Michael Bronski. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
Though “gay pulp fiction” is a well-established literary genre in contemporary gay male culture, it is popularly linked with highly recognizable visual images associated with the cover art of paperback novels published from the 1950s to the 1970s. The bold, striking images on these covers, which range from the elegant to the crudely drawn, were almost always overtly or suggestively sexual. The resonance and popularity of these images is attested to by their pervasiveness on commercial products such as greeting cards, postcards, address books, advertisement for bars, and refrigerator magnets. They have become, in essence, a form of consumer camp, kitsch items from the past signifying an aspect of LGBT history that is, seemingly, disposable and ultimately irrelevant.
The reality of gay pulp fiction is far more complex and significant. The term “pulp fiction” is itself used in a variety of contexts. Pulp fiction is not a precise term, and it is often used loosely for books that have very different geneses and markets. The classification of publications as “pulp” began early in the century and referred to the cheap paper stock—from the least expensive wood pulp—on which they were printed. These publications were usually sensationalist men’s and boys’ adventure magazines. Just prior to World War II the publishing industry in the United States began printing and distributing cheaply produced—and cheaply priced—paperback books, both fiction and nonfiction, which were primarily sold on racks in train stations, drugstores, and stationery shops, and on newsstands. After the war these books reached a new level of production, and often featured in eye-catching covers—usually shocking or dramatic and always visually provocative. While such covers were created primarily for genre literature such as mysteries, crime fiction, science fiction, and romance, they were also used for popular novels and for editions of more canonical books such as Madam Bovary, The Way of All Flesh, and The Scarlet Letter.
The term “gay pulp fiction” is commonly used to describe two quite dissimilar publishing phenomena. The first, which lasted from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, was the publication by mainstream publishers of paperback editions of gay novels; the second was the emergence, after the relaxation of federal and state censorship laws, of original, mass-market paperback novels that featured increasingly explicit sexual material.
This first type of gay pulp fiction materialized in an industry context in which publishing houses marketed a large number of books in a sensationalized manner. Many of these books focused on themes concerning illegal or taboo sex—adultery, prostitution, rape, interracial relationships, lesbianism, male homosexuality—topics that were, in the words of the jacket-copy writers, “controversial,” “explosive, “and “shocking.” The books promised to “reveal the sordid truth in a way you have never read before.” Frequently, they traded on recent social obsessions and “headline news”—juvenile delinquency, motorcycle gangs, wife swapping, teen drug use, college scandals, racketeering, suburban malaise, and the erotic dangers of psychoanalysis. They were, beneath a veneer of enticing exploitation, a compendium of the not-so-hidden preoccupations and fears of the tempestuous and socially unstable postwar years. These books were both paperback originals and reprinted editions of novels and nonfiction that had been originally released in cloth (hardcover) editions. The salient and very important difference between lesbian pulps and gay pulps in this era was that almost all of the lesbian-themed books were paperback originals that were written by men for a heterosexual male readership, while the overwhelming majority of the gay-themed books were new paper editions of cloth editions of literary novels, from respected publishing houses, that were written by gay men for a wide audience of readers.
While it is generally unacknowledged in the history of LGBT publishing, there were hundreds of literary novels with gay male themes and characters published by mainstream houses between 1940 and 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots. Because they were respected works of literary fiction, they rarely encountered problems with censorship or distribution. They were almost always reviewed in mainstream venues and treated with respect. Titles such as The Fall of Valor by Charles Jackson (published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1946), Stuart Engstrand’s The Sling and the Arrow (Creative Age Press, 1947), Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (Dutton 1948), John Horne Burns’s Lucifer with a Book (Harper Brothers, 1949), Harrison Dowd’s The Night Air (Dial Press, 1950), Fritz Peters’s Finistère (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951), Douglas Sanderson’s Dark Passions Subdue (Dodd, Mead, 1952), Gerald Tesch’s Never the Same Again (Putnam, 1956), and Lonnie Coleman’s Sam (McKay, 1959) were first released in cloth editions and within a year were reissued in inexpensive paperback editions that sported classic pulp images and jacket copy.
