in the 1950s & 60s:

  • After the Great Depression and World War II, there was a push for stability in American culture, and the dominant society believed that stability should come from the heterosexual, nuclear family 
  • In 1948 and 1953, Alfred Kinsey published his reports on sexuality, and homosexuality, especially lesbianism, became a topic of nationwide curiosity 
  • In the dominant society, however, homosexuality was seen as a mental illness
  • Gay and lesbian bars were often raided by police
  • Gay men and lesbians could be barred from employment in governmental and related occupations, and actively persecuted as security risks to their countries

For more information, visit Montana State University Billings Library Guide on LGBTQ History. 

 

Pulp books:

  • Pulp books come from the tradition of dime novels and penny dreadfuls from the mid-19th century
  • With the development of groundwood paper, made from the pulp of wood fibers (hence the name pulp fiction), the mass market paperback took off
  • Pulp magazines and novels could be mass-produced for little cost and could be found at drugstores for a nickel, a dime, or a quarter
  • Because of the cheap quality paper, the books are fragile. They weren’t made to last, but instead meant to be read quickly and then tossed
  • During World War II, pulps were given for free to American and Canadian troops as entertainment. Pulps often focused on ‘edgy’ topics like murder, gangs, drug use, and male homosexuality
  • After the war, the demand for such cheap, printed entertainment remained high, especially since movie and television industries had self-imposed morality codes that avoided risqué topics

For more information, visit the University of Minnesota's Library Guide on Dime Novels, Story Papers, Series Books, and Pulps 


Lesbian Pulp Books:Williams, Bena. Photograph of Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres, Fawcett Publications, 1977. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

  • In 1950, Fawcett Gold Medal Books published the first pulp novel with overtly lesbian themes, Tereska Torres's Women’s Barracks
  • Paperback publishers jumped at the new market for books about lesbians, and the lesbian pulp genre was born

For more information, visit The Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection @ Mount Saint Vincent University

 

Obscenity Laws:

  • During the publishing boom of the mid-twentieth century, the paperback industry received intense scrutiny from political and religious authorities, especially concerning lesbian pulps 
  • Public hysteria amassed as the National Organization for Decent Literature (NODL) threatened vendors with boycotts if they did not remove offensive materials from their shelves
  • As a result, censorship was subtle so as to be anti-communist and allow for the continued publication of lesbian pulps. Publishers included loose morals about the supposed dangers of homosexuality, and most of their books resulted in tragic endings for lesbian protagonists to affirm that the publisher did not support lesbian content

For more information, visit The Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection @ Mount Saint Vincent University

 

Lesbian pulp books can be identified through many reoccurring themes. The following bulleted lists describe some of the most common tropes and literary motifs that are found across many lesbi-pulp titles. 

Williams, Bena. Photograph of Strange Affair by Edwin West, Monarch Books, 1962. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.Language:

The front and back covers of pulp books often include specific language or ‘code words’ to notify the reader that the book will contain lesbian themes. 
Examples of such language: 

  • Odd 
  • Shadows 
  • Sin 
  • Third (way, sex, street, etc) 
  • Twilight
  • Strange 
  • Whisper 
  • Forbidden 

Settings:

Examples of the most common settings found in lesbian pulps: 

Williams, Bena. Photograph of World Without Men by Charles Eric Maine, Ace Books, 1957. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

  • New York City 
  • Specifically Greenwich Village 
  • Suburbia 
  • Gay and Lesbian Bars 
  • Women’s War Barracks 
  • Women’s Prisons 
  • College 
  • Sorority/All Girl’s School 
  • Dystopic Futures without Men 

 

 

 

 

Motifs:

The text itself also contains recurring literary themes and motifs: 

  • Power Difference Relationships
  • Age difference relationships 

  • Predatory or Aggressive Lesbian - lure a submissive lesbian into a ‘lesbian prostitution ring’ or unequal power dynamic relationship

  • Racism

    • Lesbian pulps were written and marketed primarily to white audiences. If there is racialized subject matter, it is usually in the form of an interracial lesbian relationship, and the race issues are always made out to be just as taboo as lesbianism, and often the white woman has some kind of power over the Black woman. Rea Michaels's books are some of the only examples of pulps with interracial lesbian couples, usually with the narration centered on the Black woman. However, there is very little information about Michaels, and it’s possible the name was a pseudonym

Williams, Bena. Photograph of How Dark my Love by Rea Michaels, Domino Books, 1964. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

