LGBTQ+ novels have seriously come so far. Odds are, if you go into any major book store, you'll be able to find at least a few LGBTQ+ books. Sure, sometimes the bookstore won’t have a huge section, or it might just be Elton John’s best selling autobiography across the shelves, but the books are still there. Before LGBTQ+ celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Tan France, and Neil Patrick Harris were writing unapologetic memoirs about their adventurous gay lives, there was pulp fiction. More specifically, the subset of lesbian pulp fiction, a genre of novels which were equal parts secret and stubborn in existence.
Trigger Warning for discussion of homophobia, the bury your gays trope, and brief discussion of violence against LGBTQ+ people.
Pulp fiction? Like that Quentin Tarantino movie?
In a way, actually yes. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction gets its name from the very specific genre of pulp novels and magazines which ruled the 1930s all the way to the ‘50s. These little bits of literature used the cheapest wood pulp possible — not at all the glossy magazines you would see on the shelves today. Rather, pulp novels and magazines had distinctive illustrations, and were pocket-sized. Perfect for carrying around in secret: these were not the books you’d see in a glass display at Barnes & Noble. Pulp novels were originally created to give sailors a little something saucy to read during the second world war. But after the war ended, their popularity began to surge alongside women’s fight for justice. And so, a secret genre was born within the secret genre.
The genre prioritized women — sometimes more than the actual writing itself
Lesbian pulp fiction was, at it’s forefront, a movement that prioritized female characters. Now don’t get me wrong, these novels were often just as trashy as their heterosexual counterparts. But there’s a reason why Harlequin romance novels, despite the cringe covers, have sold millions of books every year for the last seventy-five years. As much as we like to deny it, romance novels, especially the NSFW ones, make money. LGBTQ+ women were desperate to cling to these novels, no matter how terrible the writing was or how evil the lesbian characters were: these novels were proof that gay women existed. And when you’re stuck in a loveless marriage to your gross high school boyfriend instead of the cute lady who makes bread down the road, you take what you can get. Sometimes, this meant pocketing a fifteen-cent, hundred-page novel full of typos and water stains that you bought in the very back corner basement of a bookstore – at least, until the cops raided every sin-filled page from the shop.
But even sauciness aside, these novels put women first, and that's what really set them apart. Odd Girl Out, published under the pseudonym Ann Bannon, tells the story of a college-aged woman who wonders if she’s too feminine to be gay. Interesting how you don’t just find those types of comments on Ashley Benson’s Instagram page.
The impact was unimaginable
Lesbian pulp novels created so many of the LGBTQ+ tropes we see in media today. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Lonliness is said to be one of the first books published with a lesbian kiss — a moment which created so much controversy that critics said Hall polluted the English language when it was published in 1928. It took decades of convincing to even have lesbian pulp novels published. The majority of companies created a rule: lesbian content could be allowed if the publisher had final say over the title/cover art, and being a lesbian was never allowed to have positive connotations. Translation: being gay in a pulp novel was the cherry on top of a deliciously poison sundae. The “bury your gays” trope often discussed in LGBTQ+ circles today illustrates the problematic nature of only having gay characters represented as murder victims, or worse, commit suicide.
But there were some writers willing to fight their oppressive publishers. Ann Bannon and Claire Morgan (yes, another pseudonym, the norm when lesbians were lobotomized at the drop of a hat) were just two trailblazing writers who dared to do what Joss Whedon wouldn’t in a certain 2002 episode of Buffy: let the lesbians have a happy ending.
But it’s also worth mentioning that there is a surprising amount of lesbian pulp fiction was written by straight men for other straight men — both for the purposes of enjoyment and disgust. Fred Haley’s infamous novel, Satan Was a Lesbian, quite literally depicts a gay woman as the personified Lucifer obsessed with sexual violence. The harmful stereotype of a predatory lesbian is also a trope that mainstream media has easily leeched onto. But then again, many people believe Fred Haley is a pseudonym, too. Lesbian pulp fiction was, and still is, a genre which created an unimaginable impact in every form of LGBTQ+ media we consume. The sheer amount of anonymity gave the genre a powerful weapon against the normalized violence against LGBTQ+ people. These books said “we exist,” in a world that wanted to electrocute gay people out of existence. While this was certainly a stab in the back of oppression, we can’t ignore the way that anonymity is a double-edged sword. We will never truly know how much of these novels were edited to suit publishers’ desire to recreate bestselling raunchiness in a non-heterosexual format. We’ll never know how many authors were pseudonyms or who these writers really were. We’ll also never know how many novels were burned out of existence, how many were written in secrecy during a toxic marriage.
But every single criticism aside, I will still fight for lesbian pulp fiction novels. Yes, a lot of them were trashy and many of them have more typos than pages. Regardless, the fight for these books to be published exists alongside the fight LGBTQ+ people have to hold their partner's hand while walking down the street. The history is integral — and these novels, while often problematic, remind many of us LGBTQ+ people in North America that finding power in your own will to live is significant.
Plus, finding one of these novels in a vintage book store kind of feels like winning the gay lottery.
is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. When she isn't writing, she's reading and working on her bullet journal. You can read more of her work at ashaswann.com