Whoosh! Issue 40 - January 2000


Heroic Deeds and Moral Dilemmas:
Reading About Women Before and After Xena




1955-1969: A Stream of Mostly Paperbacks

''And it's pink as the sheets that we lay on.  'Cause pink, it's
my favourite crayon.''

These three novels were medium quality lesbian stories, as you can tell from the cover art, which is lurid, but not downright sleazy like the true trash.
[43] In the 1950's, mass marketed paperback books began to appear in grocery stores, newsstands, and other accessible, anonymous outlets. Some were reprints of old classics and current bestsellers, but huge quantities of paperback originals were also published. It was in this group that the lesbian trash novel appeared. Most of them really were trash, with covers blaring out:

"Can a hunger so strong be so wrong?"
   --Her Private Hell

"They were trapped by their forbidden love."
   --The Strange Women

"Outside, so white and pure ... inside, so depraved."
   --Nurses Quarters

"The tragedy of forbidden love."
   --The Evil Friendship

"Twisted passions in the twilight world."
   --Warped

''Pink, it was love at first sight!  Pink, when I turn out the light.''

Cover art for some of the truly trashy lesbian novels that appeared in the 1960's. The insides are just as awful as the outsides, and it's likely that these books were written by men.
Laughable today, these were the images that defined and scarred those of us who grew up after World War II.

[44] Fortunately, within the dross of the truly trashy, a few nuggets appeared. They were well-written, sympathetic portrayals of women loving women, some even with happy endings. Ann Bannon's series started in 1957 with Odd Girl Out, girl meets girl in college, loses girl, goes to big city to find another girl. It is a cliche‚ now, but it was a revelation then. This series created the marvelous, memorable character of Beebo Brinker, the quintessential bar-scene-butch, all swagger on the outside and romantic mush inside.

''Pink, it's like red but not quite.''

Ann Bannon's very fine novels about late fifties' lesbian life in Greenwich Village were paperback bestsellers. The cover art makes it clear that these are stories about women, but the absence of that sleazy look indicates they are not trash.
[45] Ann Aldrich is a pseudonym under which the author wrote a few good books, such as We Walk Alone (1955), We Two Won't Last (1963), and We, Too, Must Love (1958), and she wrote a lot of trash under other names like Vin Packer. She is still writing today, primarily juvenile novels under her own name, M.E. Kerr, including a very sympathetic portrayal of a young butch lesbian's coming of age, Deliver Us from Evie (1994). As a bibliographer, Barbara Grier loves to point out that lesbian paperbacks by Ann Bannon, Ann Aldrich, and others topped the paperback best seller charts in the late fifties and early sixties. For example, in reprint, The Price of Salt (1952) sold over a million copies. The books flew off the drugstore racks into the hands of women all over the country, who cherished these positive portrayals of women like themselves. Even now, if you are ever in a used book barn and spot a paperback with a suggestive cover and authorship by Bannon, Aldrich, Valerie Taylor, Randy Salem, Tereska Torres, or Artemis Smith, grab it!

[46] The best writers about lesbians are not just lesbian writers, and the best stories about lesbians are not just lesbian stories. Two fine writers, Jane Rule and May Sarton, published hard cover novels about lesbian characters in the 1960's. Rule's titles, The Desert of the Heart (1964) and This is Not for You (1970), indicate the struggles of her main characters, not with their sexual orientation, but with their ability to love anyone. The Desert of the Heart, with a more upbeat ending and beautiful love scenes, was made into Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985), one of the first and still best lesbian movies.

[47] In May Sarton's Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), an elderly woman author reminisces about her life and loves to an eager, somewhat effete young man. For Mrs. Stevens, the muse is a woman. In college (Douglass College, Rutgers, '63) my English professor recommended May Sarton, and I eagerly read The Small Room (1962), a morality tale about the efforts of two educators to save the career of a brilliant college student who has made one mistake. What I completely missed, until I recently read the book again, was the denouement of the story, where the two college professors kiss on the final page!

[48] Marion Zimmer Bradley has always gone her own way as an author, a way that included compiling the first Checklists of lesbian literature with Gene Damon in 1960 and 1962, and culminated with her best seller The Mists of Avalon (1982). She was actually writing some of the trashies, under a pseudonym, while compiling Checklists of the good stuff. In the 1960's and '70's, she was a prolific and popular science fiction writer, with several of her titles having homoerotic overtones for both women and men [The Sword of Aldones (1962), The Forbidden Tower (1977), The Heritage of Hastur (1975), The Shattered Chain (1975), and "To Keep the Oath", a short story included with The Bloody Sun (1964)].

