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About Gay and Lesbian Popular Fiction

Expanding Sexuality Research: Gay and Lesbian Popular Fiction Collections

Susan Lynch and Brenda J. Marston

As a result of two major donations to the Human Sexuality Collection, Cornell now holds a major collection of gay men’s pulp novels and series fiction and has the beginnings of a collection of lesbian pulp novels dating from the 1950s. Gordon Martin, a retired librarian who had been building a personal collection of such paperbacks for years, donated some 1700 volumes in 1989. In 1991, the estate of George Fisher donated the entire inventory of his Elysian Fields Booksellers business in New York City. In operation for two decades, Elysian Fields had become the country’s largest dealer in rare and out-of-print books relating to sexuality. George Fisher’s gift contributes significantly to Cornell’s overall holdings in the history of sexuality, and in particular, to its collection of lesbian and gay paperback novels.

The Lesbian Popular Fiction Collection contains approximately one hundred pulp novels, primarily from the 1950s and 1960s. A number of these novels belong to series, such as Midwood, which also include gay men’s pulps. With titles like Women in the Shadows, Of Shame and Joy, The Unmarried Ones, The Fourth Sex, and The Third Way, these novels often portray the secretive and dangerous lives of lesbians who have found their way to the bar scene in big cities in search of others like themselves. Numerous covers show brunettes as the confident seductresses and blondes as the confused but tempted women struggling with their sexual identity. The stories often end tragically. The impact of these books on their audiences remains to be examined. Indeed, the intended audience is itself an interesting question. Many of the novels openly appeal to a heterosexual reader, and a significant portion were written by men (or possibly under male pseudonyms).

The Gay Men’s Popular Fiction Collection built from the Martin and Fisher donations includes representatives from over 130 series and more loosely conceived publishers’ lines. The earliest materials are sensationalistic pulp novels dating primarily from the 1950s. The early pulps, with their lurid covers and titillating blurbs, demonstrate a fascination with “deviant” sexuality. In the 1960s, various series emerged, including HIS 69, Pleasure Reader, Blueboy Library, and the Surree Stud Series. Each series has an easily recognizable cover design, plot formula, and particular sexual theme, such as “men in uniform.” Star Distributor perhaps represents the extreme of specialty marketing; its various series include Gay Incest, Young Studs, Buddy Books (high school settings), and Jock Studs. Besides formula erotic series, recent gay popular writing has branched into the genres of historical romance, short stories, science fiction and fantasy, detective fiction, and adolescent “problem books.”

While all books are cultural artifacts, gay men’s popular fiction contains comradely and affirming editorial prefaces, direct solicitation of readers’ likes and dislikes, and highly specific marketing that give the term “cultural artifact” additional immediacy and interest. Daniel Eisenberg writes in the Journal of Popular Culture (1982), “Taken as a body, they offer an invaluable and almost untapped source of information about sexual fantasies, hang-ups and tastes of a group of (primarily) white, male Americans.” The chronological range of the Gay Men’s Popular Fiction Collection makes it possible to trace broad changes in generic conventions, the implied readers or consumers, marketing strategies, and ultimately sexual and political ideologies. The gay novels published by Avon are a case in point. Covering a span of forty years and encompassing a variety of genres, the Avon books present a record of changing perceptions of the gay man as fictive subject and real-life consumer. The Gay Men’s Popular Fiction Collection should prove to be an important resource for work on the history of gay popular publishing and on a diverse reading community. The collection reflects profound historical changes in the public recognition of gay men and in their own self identity.

In addition to popular fiction, George Fisher’s gift of the Elysian Fields Bookstore includes other books and manuscripts, which enabled the Library to strengthen its collection of 19th and 20th century human sexuality materials. The gift represents a dramatic addition to holdings in the fields of lesbian and gay liberation texts, contemporary lesbian and gay fiction, and academic interpretations of homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality. Rare and limited editions and collections of works by Baron Corvo, Ronald Firbank, Samuel M. Steward (pseud. Phil Andros), Oscar Wilde, and others have been added. Also included are the business papers of H. Lynn Womack, a publisher of Guild Press who successfully fought a court battle against charges of obscenity. Womack’s files contain substantive documentation of the pornography mail order business. George Fisher’s own personal and business files reflect the life of a man devoted to the representation of gays in print culture.

While a Cornell graduate student in English Literature, Susan Lynch was awarded a three month fellowship in 1991 to organize and analyze Cornell’s collections of lesbian and gay popular fiction. Brenda J. Marston is Curator for Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection.

Collection Highlights