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For most contemporary readers, Lesbian pulp fiction means lurid covers peopled with voluptuous women in various stages of undress, below an overheated tagline like “how a young girl’s hunger for love made her prey to tormented and forbidden passions!” Preserved in coffee table tomes, address books, and refrigerator magnets, the covers are far more familiar, even to queer readers, than the stories they contain.
Which is why the reissue of Valerie Taylor’s Stranger on Lesbos (Feminist Press) is cause to celebrate. Originally published in 1960, the book was part of the deluge of lesbian-themed fiction that swamped American popular culture in the fifties and sixties, as twisted sisters and odd women joined hardboiled detectives, and he-men adventurers on drugstore paperback racks. We’ll never know how many male readers (and maybe some straight women) got their rocks off with one-handed reads; but we do know the cheap paperbacks were eagerly read by lesbians who sometimes treated the soap-opera stories as advice manuals, full of tips on where to go and how to dress in order to meet other twilight women.
Those early lesbian readers weren’t completely misguided—lesbians were writing as well as reading. And even hampered by censorship, a number of these women managed to convey some of the truths of their lives swathed in the veil of sleazy fiction: Ann Bannon with her Beebo Brinker series, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (written under the name Claire Morgan), Marijane Meaker who wrote as Ann Aldrich and Vin Packer; the list goes on. Prolific pulp author Paula Christian wrote Amanda, a lesbian pulp novel set in the world of lesbian pulp publishing—a delirious piece of meta-fiction if there ever was one.
Yet even in this crowd Valerie Taylor stands out, for the politics and realism she packs into her tight little stories. Before she became Valerie Taylor she was Velma Nacella Young, born in 1913 into a coal mining family and displaying a persistent bent for leftist politics, from the time she joined the socialist party in the thirties, through her work as a gay rights pioneer with Mattachine Midwest in the mid-sixties, right up to her membership in the Gray Panthers.
All the time she was writing, publishing poems and short stories. She used the money from her first novel, The Hired Girl, to divorce her alcoholic husband. She wrote for the magazines True Stories and Specialty Salesman, and broke into lesbian pulps with Whisper Their Love (1957) and The Girls in 3-B (1959). Her writing life was dominated by the need to support both her four sons and her activism, but she even so she didn’t accept the pulp status quo. “I wrote my books in the days when good lesbian novels were very scarce,” she told an interviewer in Gay Old Girls. “I didn’t set out to write good books, but books in which people acted authentically.”
Stranger on Lesbos, originally billed as “The searching novel of a lonely wife faced with the temptations of unnatural love,” is the story of Chicago housewife Frances, whose teenaged son no longer needs her and whose husband prefers his plastics business. Surrounded with modern conveniences, she sees herself as another machine: “Good old mom, a standard piece of household equipment.” It’s Betty Friedan’s problem with no name, and the love that has no name is its solution. Searching for purpose, Frances takes a lit class at the University of Chicago and meets Mary Baker, aka Bake, a bohemian career woman. Bake invites Frances for a drink, then a ride in the country, and eventually up to her apartment. “I wish you could be my roommate in college or something,” says Frances wistfully. Bake helps her define that “something.”
Once the affair is established, Bake introduces Frances to another world, “whose existence she had never even suspected.” Soon the lovestruck housewife is spending most of her time with Bake and her circle of lesbian friends, and even Frances’s plastics-focused husband takes notice. Although Frances toys with the idea of leaving him, fear and her attachment to her son keep her in the marriage. Eventually, the strain of the affair tells on both women. Frances is caught in a bar raid, while Bake skedaddles, too scared to even bail out her girlfriend. Exposed, betrayed, and pressured by her son, Frances caves. In a devastatingly hilarious scene, a hungover Frances, sporting a black eye, plays the good wife and mother at her son’s wedding.
It’s fascinating to see how Taylor makes possible two completely different readings of Frances’s story; is she a straying wife who’s learned her lesson from a bad affair with a villainous lesbian? Or is she just an uncertain, newly out woman with an unreliable girlfriend, succumbing to the pressures of a homophobic society? Taylor’s deadpan, acerbic voice doesn’t steer the reader. The author knew Chicago’s gay underground first hand and she describes the pulpy action—bed-hopping, drunken pickups, marital rape—as if from a dispassionate distance. Her characters seem guided as much by pragmatism as passion. Sharing a jail cell with a dope fiend after her arrest, the restless Frances makes a mental note: “never go anywhere without a book after this.”
Taylor’s real subversion is to continue her heroine’s story in another book. Like Ann Bannon before her, Taylor unravels her earlier book’s hetero conclusion in a sequel—the tellingly named Return to Lesbos (1965). And she goes Bannon one better by bringing her pulp characters into the post-Stonewall era in Ripening (1980). In this last book, Frances’s husband is now a distant memory, as she grapples with monogamy, growing old, and coming out.
Taylor continued writing lesbian fiction (dropping the pulp) into her eighties, publishing stories about women struggling with poverty and age. When she helped organize the first annual Lesbian Writers Conference in Chicago in 1974, she reminded attendees, “To learn our origins is a first step in establishing identity.” Lesbian pulp is part of our origins, in all its melodramatic, overheated, politically incorrect glory. As Frances muses, “I don’t suppose people would listen to soap operas if they weren’t real, sort of. I mean, these things happen.”