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How Gay Paperbacks Changed America. (Essay).

IN an era when gay books are widely published and available, it can easily be forgotten that not so many years ago--well within the span of a lifetime--gay subject matter was taboo in the publishing industry. The breakthrough came during and after World War II, when gay writing suddenly emerged from the shadows to enlighten and scandalize a naive public. The Homophile movement of the 50's and 60's was accompanied by an unprecedented surge in gay literature, particularly gay novels, in Britain and the U.S. At a time when gay themes seldom made their way into mainstream radio or film--apart from sensationalist newspaper accounts of prosecutions and scandals--gay novels provided just about the only public information on homosexuality. Cheap, easily available paperbacks were as important to changing attitudes in the pre-Stonewall era as gay magazines would be in the gay liberation years that followed.

Students of gay history have become aware of the problems gay writers had to face in those days. Gore Vidal's postwar gay novel The City and the Pillar (1948) was denied advertising space; James Baldwin's agent refused to represent Giovanni's Room (1956); gay books and magazines were put on trial for obscenity. Most people in small (or even large) towns knew nothing of these matters, and seldom saw any of the notorious books in question--that is, until they started coming out in paperback and showing up at the local drugstore or soda shop. For many isolated young gays, that eye-catching 7" x 4-1/4" cover of Whisper or Rough Trade provided the first window into the gay world.

The rise of gay liberation movements in the U.S. and Britain occurred at about the time of the appearance of these books, which helped spread the word about a way of life that until the War years had been largely hidden from public view. Postwar paperbacks played an important role in the social and political developments of the Cold War years and both reflected and influenced the emerging gay consciousness. The notorious gay books of those Cold War years of DP's (displaced persons), JD's (juvenile delinquents), McCarthyism, and Vietnam included: Truman Capote's southern gothic Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948; Quatrefoil in 1950; The Homosexual in America and Finistere in 1951; Hemlock and After in 1952; The Heart in Exile in 1953; Giovanni's Room in 1956; Sam and The Feathers of Death in 1959; The Leather Boys in 1961; City of Night in 1963; A Single Man in 1964; and, in 1966, the "Phil Andros" hustling stories of $tud!

All these titles were initially published in hardcover, but relatively few people had a chance to hear of them. Many bookstores and even many libraries did not stock them. An early example of this new species of American literature, Charles Jackson's The Fall of Valor, a somber study published in 1946, was one of many never to make it through the gauntlet of censorious librarians. "Subject, and especially bluntness of presentation," warned the Library Journal, "limit library use." Three years later, Kirkus Reviews sniffed that Nial Kent's treatment of the gay theme in The Divided Path was "overt" rather than "fastidious," rendering it a novel "for the sensation seeker" only.

Busy pharmacists, Woolworth's proprietors, malt shop managers, and owners of general stores, however, were not burdened by such high-minded considerations. If a rack of garish paperbacks showing guys with guns, busty babes, or the occasional pair of half-naked men could boost profits, there were few objections. Paperbacks--both original titles and reprints from previous hardcover editions--were an innovation that allowed the new gay literature to proliferate and find its readers outside the traditional bookshops and lending libraries. Reprinted in paperback, all the key titles listed above, and many more, found a larger, younger, more diverse readership.

Relatively inexpensive paperbound books had circulated in Europe as early as the 17th century. It was in the 19th century that the steam rotary press and the railroad allowed books to be produced and distributed cheaply and profligately. "Penny dreadfuls" and "dime novels" became enormously popular, and more dignified literary productions like the simple, elegant Tauchnitz and Albatross lines were promoted to a new breed of long-distance travelers, the jet-setters of their day. The invention of the typewriter led to the clacking sound of many hacks and an even greater Outpouring of fiction. The Library of Congress has nearly 40,000 different 19th-century dime novels in its current collection.

By the 1890's, dime novels were beginning to be superseded by the many so-called "pulp magazines" like The Black Mask, which provided the young H. L. Mencken with an editorial desk. The heyday of the pulps--and pulp authors like Cornell Woolrich--lasted into the 1940's, when World War II brought mass market paperbacks back into their own. In 1929, the American publisher Charles Boni had pioneered a modest paperback line using a subdued, tasteful format and striking cover illustrations by Rockwell Kent. But the real breakthrough into mass sales was the work of Englishman Allen Lane and his imprint, Penguin Books, in 1935. The Depression had caused sales of Lane's publishing firm The Bodley Head to plummet; he introduced this new line of paperbacks to turn things around.

