Lesbian Survival Literature
There was a subset of lesbian pulp fiction that provided sympathetic depictions of mid-20th-century lesbians and lesbian lifestyles. Called "lesbian survival literature" these books offered readers a realistic image of lesbians unavailable elsewhere. The term was coined by Joan Nestle, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. She recalls, "When I was a femme in the fifties looking for lesbian novels to read, I never questioned who wrote them if they gave me what I wanted: a world I could recognize and sex that I could respond to."
In a 1991 interview with Kate Brandt, Nestle elaborated, "Lesbian writing plays a tremendous survival role and culture communication role for the lesbian reader […] I think, because so many of us lived secret lives in small towns across the country, that the book – the lesbian in the book – was the open field […] It was the place where the doors and windows opened."
Explicit lesbian depictions were seldom seen in serious literature. Many lesbian authors, such as Gertrude Stein and May Sarton, who were writing and publishing in the 1950s disguised lesbian themes in the subtext of their stories or wrote "in code" to work around censorship laws and societal prejudices. Lesbian pulp fiction was not serious literature. It was trashy literature printed on cheap paper with the goal of maximizing profits and minimizing costs. These stories were marketed as erotica for straight men, but the books still reached an audience of women hungry for lesbian representation.
Lesbian pulp fiction author, Marijane Meaker claimed that it came as a surprise when they received fan mail from lesbian readers. "[Spring Fire] was not aimed at any lesbian market, because there wasn’t any that we knew about. I was just out of college. I was gay . . . it wasn’t a prurient book. . . . Tereska Torres . . . wasn’t aiming [Women’s Barracks] at any market either—just telling her experiences the best she could, as I was. We were amazed, floored, by the mail that poured in. That was the first time anyone was aware of the gay audience out there."
Make no mistake, the books referred to as Lesbain Survival Literature were true to their era and held their share of moralistic messages and tragic endings. Spring Fire, Odd Girl Out and Whisper Their Love, each written by authors, known for their positive portrayal of lesbian characters, end with the rejection of one of the women in favour of a male suitor. However, in addition to the censor-mandated conclusions, these stories offered a subversive message of vibrant subcultures, populated by strong dynamic women exuding a visible sexuality that rang true to many lesbian readers at the time.
Scholar Yvonne Keller points out that many of the authors with sympathetic portrayals of lesbians treated lesbian sex scenes respectfully compared to other authors in the lesbian pulp fiction genre. They avoided gratuitously, overly sensational sex scenes, or, as in the case of author Pat Perdue (Randy Salem), ensured that voyeuristic male characters also suffered painful consequences.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, short reviews of these books appeared in the Ladder, the first lesbian newsletter with a North American distribution. The reviewer was Gene Damon, a pseudonym for Barbara Grier, who would later become a significant publisher of lesbian literature in the latter half of the 20th century. During the 1960s, Grier was involved in the creation of a bibliography of lesbian literature, The Lesbian in Literature.
Grier rated lesbian literature on a scale of A-C for how prominent the lesbian subject was to the story and a range of 1 to 3 asterisks for the quality of the representation. Thus a rating of 'A***' had lesbian characters with very sympathetic portrayals. A rating of 'A' without an asterisk meant there was a major lesbian component but not sympathetically portrayed. The B and C ratings were for works with lesbian subplots or suppressed/coded lesbian themes. Books that contained voyeuristic and demeaning representations of lesbians were rated as 'T (Trash)'. It is telling that lesbian representation was so low that any representation was considered better than none. Grier reasoned that the 'T (Trash)' rating served to warn lesbian readers away from the worst of the titles. It is worth keeping in mind that these ratings were applied during the 1960s and many readers today may find even the A*** rated books challenging to read regarding their representation of lesbian lives.
In subsequent editions in the late 1970s and 1980s, over 2000 books rated as 'T (Trash)' were removed. The times had changed, and increased feminist and lesbian publishing opportunities meant that finally there was a large enough volume of lesbian literature to warrant the removal of the worst of the lesbophobic titles.
- Browse the titles from the MSVU Lesbian Pulp Fiction collection reviewed in the first North American circulated lesbian magazine, the Ladder.
- Browse the titles from the MSVU Lesbian Pulp Fiction collection with a Grier rating of A***
- Browse the titles from the MSVU Lesbian Pulp Fiction collection with a Grier rating of T (Trash)
Brandt, Kate. Happy Endings: Lesbian Writers Talk about Their Lives and Work. Naiad Press, 1993.
Damon, Gene, and Lee Stuart. The Lesbian in Literature: A Bibliography. San Francisco: Daughters of Bilitis, 1967.
Keller, Yvonne. ""Was It Right to Love Her Brother's Wife so Passionately?": Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965." American Quarterly 57.2 (2005): 385-410.