Robin Talley, author of the new YA novel Pulp, shares a glimpse into the underground world of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction that changed her life.
My first glimpse of a lesbian pulp novel came from a refrigerator magnet.
I was a college student browsing in an LGBT bookstore when an image leaped out at me from across the aisle: “I PREFER GIRLS,” it proclaimed in all-caps, alongside a painting of two women clutching at each other while dressed in skimpy vintage clothes.
I was mystified by where the image could’ve come from, but in that moment, I didn’t care. I bought the magnet, took it home and proudly slapped it on my dorm room minifridge.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned I Prefer Girls was a novel published in 1963—and that it was part of an enormously successful midcentury genre now called “lesbian pulp fiction.” During World War II, paperback books finally took off, and by the 1950s publishers were rushing to put out original paperback novels. They were printed on ultra-cheap paper, with the idea that a man would buy one of them in a bus station, read it during the trip and toss it into a trash can once he reached his destination.
(And yes, the books were very much intended for men. It didn’t seem to have occurred to most of these publishers that women were an audience worth targeting—let alone queer women.)
Most of the lesbian pulp authors were men, too, often writing under female pen names, but a handful of the authors were lesbians themselves. In many cases, it was the first opportunity these women had to write about their own experiences and communities.
The stories often had tragic endings, thanks to publishers’ fears of controversy and censorship. Pioneering author Marijane Meaker was instructed to put one of the protagonists in her 1952 novel Spring Fire into an asylum following a nervous breakdown at the end of the book and to have the character’s former girlfriend promptly forget she’d ever been anything but straight. And Tereska Torrès’ Women’s Barracks was the subject of much outrage at a public hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. (Incidentally, news reports of that hearing led to millions of additional sales for Women’s Barracks, so it wasn’t all bad news.)
Despite everything they were up against, some of the books written during that era are incredible. The collection Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965, compiled by powerhouse lesbian author and editor Katherine V. Forrest, is full of gripping midcentury writing as well as fascinating glimpses into the lives of the LGBT community in the pre-Stonewall era. Nearly all of the characters are closeted, and many of them face discrimination that threatens to destroy them, but the worlds the characters inhabit and the lives they live are still incredibly rich.
But even though lesbian pulp fiction was selling in numbers that most modern romance authors can only dream of, actual lesbians, along with other gay, bisexual and transgender people, were facing impossible odds. Same-sex marriage and other legal protections were unheard of, discrimination was a matter of course, and outright persecution was common.
The same era when lesbian novels were thriving was also the height of the lavender scare in the United States. From the late 1940s and all the way into the 1970s, the federal government went to great lengths to identify any potential gay, lesbian or bisexual employees and summarily fire them. Gossip spread by a disgruntled coworker or a belief that someone’s voice was too low or hair too short might be all it took to get an employee kicked out of the job and officially banned from any future government employment. The rumor mill also made certain they could never get a job anywhere else either.
Thousands of people lost their jobs. Along the way, many were outed to their parents in an era when outing often meant the severing of all family ties. Suicide was common.
I never came across anything in my research about whether the same men who conducted the interrogations and ordered the firings (because it was pretty much all men there, too) also read lesbian pulp fiction in their spare time. But odds are, most government officials in that era would’ve seen absolutely no contradiction between being titillated by fictional lesbians and ruining the lives of actual queer people.
That contradiction wound up being the most interesting part of writing Pulp. From the beginning, I envisioned it as a dialogue between two queer teenage girls, both writers like me, living in very different circumstances and battling hypocrisy.
Pulp starts with Abby, an out-and-proud lesbian high school senior in 2017. Abby lives in Washington, D.C., and she regularly goes to protests with her friends to speak out against the injustices happening in the world around them. One afternoon she stumbles across an eBook of a lesbian pulp novel and becomes fascinated by the dramatically different world it represents. She decides to track down the author, who wrote under a pseudonym and vanished after publishing only one book. The 1950s have always seemed like a million years ago to Abby, but as she searches for the mysterious author, she starts to understand exactly how much the world still hasn’t changed.
Interspersed with Abby’s story, alternate chapters introduce Janet, an 18-year-old closeted lesbian living in 1955 who also happens across a lesbian pulp novel and decides to try writing one of her own. While she’s writing, Janet also falls in love for the first time, but her best-friend-turned-more, Marie, has just been hired as a secretary at the U.S. State Department. Her job would be in major jeopardy if anyone found out about Janet or discovered Janet’s book.
While I was researching Pulp, I naturally read a lot of lesbian pulp fiction (my personal favorites are Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt and Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker series), and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the women who wrote these novels right in the middle of the horrific landscape that was the United States in the 1950s. These authors helped to lay the groundwork for the modern publishing industry. I’m a queer woman writing fiction about LGBT teenagers, and if it hadn’t been for the queer authors who first paved the way, I might never have been able to see any of my books in print.
We take for granted now that the world is ready to read stories like these, but that’s only true because activists worked for decades to make change. Reflecting on their work is a great reminder of how far we still have to go to ensure representation of marginalized characters—and of how lucky we are, even with all the challenges we’re still confronting, to be living in today’s world instead of the era just a few generations back.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Pulp.