Without the paperback revolution in the 1930s and 1940s, lesbian pulp fiction would not have existed. During the Second World War, paperbacks were distributed free of charge to American and Canadian troops. After the war, the demand for paperback novels as a form of entertainment remained high, especially since the movie and television industries had self-imposed morality codes that avoided risqué topics.
When Women's Barracks, published in 1950, and Spring Fire, published in 1952, sold millions of copies, becoming financial successes, many paperback publishers rushed to take advantage of the new market for books about lesbians. It is estimated that over 500 books with lesbian content were published over the next 15 years. Along with the mainstream publishers like Fawcett Publications and Bantam Books, smaller publishing houses specializing in erotica, like Midwood-Tower books entered the market.
The adult/softcore publishers used sex to sell books that could be categorized by genres such as crime and adventure, so lesbian pulp fiction was a good fit for their target audience. As censorship laws became more relaxed in the 1960s, lesbian pulp fiction was also distributed by sleaze publishing outfits whose books could be categorized as "sex books" with just enough of a minimal plot to escape the label of obscenity.
The publishers represented in the MSVU lesbian pulp collection run the full range from those rooted in literary traditions to sleaze peddlers.
- Browse the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection for books from the different types of publishing companies
Because lesbian pulp fiction was published primarily for the white heterosexual male audience, the stories focused on white lesbians in scenarios that appealed to straight male fantasies. It is estimated that 80 - 90% of these books were authored by men, many using female pseudonyms. A minority of these books, estimated at 10%, were written by lesbian or bisexual women, who subverted the genre to include realistic lesbian stories and characters. These books were also referred to as 'lesbian survival literature'
Lesbian pulp fiction publishing was a small subsection of paperback publishing. Softcover books have existed throughout publishing history, but they were never designed for mass distribution on the scale we know it today. The modern compact sized paperback with the publisher’s logo on its cover stems from an innovation by the German publisher Albatross Books in the early 1930s. This format was adopted by Penguin Press in 1935 in England, and subsequently by Pocket Books in the United States in 1939.
In the challenging economic times of the Great Depression, their strategy was mass production and wide distribution at the lowest cost. They purchased the rights for books that had previously sold well, used glue rather than stitching to bind the cheap pulp-based paper, and followed the conventions of magazines using brightly coloured covers with eye-catching illustrations. The term pulp fiction came from the cheap, low-quality pulp paper used in the productions of the books. In the early 1950s, the average price of a paperback novel was 25 cents.
Pocket Books’ success was rooted in going beyond the usual distribution of books via trade bookstores and department stores to using independent wholesale distributors of magazines to reach newsstands, drugstores, grocery and variety stores across the United States and Canada. Pocket Books was a commercial success, and in North America, the terms pocketbook and paperback are used interchangeably.
Predictably, many other publishing companies entered the lucrative paperback market. With a business model that required wide distribution and quick turnover of inventory, many of the successful competitors had their roots in the magazine industry. Although the industry began by reprinting previously published materials, they soon expanded their market by publishing "paperback originals" commissioned from freelance authors. Freed from the traditional publishing model of marketing their books through book reviews and booksellers, the publishers had no qualms with publishing less literary, but arguably more popular titles, including lesbian pulp fiction titles.
Pocket Books successfully launches mass market paperback books
Other publishers entered the market. The practice of providing the armed forces with free paperbacks helped fuel the demand for pulp novels in the late 1940s. Publishers pursued methods that increased the turnover of their product. Sensationalized cover art becomes a feature regardless of the literary merit of the books
Television and radio self-censored their broadcasts to meet government standards, but fierce competition among paperback publishers encouraged increasingly provocative pulp fiction cover art and content. In 1952, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Current Pornographic Materials examined the paperback industry. The Women’s Barracks published by Fawcett Publications was singled out as an example of “the so-called pocket-sized books, which originally started out as cheap reprints of standard works’ but have largely degenerated into media for the dissemination of artful appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion and degeneracy’.
By 1954, U.S. magazines and paperbacks occupied 80 percent of Canadian newsstand space. In 1953, the National News Company, an Ottawa distributor was convicted and charged of distributing obscene literature to newsstands. The Woman’s Barracks entered as evidence with the passages dealing with lesbians marked for the court’s attention. The publicity surrounding the hearings and court cases boosted sales of Fawcett Publications, and other publishers entered the market producing more provocative and controversial content including those with a lesbian theme.
Newly relaxed censorship laws and the beginning of the sexual revolution allow for more sexually explicit books and book covers. The emergence of soft and hardcore pornography presses combined with the rise of the women’s movement dilute the demand for the ‘male adventure’ genre produced by mainstream paperback publishers. By the mid to late 1960s mainstream presses published very few lesbian-themed stories. This gap is addressed by the feminist press in the 1970s and 1980s.
Daley, Brittany A., Hedi El Khoti, Earl Kemp, Miriam Linna, and Adam Parfrey (Ed.). Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties, Feral House, Los Angeles, CA, 2005.
Davis, Kenneth C. Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America. Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
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.
Rabinowitz, Paula. American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Princeton University Press, 2014.