The Revolutionary History Of Lesbian Pulp Fiction

Did you know there was an empire of lesbian pulp fiction that rose and fell in the late 20th century? Let’s take a look at this crucial time in bookish history and how it influences us today.

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Book cover for "I Prefer Girls" by Jessie Dumont on a rainbow-striped background.

Queer rights have made great strides in recent decades, but there are still many injustices the queer community faces. So, it is important to listen to the LGBTQIA+ community and look back on their accomplishments within the realm of literature.

Many of the books being challenged are written by people underrepresented in literature, like queer, disabled, or people of color. It can feel disheartening to see book bans try to take away the space in American literature that marginalized people fought so hard to obtain.

But there is hope.

This isn’t the first time in American history that books centering queer identities have gone up against the morality of the general public. In fact, one of America’s most influential literary eras depended on the publication and selling of lesbian pulp fiction. That’s right — one of the most successful eras of pulp fiction was built on sapphic love stories, creating a lesbian Golden Age. So how did a genre that was once so popular fade into near-obscurity so quickly? 

Defining Pulp Fiction

First, let’s discuss what pulp fiction actually is. When you hear the words “pulp fiction,” you probably think of that Quentin Tarantino film from the 1990s. If you’re like me and you haven’t seen the film, you will be shocked to learn the movie isn’t actually about fiction, books, or any writing at all.

The Movie poster for Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" movie.

So why did Tarantino name his 90s cult classic film after an old genre of literature? Well, the style, tone, and writing of Tarantino’s movie draw heavily from the themes and topics for which pulp fiction was known in its heyday. Pulp fiction is a type of cheap, low-quality fiction that appeared in pulp magazines; the word “pulp” stems from the wood pulp paper that made up the magazines since it was one of the cheaper ways to print.

During the 20th century, pulp fiction was known for containing graphic violence and snappy dialogue, both of which feature in Tarantino’s movies. The film even opens with two definitions of “pulp,” one being: “A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.” Pulp fiction banked its marketing on the fact that it was taboo. The topics of discussion were considered inappropriate or “dirty” and not fit for mainstream publishing. It didn’t matter that several of the authors who wrote pulp fiction went on to have decorated writing careers; the form, purpose, and delivery of pulp fiction depended on it being disrespected.

But the very things meant to derail the genre’s success were the things that made it so popular amongst the general public. These traits also made pulp fiction the perfect medium for stories that weren’t accepted by traditional literature — like queer romances.

A Place For Lesbians

A few lesbian romances were printed before the rise of pulp fiction. During this time, the difference between pulp fiction and “respectable” literature was its physical form. You could tell if a book was traditionally published if it was initially released as a hardcover.

From the early to mid-20th century, a handful of hardcover books that had a clear focus on sapphic women were published, inserting lesbians into America’s mainstream publishing sphere: 

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is considered the first book in the English language to have lesbian themes and is responsible for bringing attention to lesbian and queer women in larger British and American cultures.

Various colors are splattered over the cover like watercolors. the title is in the center in gold letters. The author's name is at the bottom in gold letters.

Upon publication, Hall’s book underwent mass scrutiny in Britain, to the point that the British government banned the book for decades. Although similar legal battles followed when the book was published in the United States, Hall’s work beat legal challenges in New York’s court and the States’ Customs court.

Until the 1950s, sapphic content rarely permeated traditional publishing in Britain and the United States. The general public saw the subject matter as too sexually explicit, calling it “obscene.” Other countries, however, held a more tolerant view of lesbians. Some examples include Germany, which had a flourishing lesbian community in the 1920s and 1930s, and Japan in the early 20th century.

Perhaps one of the most influential queer communities was the French lesbian community of the early 20th century. Paris, in particular, played host to a budding social circle of lesbians who found community in literary salons. This community was made up of French lesbians as well as former American authors. Given the large sapphic literary crowd France hosted, it’s not surprising that the work considered the first “lesbian pulp” was written by a French author.

The Rise of Pulp Lesbians

Many scholars cite the publication of Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torrès as the first lesbian pulp and the beginning of the Golden Age of lesbian pulp fiction. When Torrès’s book was published in 1950, the attitude surrounding lesbians and queerness in general was still dismissive at best and volatile at worst, so how did Torrès’s book come to sell over two million copies?

Several women are in a room and are in a state of undress. The title is in large, green lettering across the top of the cover. The author's name is in yellow lettering at the bottom.

The short answer is that times were changing. After World War II, men had grown used to cheap, portable entertainment. Soldiers carried small paperbacks with them in the barracks to kill time, and they sought that same source of entertainment when they returned home after the war. Thus, pulp fiction rose in popularity because it was cheap to produce, making it easy to satisfy public demand for it.

Soon, pulps were everywhere. Drugstores, bus stops, terminals — anywhere a person would be wasting time and hunting for something to keep themselves occupied, pulps were there. The convenience of pulps meant that salacious material also gained a type of normalcy. The “low-brow” topics of pulps — drugs, gangs, and murder, just to name a few — were by no means accepted or approved, but they were tolerated because they served an economic and social purpose to its market.

A collection of vintage pulp fiction books laying in a pile.

Women’s Barracks was a prime example of how many believed pulp fiction morally degraded the country. Set during World War II, Women’s Barracks is a fictional account of women serving in the Free French Forces. Despite the book’s commercial success, its depictions of homosexuality were used as evidence to the argument that paperbacks were promoting moral degeneracy by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. This committee went as far as to require publishers to abide by specific moral standards in their books’ content. Those who didn’t were liable to face hefty fines or even serve jail time.