The experiment was a great success. The original Penguins employed superior type, paper, and ink, and sported simple but distinctive covers. Savings came through large print runs and sales at newspaper kiosks and railway stations all over the U.K. Penguin soon opened a U.S. office, and the foundation for the postwar paperback boom was set. Soon publishers like Popular Library, Fawcett Gold Medal, and Ace (which published William S. Burroughs's first book, Junkie, bound back-to-back with another title) were all competing in what had quickly developed into a hot new market. In Britain, Pan, Corgi, and Foursquare became important paperback houses.

The War itself, which changed so much for America--and for Britain--gave paperbacks an enormous boost. To satisfy the Allied troops' hunger for portable reading material, the official Anmed Services Editions (ASE's) were devised, with titles ranging from Melville, Whitman, and Housman to useful tracts like Danger in the Cards: How to Spot a Crooked Gambler. ASE's were distributed free to the troops and ended up producing 1,322 titles, many in print runs of over 10,000 copies. From this experiment, many men who had never before read for pleasure developed a taste for literature of one sort or another. The ex-servicemen who helped form the first Homophile organizations-- not to mention the first leather clubs--were among those readers. Women, too, nudged by war out of their traditional roles, were ready to read. These were also the decades in which America's sexual mores were straining to free themselves. The two Kinsey Reports (released in 1948 and 1951) shattered the silence that allowed so many misconception s about homosexuality, among other topics, to persist.

But homosexuals themselves--publicly discussed but scarcely visible--were becoming targets of Cold War paranoia. Whispers of homosexuality surrounded the Hiss-Chambers espionage case in 1948. Three years later, the revelation that the defecting British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean were homosexual or bisexual added fuel to the fire. The fear reached its height in the U.S. in 1953, when Senator Joe McCarthy included homosexuals among the groups targeted in his politically motivated witch hunts--aided by attorney Roy Cohn and secretly assisted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. All three, as it happened, were themselves deeply closeted homosexuals. At the same time, Britain saw an alarming rise in anti-gay frame-ups and prosecutions, culminating in the notorious Lord Montagu case. Gay campaigner Allan Horsfall has described the atmosphere of the time thus: "One felt that the police were ubiquitous and omniscient with their spy-holes and the secret surveillance and their agents provocateurs and their tr awls through people's private diaries and letters." Many gay men fled abroad, if they could afford it, or destroyed incriminating personal papers.

Parallel to these events was the steady, year by-year appearance of increasingly revelatory gay novels. In 1951, Pyramid Paperbacks issued a revised version of The Divided Path, and two years later, at the height of the HUAC hearings, The Heart in Exile appeared. Many gay titles peppered the paperback racks in the years following, as the new Homophile movement grew in the U.S. and homosexual law reform started to be discussed in Britain. The 1950's also saw a profusion of lesbian pulp novels (documented by Jaye Zimet in 1999's Strange Sisters), and in the 60's erotic gay paperback fiction became more widely available.

THE American public was introduced to the existence of homosexuals, not by radio or TV, not by The New York Times or even the Mattachine Society, but instead by the paperback revolution, which brought gay and lesbian books into every American town. As early as 1966 there was a book called The Homosexual Explosion. These new "mass market" paperbacks were not sold by reviews, literary critics, librarians, or educators. Produced in a standard 7" x 4 1/4" format and displayed on stout, rotating wire racks or face-out on store shelves, their covers served as their advertisements. Many pulpy reprints of Zola's Nana and Balzac's Droll Stories were sold by garish cover illustrations of well-endowed females bursting out of bodices. Then, as now, living authors had no more control over their covers than did dead ones. (Curiously, after such a public start in life, these books, which were designed to be carried in one's pocket, were often read in private or even in secret, late at night.) Sometimes gay novels were given hetero covers: James Colton's Lost on Twilight Road (National Library, 1964) showed a half-naked woman ripping the clothes off a stunned-looking man. Only the code word "twilight" in the title suggested what it was about.

But most publishers soon abandoned this approach. Paperback covers were more explicit, sometimes more attractive, and often better designed than their hardcover equivalents. Gay paperbacks tended to reflect the prejudices of the day in cover design and content--but not all did. In either case, they familiarized people with the subject by throwing millions of images of homosexuals into the marketplace, most of them relatively positive at a time when public images of gay men, infrequent as they were, presented them as ugly or frightening.

The most notorious of gay novel of the immediate postwar era was undoubtedly Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, which so unnerved The New York Times that it refused even to print the publisher's ads. Nonetheless, this story of an itinerant tennis player who eventually murders his boyhood friend did well in paperback, as its numerous editions incorporated a number of textual revisions by the author. The 1950 Signet edition bore a cover painting by the best of the paperback artists, James Avati. It showed a petulant woman in a tasteful, low-cut dress looking down at a pensive young man. This motif of the "concerned woman" appeared frequently: Dean Douglas's Man Divided (Gold Medal, 1954) and Dyson Taylor's Bitter Love (Pyramid, 1957) were among many whose covers showed eye-catching dames displaying concern for depressed-looking fellows. The prototype was an early, undated paperback reprint of Richard Meeker's 1933 novel Better Angel. Later retitled as Torment, it showed a woman reaching out to a man in a sui t who appears to be hiding his head in the curtains.