  • Love triangles 

    • Bisexual love triangle 

      • A woman must choose between a woman or man suitor 

    • Straight man attempts to reform a lesbian 

    • Lesbian love triangle 

  • Gender dynamics 

    • Many pulp lesbian relationships center on the butch/femme dynamic, in which one is the more masculine/androgynous presenting lesbian, and the other, the femme, is completely feminine-presenting 

  • Identity Formation

    • Many pulps explore the question of the origins of homosexuality in an individual: 

      • Biological determinism 

        • ‘Born’ a lesbian 

      • Psychological determinism 

        • Rape/Incest/Abuse by a man or family member

        • Absence of a mother or father figure 

        • Alcoholism/Addiction

      • Choice 

        • A cognitive choice to become a lesbian 

Williams, Bena. Photograph of The Troubled Sex by Carlson Wade, Universal Publishing and Distributing Corporations, 1961. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.Genres: 

Certain lesbian pulps employ genres other than romance: 

  • Sci-fi 
    • The golden era of lesbian pulp coincided with that of science-fiction pulp, creating abundant opportunities to explore new
      potentialities of gender and sexuality
  • Detective/Mystery 
    • There are a handful of pulps about lesbian detectives solving crime
  • Nonfiction “true life” Accounts 
    • These pulps advertise themselves as nonfiction accounts of lesbian life, either in the form of real case studies of lesbians, or as pseudo-scientific analyses by ‘doctors’ 

Pro-lesbian authorsWilliams, Bena. Photograph of Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon, Fawcett Books, 1957. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

Over time, lesbian authors, and some straight men and women, began to write lesbian pulps of their own, putting forth more sympathetic portrayals of lesbian love. These 'Pro-Lesbian Pulps' became survival literature for queer people in the 50s and 60s who had few other positive representations of their identity in media. Given that gay and lesbian lifestyles were illegal in the United States in the 1950s, many of the pro-lesbian pulp authors published their work under pseudonyms to protect their true 
identities. 

  • Many pro-lesbian authors were employed in publishing firms as clerks or secretaries before they were able to break through as published authors 
  • Similarly, many pro-lesbian authors were middle or lower class 
  • Authors were paid between $200 and $500 in advance and then royalties of 1 cent per copy on the initial print order
  • Despite pro-lesbian authors writing within the obscenity law constraints of the genre, they often ingrained sympathetic, kind, loving portrayals of homosexual life in their novels 

This is a list of some of the most notable pro-lesbian pulp authors and their pseudonyms if they used one. In many cases, there is little information about authors and whether they used a pseudonym at all.

Notable Pro-Lesbian Pulp Authors

Name Pseudonym Note
Radclyffe Hall   Wrote The Well of Loneliness, a classic of lesbian fiction which was republished in paperback 
Patricia Highsmith Claire Morgan The Price of Salt was one of the first lesbian pulps to end with the lesbian couple staying together. In 1990, Highsmith republished this book under her own name and with a new title: Carol. It was adapted into the 2015 film starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. 
Tereska Torrés   A French novelist who wrote 'the first lesbian pulp,' Women's Barracks
Marijane Meaker Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich Was in a relationship with Patricia Highsmith!
Ann Weldy Ann Bannon Ann Bannon is known as the Queen of lesbian pulp fiction. Her books helped shape the modern lesbian identity, putting forth the first compassionate depictions of butch and femme dynamics in lesbian relationships. 
Velma Nacella Young Valerie Taylor Young became known for writing characters and plots which deal with and experience life in the working class, as well as the imbalance of social and economic power between male employers and female employees
Sally Singer March Hastings, Laura DuChamp Was one of the few lesbian pulp authors that lived openly as a lesbian for nearly her whole life, purportedly being linked romantically with another lesbian pulp author, Pat Perdue (who wrote as Randy Salem)
Marilyn Wasserman Joan Ellis, Julie Ellis, Jill Monte Purportedly, Wasserman was not a lesbian, but she used her status as a heterosexual woman Midwood writer to insist to her publishers that her books with lesbian characters end happily, which lauded her praise and adoration from lesbian readers 
Elaine Williams Sloan Britton, Sloane Britain Her early works were praised for their positive portrayal of lesbian relationships, but her later works became more cynical, with dismal endings. Williams eventually committed suicide. 
Ron Singer Jay Warren, Greg Hamilton The brother of Sally Singer, Ron was a male author who wrote positive portrayals of lesbians. It was also rumored that he was bisexual himself.
Alma Routsong Isabel Miller The Isabel Miller Papers are housed in the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College!

Williams, Bena. Photograph of The Sad Gay Life by Donna Richards, Domino Books 1964. 31 Mar 2022. Author's personal collection.