Despite the committee’s decree, pulp fiction, specifically lesbian pulps, only grew in popularity. The success of Torrès’s book even prompted the publisher, Gold Medal Books, to print more lesbian pulps, ushering in what academics would call the Golden Age of lesbian pulps.

two women, one lying on a bed on top of a green cover, the other hovering over her with her hands placed on her shoulders sits in the foreground of the cover. The background is washed from brown to black. The title is in large, beige letters at the top. The author's name is in white letters at the bottom.

This seems like a case of “no such thing as bad publicity,” since the same things that made the book so popular were the same things that made it a bestseller. In a way, the book wouldn’t have been able to create a market for lesbian pulps if the general public wasn’t so against homosexuality. However, this sudden demand for lesbian stories had about as many complications as it did advantages.

Diversity With a Caveat

The biggest snag with the rise in lesbian pulps is that most of them were not authentic. Many writers for lesbian pulps were men using female pseudonyms. In later years, more women would enter the genre, but for the most part, lesbian pulps were coming from men. 

But why were men writing lesbian stories?

Because the target audience for these lesbian stories was also men. 

You might be thinking, well, at least the stories were written, and that’s a fair point. Although lesbian pulps were written by and marketed towards men, the publication of these stories drew in a new market: women. The same methods that made pulps so accessible to men also made them accessible to women. For many of these women, these pulps were their introduction to lesbian characters or the possibility of sapphic women.

But just because these pulps were more accessible doesn’t mean they were more accepted. In their article on the times of lesbian pulp fiction, CrimeReads discusses the inner turmoil many women faced when purchasing these pulps. Many women, especially those living in small towns or rural areas, were afraid of possible crucifixion when they bought lesbian pulps. Before you ask, there was no way of hiding — the covers of these books usually featured a pair of women seducing each other. Luckily, all pulp fiction was overtly promiscuous, so it wasn’t especially damning for a woman to have a book with obvious lesbians on the cover.

There are two women, one sitting on a bed naked, and the other sitting on the floor in a purple dress looking at something in front of her. They are in a room full of dull, washed red and yellow colors. The title is in large, yellow letters at the top. The author's name is under the title in small, white letters.

However, being classified as “pulp” didn’t give the writers of these lesbian stories the right to do anything they wanted. Back then, pulp writers were still required to uphold the moral standards of any published material in the United States. So, to keep from getting their work barred by censorship laws, writers gave their queer female characters unhappy endings. Sometimes, that meant death; other times, it meant leaving because the right man finally came along. And sometimes, it was just ending the story, knowing that that lesbian was severely traumatized.

It was quite a paradox. For the majority of the 1950s and 1960s, there was an influx of lesbian stories making their way into everyday spaces, validating the identities of open and closeted queer women alike. But this validation came from the same men who reduced the lesbian identity to a fantasy, a fetish, or a passing fancy. This validation came in the same story that told them that being true to themselves nearly guaranteed a life of misery and tragedy.

An empire built on such perilous circumstances would not last long. Only a decade after its beginning, the lesbian pulp came to an end.

The Fall of an Empire

Unfortunately, by the mid-1960s, the lesbian pulp empire had begun to decline. The beginning of the end started when two lesbian-centric books, Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule (loosely adapted as the 1985 film Desert Hearts) and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton, were published in hardback by mainstream publishers. This is not to say that lesbianism fell out of fashion when it hit mainstream publishing. But it was at the same time that these books garnered success that the United States Supreme Court disallowed the censorship of pornographic material. Many authors took advantage of this decision, using this newfound freedom to focus on more graphic sexual depictions than studying the relationship between their female characters.

Various items sit in the center on top of blue and dark indigo fabrics. The title sits at the bottom in blue lettering. the author's name is at the top in blue letters.

The changing of times also played a role. Many common plot points for lesbian pulps relied on the societal ostracization of lesbians, so the more tolerant society grew, the less inspired writers felt to write about lesbians. The rise of feminism and gay rights at the tail end of the 60s, ironically, helped cause the decline in lesbian pulps. Once there became an activist movement rallying for the rights of queer women, the tired and clichéd tropes the genre relied on became irrelevant.

A Growing Legacy

The lesbian pulp fiction empire is an undiscussed and often-forgotten part of American literary history, but like all crucial eras, it left echoes throughout history. Multiple resurrections of lesbian pulp fiction occurred, starting in the 1980s, when Naiad Press reprinted certain stories. The new technology of the 1980s aided this resurgence and the overall creation and distribution of lesbian literature. 

Thanks to one of these new technologies — a little thing called the internet — the 1990s saw a flood of lesbian fan fiction being written by hundreds of authors. The internet offered many the chance to publish their works online, something the masses took advantage of well into the 2000s. The early 2000s saw a renewed interest in lesbian pulp fiction. Renewed interest increased access, which allowed thousands of new authors in the genre to connect virtually. Some authors who got their start on the internet eventually gravitated towards the more traditional publishing route, trading in fanfiction for original works that were published by small presses.

So, where does this leave us today? Well, the hope is that this look into an unknown literary empire showed the resilience of a marginalized community. Even when faced with material that condemns or chastises their identities, the marginalized still seek each other out. 

Lesbians and women are still woefully underrepresented in literature, and there is no denying that some of the representation we do get is ignorant at best and problematic at worst. Many of the stereotypes that plagued queer women in the mid-20th century still exist today, presenting an uphill battle for those of us who want real, authentic stories with complex characters. But even when faced with the disgust of a nation, the disapproval of a court system, and the manipulation of the majority, lesbian pulp fiction survived. If you take anything away from this jaunt through time, let it be this: the stories of the marginalized will always persevere, no matter how mighty their opponent seems to be.

Want to learn more about women making literary history? Check out some of women’s literature’s underrated trailblazers here!

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