Few books make me feel as giddy as I felt when I learned that Robin Talley penned a young adult novel set in the world of lesbian pulp fiction. Washington D.C. High School senior Abby Zimet struggles with a shaky home life, a complicated relationship with her ex-girl friend, and a nebulous future. When she stumbles across a lesbian pulp novel by Marian Love during research for a creative writing project, her thoughts become increasingly consumed by it and with finding the elusive woman behind the story.
Tracking down an author, especially a writer of 1950s lesbian fiction, is a near impossible task. Abby learns this lesson quickly: not everything is available online, but human connections remain a powerful channel. If you were a queer female author, you cloaked your identity behind a pseudonym. You didn’t want to be found. Pulp shares the impact of lesbian pulp novels within the context of their time. Queer people were hunted out of government jobs, blacklisted from future employment, and exiled from families they were born into. Authors like Ann Bannon, who later revealed her identity as a pulp writer, wrote their first novels from dens of crumbling heteronormative domesticity. Patricia Highsmith published The Price of Salt under the name “Claire Morgan”, so as not to derail her nascent mainstream writing career.
Told in parallel narratives, Pulp traces Janet Jones’ pivotal year in 1955 as a teenager in D.C., and Abby’s present-day travails and literary sleuthing. As the story builds, readers see more than just a chasm of differences between the modern teen’s openness with her family and friends as a lesbian, and Janet’s furtive attempts at secrecy. Readers discover threads that not only connect the characters through time, but also reflects the continuity of history and social activism in our own lives.
Robin Talley delivers an immersive and emotionally engaging novel that rewards repeat readers. Sprinkled throughout are Easter eggs for lesbian history enthusiasts and those eager to learn more about this period in our history. I believe that fiction can be a powerful draw in pulling readers of all ages into a deeper examination of historical events. Talley again creates a compelling story that intrigues and informs. I’ll leave most of the trivia for you to discover when the book is released in November. Hint: Start with Abby Zimet’s name. If you’re new to lesbian pulp, you can find plenty of examples of their covers online. Salacious, technicolor covers make for great magnets and other novelty items.
A major portion of Abby’s journey involves an education in lesbian herstory. I am especially drawn to mid-20th century queer history and fiction. This bibliography reflects some of the material that I’ve read so far. It is by no means comprehensive or complete. If you have any recommendations for me, please share them in the comments below. I’ve said this before, but someday, I will visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City.
- Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party
- Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America
- Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels, 1950-1965
- Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949-1969
- Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Birth of the Lesbian Rights Movement
- Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s Lesbian pulp author Marijane Meaker’s memoir of her relationship with author Patricia Highsmith. Her pen names include Ann Aldrich and Vin Packer.
- Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir An engaging personal history from noted historian Lillian Faderman.
- The Ladder, a publication started in 1955 by The Daughters of Bilitis. Click the link to hear Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin discuss its origins.
Articles & Websites
- The Lesbian Pulp Fiction that Saved Lives by Natasha Frost. Atlas Obscura. (2018)
- Annotated Bibliography: Lesbians and the 1950s by Amber R. Byers. OutHistory. (2008)
- LGBT History Month: The 1950s and the Roots of LGBT Politics. Human Rights Campaign. (2014)
A mix of pulp fiction and novels set in the 1950s (and in New York City, for the most part).
- Spring Fire (1952) by Vin Packer (Pulp)
- Three Women (1958) by March Hastings (Pulp)
- Odd Girl Out (1957) & Beebo Brinker (1962) by Ann Bannon (Pulp)
- The Girls in 3-B (1959) by Valerie Taylor (Pulp).
- Twilight Girl (1960) by Della Martin (Pulp).
- Desert of the Heart (1964) by Jane Rule. A May-December romance in Reno, Nevada.
- The Price of Salt (1952) by Patricia Highsmith writing as Claire Morgan (Pulp)
- A Thin Bright Line (2016) Historical fiction based on the life of author Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s aunt.
Coloring book bonus!
The Butch Lesbians of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s Coloring Book from Stacked Deck Press is currently out-of-stock, but worth keeping an eye on.