Lesbian Pulp Fiction
Introduction to the Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection
at the Mount Saint Vincent University Library
What is Lesbian Pulp Fiction?
The year is 1952. Imagine yourself in a small town. The internet, cell phones and mobile devices will not exist for several decades. Lesbian, gay, transgendered, queer and other sexual minorities (LGBTQ+) issues are seldom discussed in public, but when they are, they appear in a negative context usually related to the purges taking place in the civil service, military, and public schools. Under Canada's criminal law, homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. This law will not be struck down until 1969. Yet, as you browse the wire rack of paperbacks at the convenience store, you pick up a slender book with two women on the cover and read the blurb on its opening pages:
Her silky black hair. Her low-cut gown. Her sparkling sorority pin. It’s autumn rush in the Tri Epsilon house, and the new pledge, Susan Mitchell – “Mitch” to her friends – shivers as the fastest girl on campus, the lovely Leda Taylor, crosses the room toward her for a dance. Will Leda corrupt Mitch? Or will the strong and silent Mitch draw the queen of Tri Ep in to the forbidden world of Lesbian Love?
Spring Fire was (one of) the first lesbian paperback novels and sold an incredible 1.5 million copies when it first appeared in 1952. The story ends sadly for Mitch and Leda (as these stories often did), but lesbian pulp fiction provided one of the very few sources of lesbian representation (both positive and negative) in popular culture until the rise of LGBTQ+ rights movements at the end of the 1960s.
Was lesbian pulp fiction the precursor to today’s lesbian fiction?
Not exactly. Lesbian pulp fiction in the 1950s and early 1960 was primarily marketed to men as erotica and seldom ended happily for the lesbian protagonists. Although the books were marketed to men as ‘men adventure stories’ the morality and censorship codes of the time meant that the language used and scenes depicted are very tame by today’s standards. The tone of the books was heavily moralistic, and many ended with one of the women leaving the lesbian relationship for a man.
Nevertheless, a small percentage of lesbian pulp fiction was written by lesbians who, within the constraints of the publishing formula managed to include somewhat sympathetic (though by today's standards, bleak and closeted) lesbian portrayals. These books were heavily sought after by lesbians of the time as they were one of the only sources of popular culture lesbian representation. Read more about sympathetic lesbian depictions in lesbian pulp fiction books on the Lesbian Survival Literature page.
Are there any Canadian lesbian pulp fiction titles or authors?
We do not have any Canadian titles in the collection. Although there were Canadian pulp novels, we do not know of any that were predominantly lesbian pulp fiction. Please contact us if you know of any! The titles in our collection are largely from publishers in the United States. They occasionally reprinted books from British and European authors. Lesbian fiction by Canadian citizens or publishers (e.g. Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart), were published in the feminist era after the lesbian pulp fiction heyday.
Some books appear to be non-fiction. Why are they part of the pulp fiction collection?
The collection includes a small sample of non-fiction titles, issued at the same time as the pulp fiction. It was a tactic used by publishers to circumvent potential censors by claiming the books were produced for educational rather than prurient purposes. The books purported to provide serious scientific and medical investigations of lesbianism, but in reality, they were thinly disguised erotica written in the format of case studies or journalistic expose.
Why is this type of book called pulp fiction?
The term pulp fiction comes from the cheap, low-quality pulp paper used in the production of the books. In the early 1950s, the average price of a paperback novel was 25 cents. Pulp fiction is also associated with the quality of the writing. One factor that distinguishes "literary fiction" from "pulp fiction" is the dependence of the pulps on a plot that follows a formula rather than style or language. Read more about mid-20th-century paperback publishing.
Why is lesbian pulp fiction of interest to scholars and book collectors?
Feminist and queer theory scholars are interested in lesbian pulp fiction novels for their popular culture representation of white lesbians during a period in North America that was homophobic and repressive of all sexual minorities. Read more about how scholars define which paperbacks should be considered to be part of the lesbian pulp fiction genre.
Lesbian pulp fiction is also collected for the vivid artwork portrayed on the covers of the books. Read more about the lesbian pulp fiction book covers.
Davis, Kenneth C. Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America. Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Keller, Y. (2005). "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), 385-410.
Rabinowitz, Paula. American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Princeton University Press, 2014.