Definition of Lesbian Pulp Fiction
Lesbian pulp fiction books share the following characteristics:
- The book was published in a paperback format between the 1950s and the mid-1960s.
- The book has clearly identified lesbian characters or subject matter (not simply in the subtext of the story).
- The book cover consists of sensationalized cover art that allows readers to recognize them as lesbian pulp fiction.
Reprints and Paperback Originals
Most of the lesbian pulp fiction titles were paperback originals, meaning they were written during the 1950s and 1960s and published as paperbacks. However, some publishers, usually the mainstream publishing houses, reprinted books that were first published in hardcover before the 1950s.
These books tended to portray lesbians in a positive (though heavily closeted) light, and when they were republished in the 1950s were repackaged with lurid covers and titles which promoted lesbianism as an illicit lifestyle. For example, Gale Wilhelm's 1938 Torchlight to Valhalla was reissued in paperback in 1950, renamed The Strange Path. Other publishers, perceiving Europeans as more sexually permissive, looked to England and France for titles to reprint in North America in paperback format. Shirley Verel's The Dark Side of Venus was published in hardcover in England in 1960 before it was released in paperback by Bantam Books in 1962.
For researchers interested in lesbian pulp fiction as a means of gleaning details of mainstream interpretations of white U.S. lesbian lifestyles in the mid-20th-century, the distinction between paperback originals and reprints is an important one. Not all scholars include the reprinted titles in their definition of lesbian pulp fiction. Although arguably better written with more sympathetic portrayals of lesbians than the paperback originals, researchers such as Martin Meeker and Tom Perrin reason that reprinted books are reflections of different time periods and different cultures, and therefore provide a different type of lesbian representation than the stories written for the mid-20th-century paperback market.
The paperback revolution broadened the number as well as the kinds of readers who might buy lesbian fiction. Despite the fact that many of the stories were male-oriented fiction with soft-core erotica as its intent, for the first time in history, lesbians and bisexual women living in isolation became aware that they might be part of larger sub-cultures.
For researchers interested in the development of lesbian identity in the 1950s and early 1960s, the wide distribution and heavy marketing of paperbacks is key to the definition of lesbian pulp fiction. Scholars such as Yvonne Keller, Christopher Nealon and Stephanie Foote, advocate for the inclusion of reprinted hardcover books in paperback format in the genre. They believe that the wide distribution and marketing of paperbacks is more important than the distinction between copyright dates and the literary differences between reprinted hardcover books and paperback originals.
There is agreement that the lesbian pulp fiction era came to a close after the mid-1960s. Increasingly relaxed censorship laws allowed for the emergence of pornography presses. The rise of the women’s movement and events leading to the Stonewall riots and the LGBTQ+ rights movement eliminated the demand for the ‘male adventure’ genre produced by mainstream paperback publishers. The books published after 1965 reflect the changing politics of the late 1960s and 1970s with widening tensions between feminist themed books in the mainstream press and the more explicit sexual content of the pornography presses.
Browse the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection for covers from the different publishing periods and types of book publishing