To a large degree these books, many of which are not read today in spite of their literary worth, are now considered “gay pulp fiction.” They display a broad range of themes, characters, and political ideologies. Because all of these novels were published just after World War II, many of their characters are veterans still dealing with the emotional and physical damage inflicted on them by the wartime years. The main characters in The City and the Pillar, Never the Same Again, and The Night Air are all attempting to readjust to civilian life. In Lucifer with a Book and The Fall of Valor the protagonists deal with bodies that were wounded in the war. Few of the novels in this period are “coming out” novels as we use the term today. These characters, even as they are discovering their sexual desires, continually see themselves as players in a broader context than just the gay world. While only a few novels deal with interracial themes—Loren Wahl’s The Invisible Glass (Greenberg, 1950) being the most notable—many of the works make concrete connections between anti-homosexual sentiments and racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. Lucifer with a Book makes these connections explicit, as do Ward Thomas’s Stranger in the Land (Houghton, Mifflin, 1949), Lonnie Coleman’s The Southern Lady(Little, Brown, 1958), and John Rae’s The Custard Boys (Farrar, Straus, Cudahy, 1960). In contrast to contemporary gay books, many of these novels had no problem dealing with intergenerational sex and romance. Never the Same Again, Finistère, and James Barr’s Derricks (Greenberg, 1951) condone sex between adult men and teenaged boys. While most of these novels chronicle intimate relationships, they never fall into the category of the “romance novel” or even the “social problem novel,” but are far more concerned with examining the evolving idea of what it means to be a “man”—in these specific cases a man who is sexually and emotionally attracted to other men—in the United States after the war.
A subset of this category of “pulped” mainstream literary fiction exists and is quite important to the emergence, in the mid-1960s, of a more sexualized paperback original pulp novel. There were a handful of paperback original novels that dealt with gay male themes. A few of these were from major, New York–based, publishers such as Fawcett Gold Medal (which published Ann Bannon’s notable lesbian pulp novels). The best example of one of these original novels is Whisper His Sin (1954), released as by “Vin Packer,” but actually written by Marijane Meaker, author of two lesbian pulps and several works of lesbian pulp nonfiction (published under the name Ann Aldrich). For the most part, however, the gay male pulp paperback originals were produced and distributed by smaller publishing houses on both the East and West Coasts. All the Sad Young Men by Anonymous was published in 1962 by Wisdom House. In 1964 Lost on Twilight Road by James Colton (the pseudonym of Joseph Hansen) was published by National Library, in Fresno, California. Similarly, paperback original presses such as Beacon and Midwood, which published “shocking” novels—mostly involving heterosexual sex—released the occasional gay-themed book such as Ben Travis’s 1959 The Strange Ones.
By the mid-to-late 1960s, after a decade of challenges to U.S. censorship laws—mostly from book publishers and film distributors, it was possible to publish work with more explicit sexual content, and to portray homosexual and other erotic themes outside of the realm of “literary” publishing. In many ways, the history of gay publishing—and of the publishing of books with gay themes by the mainstream press—is also the history of the ongoing battle against censorship. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1958 to reverse a 1956 ruling by a federal district court stating that the U.S. postal authorities were right in prohibiting the mailing of the homophile ONE magazine. The lower court had ruled that ONE was not protected by the First Amendment: while the contents of ONE might not be offensive to homosexuals, since the “social or moral standards [of homosexuals] are far below those of the general community,” social standards are nonetheless “fixed by and for the great majority and not by and for a hardened or weakened minority.” By the terms of this ruling, any writing that promoted homosexuality or even presented it in neutral terms was “ipso facto” pornographic. Such standards were, of course, applied selectively, and while prominent publishing companies had less to fear than small, gay-oriented magazines, the possibility of censorship was always present.
In 1959 a California judge declared that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was not obscene and that San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore was not in violation of the law for selling it. Later that year the U.S. Postal Service lost a suit against Grove Press in New York State federal district court; this suit had tried both to halt the publication of the first American paperback edition of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and to ban the use the of the mail system to transport it. The court claimed that the book, because of its literary merit, was not obscene. The case was so clear-cut that it was the last time the Post Office attempted such a suit. In 1960 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that homosexual material (the case under consideration concerned beefcake magazines, not novels) had to be treated the same as heterosexual materials. In 1964 the Court ruled, after a series of differing state court decisions, that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published by Grove, was not obscene, and instituted a national standard for judging obscenity, this meant that publishers would not have to fight censorship on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis. In 1966 the Court ruled that John Cleland’s 1749 novel Fanny Hill: The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published by George Putnam and Sons, was not obscene because it was not “utterly” without redeeming social value. The protracted Boston trial concerning Grove’s 1962 publication of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch ended in 1966 and was the last major literary case limiting censorship in the United States.