Male Authors

When the commercial market for pulps with lesbian subject matter was first discovered, the genre was controlled by male authors who depicted ridiculously fetishized portraits of lesbian life. They usually used female pseudonyms to seem more authentic. These male-authored lesbian pulps are known as ‘Virile Adventures’ because they were made by and for the male heterosexual gaze.

This is a list of the most notable male authors of virile adventure pulps and their pseudonyms if they used one. In many cases, there is little information about authors and whether they used a pseudonym at all. 

Notable Male Lesbian Pulp Fiction Authors

Name Pseudonym
Gilbert Fox Kimberly Kemp, Dallas Mayo, Paul Russo, among others
Donald Edwin Westlake Edwin West, Don Holiday
Harry Whittington Suzanne Stephens
 Bela William Von Block Lucchesi Aldo, W.D. Sprague
Don Rico Donna Richards
Paul Hugo Little Sylvia Sharon
Richard E. Geis  Peggy Swenson

Notable Paperback Publishing Houses:

  • Avalon Books
  • Avon Books 
  • Bantam Books 
  • Dell Paperbacks 
  • Epic Books
  • Fawcett Publications
  • Holloway House - publisher for lesbians of color
  • Lancer Books 
  • Midwood-Tower Publications
  • Monarch Books 
  • Naiad Press - first publishing house dedicated to lesbian literature
  • Popular Library
  • Vega 

For more information, visit The Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection @ Mount Saint Vincent University

Marketing & Paperback Publishing Trends

Paperback presses had very specific tactics for marketing their lesbian pulp books:

  • Utilized sexualized or scandalous cover art and blurbs to entice buyers
  • Authors had no say whatsoever in the title, cover art, or cover blurbs of their work 
  • Publishers often repackaged novels with new titles and cover art to maximize their profits
  • To avoid being seized for obscenity, publishers required authors to end their books tragically (i.e. the lesbian couple breaks up, the main character dies, or turns straight, or is hospitalized) to make it known that the publisher did not support sympathetic portrayals of lesbianism 
  • Publishers and cover artists rarely read the actual text of the books 
  • Used “house names” so that multiple authors could ghost-write behind one pseudonym

After the Golden Age:

  • The golden age of lesbian pulp fiction runs from around 1950-1965
  • After 1965, censorship laws began to relax, allowing for more sexually explicit books and book covers 
  • Soft and hardcore pornography presses emerged as the new, popular books for male adventures and by the mid-late 1960s, mainstream presses published very few lesbian-themed stories 
  • At the same time, the women’s movement was on the rise, and lesbian authors turned to publishing their works with feminist and lesbian presses through the 1970s and 1980s

Popular Feminist and Lesbian Presses of the 1970s-80s (after the golden age of lesbian pulp) 

  • A&M Books
  • Bella Books
  • Bold Strokes Books    
  • Cleis Press
  • Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press
  • Naiad Press
  • Onlywomen Press
  • Sister Vision: Black Women & Women of Color Press
  • Spinsters Ink
     
Pulp books are characterized by their sensationalized, hyper-realistic art style, erotic, and often absurd cover art. These covers were meant to lure in the straight male reader. 

Covers often featured women, but the number of women and how they are positioned provide essential information to the reader about what kind of lesbian content is in store: 
  • Solitary Woman 
    • Nude or dressed provocatively 
    • Looking at the reader: implying a beseeching nature 
    • Looking away from the reader: implying shame 
    • Figure of a woman cloaked in shadows to imply repressed nature
  • Two Women
    • Touching each other to imply a romantic relationship
    • Exchanging emotions through their eyes: unrequited love, innocence lost, coy flirtations, outright lust, ecstasy
    • One or both women in a state of undress to imply promiscuity 
    • One woman is looking at the other while the other looks away to suggest an imbalanced power relationship dynamic 

  • Butch/femme dynamics 
    • Gender is represented in these covers as well. If there are two women and they have different hair color or lengths, often the lighter and longer hair is the femme and the shorter, darker hair is the butch
    • “The badder they are, the darker the hair” - Jaye Zimet
  • Three or more women/Mixed Gender
    • Love triangles and menage a trois are popular themes at the time and represented through cover art 
    • If a man is present, he is usually standing in the back looking embarrassed, hostile, or sexually deprived 

For more information, read Jaye Zimet’s Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction of 1949-1969

 

 

 

 

Notable Cover Artists 

  • Paul Rader
  • Robert Maguire 
  • Bernard Safran
  • Victor Olsen
  • Tom Miller
  • Robert McGinnis 
  • Barye Phillips
  • George Ziel 
  • Al Wagner 
  • Jerome Podwil 
  • John Healy