In a new exhibit, “Looking for Lesbians,” created for ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries, artist-in-residence Sarah-Joy Ford and curator Alexis Bard Johnson explore how pulp novels came to be to lesbian literary culture.
“Tracing that relationship and the networks that form in and out of that community of publishers, I think that’s something that interests us both,” Johnson told The Advocate. “It’s something that Sarah-Joy has really effectively traced over the months she’s been here in residency in Los Angeles.”
Sarah-Joy Ford is an artist and post-graduate researcher at Manchester School of Art, where she is co-director of Queer Research Network Manchester and a member of Proximity Collective. His doctorate. research explores quilt making as an effective methodology for reviewing lesbian archival material.
Lesbian pulp fiction pioneer ‘Work for a Million’ gets a makeover as a graphic novel
“Looking for Lesbians” opened July 23 at ONE Gallery in West Hollywood, featuring Ford’s artwork alongside selections from ONE’s Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection and other archival material related to lesbian literature in Los Angeles. “Looking for Lesbians” is set to run throughout the summer, until September 10.
Lesbian Pulp Fiction
Lesbian pulp novels are a form of literature that developed from the 1950s and 1960s, when the LGBTQ+ community was part of a growing counterculture that was still banned by mainstream society. Marketed with pin-up girl covers and slogans about forbidden love and seduction, these inexpensive paperbacks sold in pharmacies or ordered by mail were often the only novels available about lesbian women. Popular authors included Valerie Taylor, Vin Packer, Ann Bannon and Orrie Hitt.
Discussing Ford’s residency with ONE Archives, Johnson suggested the organization’s collection of these books as a starting point, as it was often overlooked in favor of literature aimed at gay men. “There is a size gap between gay male pulps that have been published and lesbian pulps, especially lesbian pulps aimed at a lesbian audience, written by women or lesbians, rather than written for a male or heterosexual,” she said.
Textile meets digital
As a textile artist, Ford used source material and the stories of the people behind the archive as inspiration for drawings and watercolors, which then became digital designs for fabric printing, quilting and embroidery.
“That’s what I love, this transition between digital space and physical space, and thinking of all these things as being collectively made by hand. Everything is an accumulation of small gestures. Even when you create embroidery patterns on a computer, it remains in a way a work of craftsmanship.
The resulting art exhibit explores the network of lesbian readers and writers that grew up around these books in the Los Angeles area. “What came out of the pulp novels is the start of a huge shift in terms of lesbian and women’s literature. I was interested in how lesbians researched these things and communicated them through bibliographies, book reviews, lesbian publications, and then eventually the development of presses, bookstores, and communities around literature.
As lesbian authors of the 1950s and 1960s wrote stories celebrating their identities and relationships, they were frequently subject to government censorship because the novels were mailed through the United States Postal Service.
“Novels have to be salable and they have to make a profit, so they have to end tragically for the lesbian one way or another. It can’t celebrate lesbianism or a gay lifestyle,” explained Johnson.” But what stands out are smaller presses that don’t have the same kind of tips because it’s later in time, or they’re not mailed the same way.”
“Fire of Spring”
One of Ford’s biggest inspirations in “Looking for Lesbians” was “Spring Fire” by Marijane Meaker, who wrote under the pen name Vin Packer. Meaker reflected on the censorship of lesbian literature in the Cleis Press reprint of the book and in the new documentary “In Her Words.” “She actually talked about how she wrote an ending, and then when she talked to her editor, he said to publish it (the characters) had to be older, so in college and in sorority , and it had to have a tragic ending,” Ford said.
At the time, the best authors could hope for a story with an ambiguous ending like Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt”, which inspired the 2015 film “Carol”.
“The Pulp novels were unambiguous. (Lesbians) were placed in an asylum, died in a car accident or got married. While the ambiguous ending in the 1950s, it was pretty lucky that it slipped through.
Choose your own adventure
Censorship of lesbian literature has forced female readers to be careful and creative in how they engage with it. For example, Johnson said there were rumors that the women would spread information about where to stop reading the book if they wanted to avoid the tragic ending.
“I can only imagine people imagined a happy ending then, kind of like fan fiction before fan fiction,” Johnson said. In short, if you don’t want to read about so-and-so committing suicide or having to marry a man, stop here and enjoy part one.
“People were finding ways to get what they needed from these books,” Ford added. “It ultimately gave them the kind of incentive for people to create their own ways and find ways around censorship, creating their own literary cultures and communities.”
The subversive culture that has grown around lesbian pulp fiction has given queer women a new way to find each other and form relationships without getting caught.
“It becomes a code: have you read ‘Spring Fire’? If anyone’s like, yeah, or, I know what it is, it’s kind of a new version of Friends of Dorothy for women,” Johnson said.
This carried over to early LGBTQ+ magazines and newsletters like Inside Out, published in Los Angeles in 1947-1948.
“Lisa Ben only made 13 copies of every issue of Inside Out because she did it on a mimeograph, and down below it would basically be like, after you finish reading this, please pass it around to others people who might be interested. There’s a whole distribution network that we don’t really trace, with the pulps like the magazines.
Visitors to the “Looking for Lesbians” exhibit in West Hollywood can expect a visual and immersive experience with ONE Archives documents and Ford artwork.
“To me, it’s really representative of an artist’s months-long residency at ONE, starting with lesbian pasta as a focal point and then really expanding into LA’s literary culture and lesbian culture, writing and editing,” Johnson said. “It takes on unusual shapes transforming the whole space, with wallpaper, quilts, with a huge map that traces Sarah Joy’s own experience in mapping this story.”
Change the story
Ford said the goal of her work around lesbian pulp fiction was not to remove the boundaries of the genre, but rather to recognize it as an incentive for literary growth and activism.
“It wasn’t a rewrite of a sad ending into a happy ending,” she said. “It was more of a continuation of this practice of taking these novels, taking the queer culture of the time it’s in, taking what you need out of it, and building a new culture out of that. I think that’s so much of the history of lesbian culture and queer culture.
“Each encounter with the archive is deeply personal and complex, and it communicates in a way that the archive is also all those people who built it,” Ford said.
“I hope it’s a reminder that the archive is a place everyone is welcome to come in and negotiate,” she said. “The archives are kept alive by the people who donate their documents and who are always in contact with them. There are communities of people attached to the archives, to ONE and to the material.
This article originally appeared on Advocate.comand is shared here as part of an LGBTQ+ community exchange between Q Voice News and Equal Pride.