The immediate effect of these judicial decisions was startling and allowed a new group of erotic publishers to begin operation. Well financed and connected to extensive and reliable distribution networks, these new companies published hundreds of titles every month, which became readily available in a variety of venues. The majority of these titles were for heterosexual audiences. (Books that featured lesbian content were, even more so than traditional “lesbian pulps,” aimed explicitly at the heterosexual male reader.) But within this new publishing framework, there were publishers and separate lines within the larger houses—Brandon House, Greenleaf Classics, Regency Books, Pendulum Books, Frenchy’s Gay Line, and Award Books, among others—whose books were aimed at a gay male audience that was eager to buy and read them. And, most importantly, most of these books were written by gay men for a gay male readership.
These new pulps—paperback originals written and distributed with an intent to sell sexualized material—functioned for gay men in much the say way that the lesbian pulps did for lesbians: they were both a visceral and visible marker of personal as well as group identity. Because they reached far more men than had read, or even been aware of, the earlier literary novels, they played a large role in expanding gay men’s experience of community and in reassuring men who desired sex with other men that they were not alone. It is important to note that these books, which were easily available to most men, were being published within the context of an ever-changing political scene. Homophile groups such as Mattachine and ONE, which had started in the 1950s, had created enough of a sense of political community that large numbers of gay men were ready to see themselves as more of a public entity. Even though most of these books were decidedly nonliterary—indeed were essentially not-very-explicit soft-core porn—they were a manifestation of a sea change in the ability of the gay male community to be public. Titles such as Jack Love’s Gay Whore (PEC; 1967), Barry Crandall’s The Muscle Swappers (Impact Library; 1968), and Alan Atkins’s In Search of Love (Spade Publishing; 1969) could be purchased on newsstands and in specialty bookstores. Not all of the new, more eroticized gay pulp novels were badly written. Authors such as Victor J. Banis (writing under the names V. J. Banis, Don Holliday, J. X. Williams, and Victor Jay), Richard Love (writing under the name Richard Amory), Carl Corley, Chris Davidson, and Bruce Benderson wrote highly literate fiction. Banis’s The Man from C.A.M.P. series was a best-selling parody of cold war politics and the James Bond craze; Richard Amory’s The Song of the Loon trilogy (1966–1968)—an overtly literary work that extolled the homoerotics of the Old West and interracial love between white men and Native Americans—sold more than 400,000 copies.
It is impossible to summarize the themes, character types, and political or social issues that run through these novels—the range of genres, styles, and ideologies is far too diverse. It is on the other hand possible to say that most of these novels reflect a new consciousness—antiestablishment, pro-personal freedom, and deeply suspicious of social and government power—that is also reflected in many mainstream works published at the same time. The Loon novels, for instance, with their rejection of civilization and embracing of a pastoral ethos are clearly reflective of the hippie and back-to-the-earth movement. Don Holliday’s C.A.M.P. novels are deadly accurate political attacks on cold war politics, and Chris Davidson’s use of historical settings—such as the Holocaust in Go Down, Aaron (Greenleaf, 1967) and the American Civil War in A Different Drum (Ember Library, 1967)—is emblematic of the nascent gay movement’s desire to claim a history for homosexuality. Though many of these works dealt with sex, or were sexually explicit, their political ideology was forthrightly progressive.
While all gay pulp novels—both before and after the relaxation of censorship laws—provided validation of gay male sexual desires, they also performed other functions. Without denying the enjoyment—sexual or otherwise—that came from reading them, these books also functioned pedagogically. Hidden within their plots and within the details of their character’s lives were maps, hints, and clues that told gay men how they might live their own lives. Because so many of the novels that dealt with homosexuality were written by gay men and drawn, to some degree, from the authors’ own experiences, they are filled with insights into how gay men of the period lived. This is not to say that they were documentary in intent and effect, but rather that they provided windows into a half-hidden gay world that was not completely accessible to those who were not members. Reading through these books, it is possible to see how gay men dressed, what their homes looked like, where they lived, and how they spoke. Certainly most of this knowledge is filtered through the lens of art and storytelling—bounded also by the pressures of the marketplace—but it was present and useful to those who needed to know.
The gay pulp novel led, in a very direct way, to the formation of a post-Stonewall gay male literature. Not only did writers such as Lonnie Coleman and Harrison Dowd pioneer fiction that examined gay male lives, but also the more sexualized pulps of James Colton, Victor Banis, and Richard Amory led to major changes in how gay writers were able to write about sexuality. While many of these literary and nonliterary works are now mostly forgotten or consigned to the category of “camp,” it is vital to keep in mind that they are an important chapter in gay male writing and history.