For some reason, Signet dropped Avati's painting from its 1955 edition and replaced it with a cropped version of a picture it had used on a gay novel from 1952, Fritz Peters' Finistere. On Peters' novel (described as "A Powerful Novel of a Tragic Love doomed from the first!") the male half of a straight couple necking on a sofa looks out onto a balcony where a green-faced youth leans over a railing. On the version adapted for the Vidal cover ("A Masterful Story of a Lonely Search"), only the green youth remains.

Another recurring cover motif is that of the "looming presence," in which a young man appears in the foreground, sometimes with a woman. Another (usually older) man looms or lurks menacingly in the background--suggesting a homosexuality that is predatory rather than reciprocal. For Signet's 1959 edition of Giovanni's Room, James Avati cleverly brought the looming presence out of the shadows and into the foreground, to be revealed as the tall, dark, handsome Giovanni, with his thumb in his belt and very large feet. An unmade bed and a half-finished bottle of liquor lie behind the doorway.

Yet another popular cover motif might be called "looking away." One man looks at another, but the second looks away, toward a woman or at the reader or off into space, never returning the longing gaze. This motif lasted for decades, cropping up again and again on titles that included Finistere in the 50's, Sean O'Shea's Whisper and Ben Travis's The Strange Ones in the 60's and Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner in the 70's. Pyramid's 1963 edition of Eric Jourdan's steamy tragedy Les Mauvais Anges (which it retitled Two) provided an additional suggestive touch. The cover painting of two boys shows the darker of the two--the predator presumably--eyeing the other while smoking a cigarette, while the blond--gay but still a virgin--is pretending to be fascinated by a daisy.

While men were eventually allowed to cruise each other on covers, images of male couples actually facing each other were rare even in the 70's. Avon's 1971 paperback reprint of Gordon Merrick's The Lord Won't Mind was considered revolutionary: in a realist style, two handsome blond men, face-to-facem reach out as though about to touch hands. Men were seldom shown embracing or holding hands, and men kissing one another remained taboo for years. One exception was Adonis's Stud Joint, by Ross Helden, in 1975, whose cover shows a handsome sailor in the foreground and, through an open saloon door, a male couple kissing in the back room. Another breakthrough was the kiss prominently displayed on Avon's 1979 edition of Paul Monette's Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll.

The rise of the hippie movement in the 60's was reflected only slightly in the gay paperbacks of the time. Dick Dale's The Price of Pansies (Phoenix, 1968) came adorned with a reclining teenager with a pansy on his crotch and a "For Sale" sign: "He was a gay flower child!" And the cover of Bert Shrader's Gay Stud's Trip, published by French Line in the same year, attempted an approximation of the psychedelic style in its red and blue drawing of two naked guys sharing a cigarette. But truckers, bikers, and servicemen seem to have remained more popular than hippies--or the well--groomed gay winos amusingly depicted on Gene (or Jean, the publishers weren't sure) North's Skid Row Sweetie.

The solitary handsome young man--or the pretty boy--was a staple of gay cover design for both erotic and literary titles. Some of the most stunning were featured on James Purdy's Eustace Chisholm and the Works (Bantam, 1968; billed as "the sensational novel of perverse love"), Angus Stewart's school romance Sandel (Panther, 1970), Jonathan Strong's story collection Tike (Avon, 1970), Richard Amory's detective story Frost (Olympia, 1971) and Jonathan Melburn's Billy Stud (Greenleaf/Adonis, 1975). On Andre Dubus's The Lieutenant (Dell, 1968), the pretty, shirtless enlisted man is joined by an older, crew-cut martinet type with a swagger stick, presumably the lieutenant of the title. John Rechy's Numbers (Grove/Black Cat, 1968) featured a spectacularly pretty boy who was discreetly but enticingly nude.

The swinging 60's brought profound cultural change along with a number of important censorship trials, including that of the paperbound edition of Ginsberg's Howl, which overturned the ban on erotic writing, and the golden age of gay erotica was underway. Some early gay erotic titles had been published by outfits on the cusp of legality, such as the Guild Press, which for a time was operated from a mental institution, where its eccentric proprietor was hiding from the police! But as censorship slackened, pornography proliferated.