''And I think everything is going to be all right, no matter what
we do tonight!''

Trashies written by Marion Zimmer Bradley under the pseudonyms of Miriam Gardner and Lee Chapman.
[49] Many years ago, I met Ms. Bradley at an author reception, where I brought her my prized Checklist in its original mimeographed form. She signed it, but not as enthusiastically as I proffered it, because "That was part of my past". I also took the opportunity to ask her about Warrior Woman (1985), in which a female gladiator chops up numerous adversaries without any meaningful relationships to redeem the carnage. I asked her why she had written such an ugly story, and she replied, in effect, that women could be just as violent and awful as men, and that she wanted her writings to portray this honestly. Marion Zimmer Bradley died on September 26, 1999, of heart failure at the age of 69. I mourn her loss.


1969 To The Present: A Flood in the Closet - Lesbian Presses

[50] The first novel to be circulated among women flocking to the new Women's Liberation Movement in the early 1970's was A Place for Us (1969), by Isabel Miller, pseudonym of Alma Routsong. Issued by a private press in 1969, my soft covered first edition is dog-eared and worn from being passed around to so many friends. It was popular enough to be reissued in hard cover by a mainstream publishing house in 1972 as Patience And Sarah. It is a very sweet little tale based on a true story in which two women moved out to the frontier of western New York, with one passing as a man so they could live and love together.

All above alt captions are lyrics from Aerosmith's ''Pink'', from
the NINE LIVES album.  Sorry.''

A Place for Us was the first lesbian novel to be privately published in paperback and publicized within the emerging Women's Liberation Movement. Patience And Sarah was the title of the hard cover reprint.
[51] Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle took the Women's Movement by storm in 1973 with its autobiographical depiction of a lesbian's sexual coming of age. After a few more small press titles, Brown was picked up by a main stream publisher, and she continues to write raunchy southern gothics and roman a clefs that may or may not be further autobiographical adventures.

[52] Novels about adolescent lesbians are very hard to find in any era, and I have certainly searched for them because that was such a terribly painful time for me. One little gem, R.R. Knudson's You Are the Rain (1974), appeared in the Laurel Leaf young reader's series in 1974. The characters are not really lesbian, but it is definitely a hurt/comfort story in a dramatic setting. A group of young teenage girls out on a canoe trip are lost in a tropical storm. Poetic, unathletic June, and blunt, butchy Crash are separated from the rest, and find friendship as they work together to survive - shades of Xena and all my adolescent fantasies.

[53] In the early 1970's, Naiad Press began to develop and publish a whole group of lesbian authors, starting with Sarah Aldridge's The Latecomer (1974), and Tottie (1975) [Note 06]. Naiad chose the route of doing one thing and doing it well, providing fiction to a lesbian audience. For twenty-six years they have produced a steady flow of romance, mystery, and mostly PG erotica to multitudes of eager readers, initially through progressive and feminist bookstores, and now on the shelves of every major chain outlet in the country. Naiad unabashedly markets itself with the slogan "Any woman...can walk into a bookstore and pick up a book that says to her: 'Yes, you are a lesbian and you are wonderful!'" This makes their books enormously popular with their intended audience, rather like a lesbian Harlequin, but of limited interest to a general readership. Because Xena-inspired fiction appeals to a broader audience, it is likely to have greater mainstream success.

[54] By the mid-1970's, between new acquisitions from my book list and new publications from the small presses, I finally had enough to read about women with whom I could identify. By the early 1980's, there were too many titles for me to buy every new one for my collection. By the mid-80's, I no longer read much lesbian fiction because I became bored with bar-and-bedroom dramas and endless coming out stories.


Quirky Bestsellers and Current Popular Fiction

[55] In recent decades, there have been a couple of surprise best sellers that placed women heroes in well- researched historical settings. Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) created Ayla, the original female action hero. Thrown out of her tribal group and forced to live by her wits, she proceeded to invent needles, spear throwers, and all the other prehistoric labor savers that it took cave men eons to evolve. In Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982), one of the last Druid priestesses struggles to maintain the old ways in defiance of encroaching Christianity. Donna Gillespie's The Light Bearer (1994), though not a best seller, was one of the first historical fiction novels to present a woman warrior, Auriane, the daughter of a Germanic tribal chieftain, who takes up the sword to repel brutal Roman invaders. She falls in love with a Roman statesman, and they fight together against the corrupt Emperor Nero.

