Recognizing Lesbian Pulp
Pulp fiction author Ann Bannon recalls buying lesbian pulp fiction in the 1950s:
"Given the off-putting covers, so clearly meant to serve as come-ons to a male readership, how did women identify these books? What was it like to walk into a drugstore, train station, a newsstand and see a lavishly endowed young sexpot primping on the cover of something called Women's Passions while she was ogled by another babe in a state of undress? In a word: awkward. Even scary. Because, despite all the care devoted to developing cover art that would activate male gonads, women learned to recognize what was a nascent literature of their own by reading the covers iconically."
Cover artists tapped into North American beliefs about homosexuality and readers seeking lesbian pulp fiction soon learned to recognize the cues.
Pulp fiction covers often featured women, but the number of women, how they were portrayed on the cover, and how they related to each other provided essential information to the reader about whether or not there was lesbian content in the book.
A Single woman
- Is she nude or in provocative clothing?
- Is her gaze away from the reader signifying her shame or desolation?
- If she is looking out at the reader, does she look lonely or beseeching?
- Do the women have different hair colour?
- Are the women touching each other?
- Is one woman looking at her partner, while the other looks in another direction?
- Is there a lone male in the background looking embarrassed, hostile or sexually deprived?
Three or more women
- Are the women in a women’s only setting such as a dormitory, army barracks or prison?
- Is at least one of the women nude or undressing?
- Is there a suggestion of promiscuity?
In her essay “Cover Charge: Selling Sex and Survival in Lesbian Pulp Fiction”, Melissa Sky comments on the use of shadows to suggest repression. This corresponds to the 1950s belief that female homosexuality was a mental illness involving sexual repression and inversion. On the cover of Ann Bannon’s “Women in the Shadows” (1959) the contrast between the silhouette and shadow with the photograph is emphasized by the text on the cover: “Their dark and troubled loves could flourish only in secret.”
Ian Young notes that in the late 1960s as the many civil, women, and gay rights movements were underway, the silhouetted cover was replaced with the double exposure technique and lighter (including white) backgrounds. Homosexuality was emerging from the shadows into the light, yet still obscured.
Explore the use of shadows, both light and heavy, in the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection covers.
If the book title contained certain words, it was considered “code” to indicate that the book’s characters were different from the norm.
Many titles also contained words with a negative moral tone such as corruption, damned, evil, sin, danger, etc.
The use of coded terms was particularly conspicuous when books published before the pulp era where reprinted with new titles and covers.
- “Torchlight to Valhalla” (1938) was reprinted as “The Strange Path” (1950)
- “The Scorpion” (1932) was reprinted as “Of Love Forbidden” (1961)
In a few exceptions, the clues to lesbian content appear in the cover text rather than in the cover illustration.
Despite the illustration of a seemingly heterosexual couple, the front cover text of Illicit Interlude reads: “She was a strange woman, one who could yield her flesh to a man – and wish he were a woman."
Sky, Melissa. “Cover Charge: Selling Sex and Survival in Lesbian Pulp Fiction” in Matthews, Nicole, and Moody, Nickianne. Judging a Book by its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction. Ashgate, 2007.
Young, Ian. Out in Paperback: A Visual History of Gay Pulps. LMB Editions, 2007.
Zimet, Jaye. Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969. Viking Studio, 1999.