Most authors of gay erotica used pen names ("Billy Farout" for example was the poet William Barber, and "James Colton" later made his reputation as Joseph Hansen, author of the Dave Brand-setter detective novels), but a few used their own names, like the Englishman C. J. Bradbury Robinson. One of the first, and best, writers in the field was Samuel Steward whose "Phil Andros" stories were published by Greenleaf Classics and French Line. Piracy was sometimes a problem for legally dubious material. Steward's San Francisco Hustler was ripped off by Cameo Library, which reprinted it as Gay in San Francisco by "Buff Thomas."

While Steward's Andros dealt with rough trade, hustlers, and S/M sex, Carl Corley, another writer of 60's erotica, specialized in romantic stories about boys from the country. He adopted a distinctive camp/kitsch style to illustrate his own covers, which bore titles like Cast a Wistful Eye. The well-known French publisher Maurice Girodias issued a number of English-language gay books that made their way to America. An edition of The Young & Evil, the classic novel of New York gay life in the 30's by Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford, featured a wraparound cover with a delicious black-and-white photo of a reclining, near-naked youth. Later, Girodias's U.S. imprint issued the non-fiction gay guide The Homosexual Handbook, around the time of the Stonewall rebellion. Threats by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and William F. Buckley, Jr. led to their names being removed from the "grapevine line-up" for the book's second edition. Girodias took great care with the appearance of his books, whose covers were often eleg antly conservative in appearance.

The leading publisher of gay erotica in the 60's and 70's was Phoenix/Greenleaf Classics, which issued the first post-Stonewall anthology of contemporary gay literature, E. V. Griffith's In Homage to Priapus, in 1970. They were also responsible for Richard Amory's 1966 Song of the Loon, a "gay pastoral" about love and sex between white men and Indians in the American wilderness. This Leatherstocking tale became the most famous of all gay erotic novels, at least until the arrival of the unbearable Mr. Benson, by John Preston, fourteen years later. Song of the Loon's wraparound cover design showed a bearded white man in buckskins kneeling by a young, flute-playing Indian against a backdrop of mountains, reeds, and white willows. The book was such a hit that it even inspired a paperback parody called Fruit of the Loon. There were also several sequels and a movie.

The popularity of the Amory books pointed to a mass market eager for gay romance, and semi-retired novelist Gordon Merrick stepped into the breach. The Lord Won't Mind and its various follow-ups featured soap-operatic plots and gay heroes gifted with spectacular endowments, both anatomical and financial. All but the first of these books were published as paperback originals. Breaking with the "looking away" convention, the matching, romantic-realist covers for the series featured men reaching out to each other or showing overt affection-and they were displayed in supermarket bookracks all over America.

With a respectable house like Avon venturing into soft-core gay erotica, a number of companies came along to rival Greenleaf's hard-core efforts. Surree House's "HIS 69" series featured drawings of near-naked boy-next-door types, usually in pairs. Rough Trade's leather and S/M titles were distinguished by the publisher's trademark black and orange covers, which often incorporated the drawings of the well-known illustrator "Rex." Another of the 70's erotica publishers was Blueboy Library, associated with the popular magazine of the same name. It was Blueboy that published a number of titles by John Ironstone that combined erotica with gay political themes. The cover of Ironstone's IAm Proud To Be Gay Now I Want To Be Free showed gay lib banners vying with Anita Bryant placards outside an orange juice stand.

BUT by the early 80's, the tide had begun to turn for gay paperback porn. A changing legal and economic climate led to the demise of the leading 70's publishers. AIDS altered sexual attitudes, and more gay-oriented novels were published by commercial presses. When Larry Kramer's Faggots appeared in paperback, you could choose from several cover colors, perhaps to coordinate with your living room decor. But in the 1990's Masquerade Books' Badboy and Hard Candy editions took over where Greenleaf and the others had left off, and began publishing reprints and more literary books as well.

Today, some of the gay paperbacks of the past can still to be found cheaply in junk shops and secondhand bookstores. They are starting to be recognized as important cultural artifacts, their changing images of gay men faithfully documenting the evolution of popular views and beliefs. A first edition of Carl Corley's The Purple Ring now fetches $100, and the price for a first edition Song of the Loon is even higher.

Let me end with a passage that conveys a flavor of the gay fiction that emerged in this early era of breathless discovery and new-found freedom, from the ending of Jack Evans's The Randy Young Runaway, undated, published with explicit color photos by a nameless company: "Come flew in every direction, reaching as high as their faces. They fucked and fucked, and afterwards they all felt like brothers. When it was over they headed for the river to wash off. Then they all sprawled out on the ground for a quick snooze, leaving only Ted and Hank sitting together on the bank. 'I love you, you know, Ted,' Hank suddenly blurted out. ... They held hands without saying a word; what else was there to say?"

Ian Young is the author of The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory (Cassell Books, 1995).
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gay & Lesbian Review, Inc.
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Author:Young, Ian
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
Words:3606
Previous Article:The Citizenship of Strangers. (Interview).
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