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Gay pulp novels of the 1960s sell at steep prices these days. Their racy covers have great camp value, and since they were cheaply produced and meant to be easily disposed of, gay pulps are now collectors’ items. Gay pulps have even made inroads with academics, who have come to regard pulps as repositories of historical information. But it hasn’t always been so.
The Mattachine Society, for one, frowned on gay pulps. Founded in 1950 and in decline by the mid-1960s, the Society sought to assimilate gays into society without raising feathers. From the Mattachine point of view, gay pulps were too highly sexualized. Gay pulps didn’t fare much better after Stonewall because that generation sought to come out on its own—and not society’s—terms. From the Stonewall point of view, gay pulps, with cover copy promising “characters who live in ‘shadows,’” were throwbacks. Eventually, it would all be beside the point anyway. Gay pulps just wouldn’t be able to compete with increasing competition from gay pin up magazines and gay porn flicks.
In succeeding decades pulps fell between the cracks, probably because gay academics have long had a cache of more literary writers to study. But while it’s one thing to take the historical value of pulps seriously, it’s quite another to take the literary value of gay pulps too seriously. 1960s Gay Pulp Fiction: The Misplaced Heritage is a collection of twelve essays edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn and Jamie Harker, and its best essays go a long way toward rescuing gay pulp from historical “shadows.” Some of the essays that focus on the literary merits, however, can get a little silly.
The editors’ introduction, along with essays by Whitney Strub and Philip Clark, show why, historically, “the gay pulp explosion” is important and interesting: because it was preceded by stories and photographs passed from hand to hand between gay men in noncommercial, social settings; because it overlapped with prurient straight interest in gay life and the mainstream publications that manifested that interest via “exposés” in Time and Life. Then, too, the gay pulp explosion was largely set off by straight men looking to make a buck and, despite a gradual relaxing of obscenity laws, at least one maverick publisher served time for peddling gay pulp.
The interesting facts don’t stop there. Gay pulps were widely available in pharmacies, in dime stores and at magazine stands. Gay men in rural areas could send away for pulps by filling out a handy order forms, and gay pulp novels encompassed a breathless array of genres. including, but certainly not limited to, westerns, coming-out and coming-of-age stories, historical and pastoral romances, horror, picaresque, gothic, and “more short-story collections than is generally realized,” Gay pulps, then, are an early example of what today we might call gay consumerism.
Just as interestingly, as Philip Clark discusses in his excellent “Accept Your Essential Self,” many gay pulps also carried a message of self-acceptance and were instructive to socially isolated gay men. Gay pulp novels not only encouraged sex but romance. In the essay “Proem,” James J. Gifford recalls his surprise at finding that “these stories have a strong morality attached to them. [The gay pulp novelist] Branch misses no chance to allow his characters a chance to lecture on not losing hope, the dangers of sexual repression, and the difference between love and lust….”
On the literary side, Gifford’s “Proem” is one of the standouts, relating, as it does, gay pulp to early American novels with gay subtexts. One of Gifford’s many incisive observations is that, since a veil of secrecy surrounded homosexuality from the late 19th all the way through the 20th century, “the authors of pulps can be as anonymous as the writers of novels like Imre (1906) or A Marriage Below Zero (1889).”
Another standout on the literary front is Jamie Harker’s “A Life Entirely without Fear.” Harker is the author of Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America, in which she clearly showed how Isherwood incorporated his interest in gay pulps into his his 1964 novel, A Single Man. Here she shows how the same holds true for Isherwood’s A Meeting by the River (1967). Harker’s theses are supported by the fascinating quotes she extracts from Isherwood’s diaries. From Isherwood Diaries, Volume 2: 1960-1969 she pulls out this little gem: “We spent a lot of the morning in two queer bookshops, the Adonis and Rolland’s, where we bought Sex Life of a Cop; Go Down, Aaron; Teleny; Like Father, Like Son; A Fool’s Advice …. Buying such books is a sort of political gesture which is infinitely more satisfactory than actually reading them.”
Pamela Robertson Wojcik’s essay, “Menus for Men … Or What Have You” brings us back to the topic of gay consumerism by focusing on Lou Rand’s nonfiction gay pulp, The Gay Cookbook (1965). We live in a time when, probably not for the better, gay men are defined by how they spend money: the restaurants they eat out at, the clothes they wear, where they take vacations and so on.Wojcik argues that gay nonfiction pulps like The Gay Cookbook was an early example of such identity formation. Most cookbooks in 1965 were for housewives, who needed to be thrifty; or for straight men, who needed and wanted to be perceived as hardy outdoor cookers. The Gay Cookbook, on the others hand, “detaches the image of cooking and domesticity from married life; it also sexualizes cooking, tying it to seduction and a sexual identity….”
Sadly some of the other essays overestimate gay pulp’s literary value. Pulp author Richard Armory did borrow from the structure and characters of Spanish pastoral novels, thereby undermining that genre’s themes and producing his gay pulp classic Song of the Loon. And while that’s a clever idea, the execution is more pulp than literary. So I’m one not surprised, as Beth M. Bouloukus is in “Shepherds Redressed,” that no critic has ever…understood the novel in terms of what it really is: an ingenious reworking of Mentemayor’s La Diana.”
The only other drawback about 1960s Gay Pulp is that it’s a book that’ll make you want to buy more books. So far I’ve read Two College Friends, Song of the Loon, Stud by Phil Andros and Lou Rand’s The Gay Detective. There is, in other words, a gay pulp explosion rocking my apartment and I can only hope to come out from under it. Wish me luck.
1960s Gay Pulp Fiction: The Misplaced Heritage
Edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn and Jamie Harker
University of Massachusetts Press
Paperback, 9781625340450, 344 pp.