A new release by historian Susan Stryker celebrates the low culture world of queer pulp fiction. Tim Benzie discovered the joy of judging trashy books by their campy covers.
The Man They Called My Wife. Lavender Love Rumble. So Soft, So Sweet, So Queer. They just don’t write novels with titles like these any more. From the 40s to the 60s though, in what was primarily a North American phenomenon, dime stores sold tiny, cheap paperback fiction on a wild variety of themes, from swinging bisexual orgies to the tragedy of marriage to a trany. The content was usually low-grade, with melodramatic plots peppered with then raunchy sex scenes, but the gaudy covers and ludicrous titles have endured as cultural icons. Reprinted covers of classics like The Man From C.A.M.P. and Lesbo Lodge have been available as postcards and greeting cards for some time, but a new history of the genre provides titbits almost as juicy as an earmarked favourite chapter.
Queer Pulp by Susan Stryker details the rise of queer pulp fiction within a broader social and cultural context, exploring in a readable and lucid style the ways in which documents such as the 1948 Kinsey report on sexuality impacted on the mainstream American psyche. Queer representations were subsequently marketed to a paranoid though fascinated general public, fairy tales which were largely negative, as censorship laws demanded an unhappy ending. With tongue planted seductively in cheek, Stryker frequently drops her historian’s mask to reveal an obvious adoration for her subject, and her tales are hilarious. Stryker is also thorough. Lovers of the 1992 Canadian documentary Forbidden Love will recognise many of the lesbian titles, although Queer Pulp goes beyond Lesbos’ Lonely Groves to include bisexual potboilers (The Strange Three), transgender shockers (The Lady Was A Man) and gay bestiaries (Go Down, Aaron).
Along the way, a surprising array of more respectable authors are also noted, whose works were published in pulp prior to their more mainstream success. Titles include Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price Of Salt (published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), with authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Paul Bowles, James Baldwin, Samuel R. Delany and Gore Vidal all finding their work printed in sensationalist formats. The result is a fascinating glimpse into a time in which censorship and puritanism pushed works that would later be canonised into the cultural background. Stryker also details reviews of dyke pulp novels by The Ladder, the pioneering lesbian periodical published by the 1950s political group The Daughters of Bilitis. The reviews were not always positive, but affirm that despite the now camp appearance of these books, they once provided a vital source of cultural visibility for a generation of women and men.
Finally, as with pulp fiction itself, the text is secondary to those glorious covers and Queer Pulp is packed with full-colour images. One for the coffee table certainly, but also well worth the read.
Queer Pulp by Susan Stryker is available from The Bookshop at Darlinghurst, RRP $45.