[56] All these books are characterized by their historically unlikely but humanly believable female heroes, and by passion. The women are passionate about the men they love and about their causes. If they can fight together, as in The Light Bearer, then they do, and if the passions conflict, as they do in The Mists of Avalon, then the cause comes before the man, a truly fundamental difference from virtually all the other fictional romances in print. Xena-inspired fiction has passion aplenty, but success with a wider audience requires that it be combined equally with fully developed characters and a well-plotted story.

[57] Since 1970, increasing numbers of lesbians have appeared in print, but there are no best sellers with a lesbian main character, and certainly none in which two women are passionate about each other. Small Changes (1973) by Marge Piercy, about the early Women's Liberation Movement, was one of the first books to describe the developing awareness of a lesbian. Lisa Alther's Other Women (1984) is a powerful exploration of the relationship between two women, an endlessly helpful nurse in despair because her female lover has left her, and her therapist, a middle aged, married woman confidant in her profession. Each deeply affects the other as their relationship grows from animosity and reluctance to trust and affection.

[58] In recent popular fiction, strong, action- oriented women are most likely to be found in the crime and mystery section. Patricia Cornwell's Virginia State Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, and private investigators Kinsey Milhone, in Sue Grafton's alphabet series, and V.I. Warshawski, authored by Sara Paretsky, come to mind. Cornwell's novels, which combine gripping, suspenseful plots with rich, subtle character development, transcend the genre with their literary quality. The private investigators get into a lot more physical action, and they are certainly independent women, but their characters are on the cardboard side.

[59] While each of these women gets involved at various times with male lovers, none of their relationships lasts very long, and one is left with the feeling that while they may have chosen their own paths in life, each must travel it alone. Kay Scarpetta's loneliness, despite deep bonds with friend/professional partner Pete Marino and her niece Lucy, is a constant, underlying edge in Cornwell's stories. It is interesting to note that Scarpetta's niece is a lesbian with a partner, but reality bites: the relationship must be completely hidden because of the danger to her career if her sexual orientation is discovered.


The Passion Factor

[60] Two books about women, recently published in 1999, illustrate my take on the difference between a good read and a riveting read, and possibly the difference between merely adequate sales and a bestseller. City of Light, by Lauren Belfer, was issued in the spring of 1999, and Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters, in the fall. Both books are set in interesting, thoroughly researched time periods: City in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, New York, when newly generated power from Niagara Falls made the city an industrial giant; and, Tipping in turn-of-the-century London's slums, music halls, and demimonde. Each features strong, female protagonists, explicitly lesbian characters, and a variety of interesting supporting types. Both books are well- written and got good reviews in the popular press.

[61] In City, Louisa Barrett is that rarity - a self-made professional woman, a head mistress of an exclusive girl's school attended by all the daughters of the city's elite. In the early pages, she is propositioned ("I'll take you around the world, if you like.") by Franchesca Coatsworth, a lesbian architect wealthy enough to remain single and free. Courteously but firmly, Louisa turns the invitation down, and passion does not reappear throughout the remainder of the story. To maintain her position, Louisa always exercises iron control over her emotions. She encourages the perception that she and Franchesca are together in a 'Boston marriage', because it gives her the freedom to interact with male power brokers. However, she consciously puts distance between herself and everyone she cares about, even her own illegitimate daughter. While this characterization is understandable and totally appropriate in context, it also distances the reader.

[62] Because my book group discussed this novel for a newspaper feature article, we got the inside scoop from the reviewer. The author spent five years researching and writing City (it helped to have a publisher's advance and a wealthy husband), and the publisher expected a bestseller, a la Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (1997). However, in the six months the book has been out, sales have been only adequate, although there is still hope that book groups will pick up on it and give it a word-of-mouth buzz. My group enjoyed the novel, and we had a great discussion, but agreed the book lacked something that we couldn't quite identify.

[63] By chance, the next book I read after City of Light was Tipping the Velvet, and thinking about them together led me to consider what I have called 'the passion factor', that is, the expression, both physically and emotionally, of intense feelings.

[64] Tipping the Velvet is a first in my reading experience: a mainstream, hard cover novel with an explicitly lesbian, overtly sexual main character. Nan King is a warm, fascinating character whom we first meet in her father's fish shop, contentedly shucking oysters. Attending the local music hall one evening, she hears Kitty Butler, who performs in male attire, and loses her heart irrevocably. In an exquisitely written series of scenes, Nan becomes Kitty's dresser, bedmate, co-performer, and finally lover, all in the first half of the book. After losing Kitty, Nan becomes the kept woman of a Natalie Barney-like upper class widow, and then the friend of a social worker. Each of these settings contains a well-written, contextually appropriate, and very hot sex scene. Tipping was published just as this article was being written, so it remains to be seen what effect its abundance of 'the passion factor' will have on sales.


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