Tuesday, September 06, 2005

History of Lesbian Pulp Novels: Article from American Quarterly

Citation for the article:

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, 57.2 (June 2005): 385-410.

Article is accessible electronically through Project Muse.

Readers interested in popular culture, with attention to the 1950s and early 1960s, may be interested in this excellent article. Clearly, scholars and readers in GLBTQ studies will find it interesting. It is also recommended for readers interested in the larger story of pulp fiction in the United States. Ms. Keller has written a comprehensive and engaging account of lesbian pulp novels in the United States. In doing so, she demonstrates how these works, largely ignored by scholars, played a crucial role in lesbian identity formation during a time when homosexuality was taboo and more often than not a crime. This article "gives a brief history of lesbian pulps, defines the genre, and argues for pulps' importance as a readily available, popular discourse that put the word lesbian in mass circulation as never before" (387, emphasis in the original). The article is successful in this regard.

The article goes on to provide a history of the genre; lesbian pulp novels flourished between 1950 and 1965. Their covers are their best known feature, as it was with other pulps, and the author later in the article discusses the importance of those covers. According to the article, the genre began with the 1950 novel Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres, a novel about a group of women in the Free French Forces during World War II. Next, the author goes on to discuss other works of the time, highlighting connections along the way. She also presents her definition for the genre with four criteria:

"I define lesbian pulps through four criteria. First, they are published between 1950 and 1965; second, they have some lesbian content; third, they must be mass-market paperbacks; and fourth, they are classifiable as potentially lesbian by their covers" (396).

Professor Keller distinguishes at least five types of lesbian pulp novels, but the two most salient ones are the pro-lesbian pulps (written by women mostly, or authors with female pseudonyms, with a woman's point of view, a positive variety of the genre) and the virile adventures (written by males using pseudonyms for voyeuristic males, in a way, the predecessor of a lot of the lesbian porn today). Additionally, the author shows how the books were distributed through the paperback trade. We get a little history lesson on the paperback trade and its evolution as well, something that people into book history may find interesting. This is done to aid our understanding of how the genre was able to find success thanks to distribution through traders like Pocket Books and Fawcett.

The covers, as mentioned before, were crucial for more than just sales. Professor Keller writes, "since pulps were typically not bought by libraries, the covers were crucial markers of lesbianism--the closest thing to a Dewey decimal system for dykes--for generations of lesbian and incipient lesbian readers" (398). This is one way in which Professor Keller argues how these pulps were survival literature, that is, books that fed the need for lesbians to find representations of themselves. On the topic of libraries, Professor Keller has a little passage asking where a woman of the time might find information about homosexuality; the passage is a good illustration of the situation at the time. She writes that a library might have a copy of The Well of Loneliness (1928) and some medical writings, but these materials were not necessarily easy to access. She adds, quoting Karen Vierneisel, that "librarians contributed to the conspiracy of silence about lesbians" (401). Professor Keller also cites a description, by Judy Grahn, which is worth posting:

"In 1961, when I was twenty-one, I went to a library in Washington, D.C. to read about homosexuals and Lesbians. . . .The books on such a subject, I was told by indignant, terrified librarians unable to say aloud the word homosexual, were locked away. . . . Only professors, doctors, psychiatrists, and lawyers for the criminally insane could see them, check them out, hold them in their hands" (qtd. in 402, emphasis in the original).

I can only hope that, as a profession and individuals, librarians have come a long way from that. However, given the current climate in the United States, it looks like there is still a some work to do. As for the woman back then, "she was most likely to find lesbian representation during the 1950s and early 1960s in the form of lesbian pulps. Books are a solitary purchase, consumable in the privacy of one's own bedroom or apartment--a significant advantage in a homophobic world" (402). Today, I suppose you could say the internet fills this role. That is likely the topic of a different paper, but I am disgressing now. Readers need to keep in mind that books back then were not perfect; lesbian usually meant white and middle class in the pulps, but the books were significant nonetheless. They were significant as tools of representation, for identity formation. Professor Keller writes that "clearly, lesbian identity was formed in the context of homophobia, in which it was primarily lesbian pulps that offered "how we are constituted and who we are' " (405). By looking at the genre, defining it with clear criteria, considering the book trade for paperbacks and pulps, its writers and readers, Professor Keller demonstrates the validity of the statement.

The article is well written and engaging. It also features various book covers as illustrations. In addition, some of the sources cited in the endnotes would make good sources for further reading.

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