Lot 56: 22 paperback lesbian pulp fiction books from Beacon Books (1952–1963). (All images courtesy the Swann LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History Auction)

The current internet-empowered landscape has made the self-discovery of sexuality — or at least the possibility of connecting to community and role models — a much more global and informed process than it once was. But for seekers in the mid-20th century, the pages of lesbian pulp fiction books were not so much a place of identification with real queer characters, any more than crime pulps accurately portrayed how to conduct a murder investigation.

Lesbian pulp fiction could be variously described as trashy, voyeuristic, fraught with mild bondage scenarios, edited with loose grammatical standards, and at least passively upholding heteronormativity with titles like The Soft Sin and Satan was a Lesbian — not to mention the inevitably tragic ends that were literally mandated as punishment for the preceding hedonism. But they are also colorful, kitschy, and anachronistic in a way that is deeply amusing from the harbor of present-day access to both a deep catalog of queer literature and an internet full of erotica that is more effectively sexy (in some countries, at least).

Lot 55: Group of 28 lesbian pulp fiction paperbacks (1953–1964), including selections from Fawcett Books and Pyramid Books

This year, the Swann LBGTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History auction is offering three separate lots of lesbian pulp fiction, each with 20 to 30 titles produced variously between 1952 and 1974 by publishers including Beacon Books, Fawcett (under both the Gold Medal and Crest Books labels), Pyramid Books, Midwood, and a variety of other publishers. These cheap paperbacks were ordered by mail, and the perusal of their dramatic cover tableaux (which, it must be noted, feature exclusively white protagonists and pairings) cannot help but evoke a mental image of their original recipients, seeking identification and titillation in their pages.

These may not be the most singular items or highly-priced lots in the auction, but as relatively common objects, they offer a connection to a proletariat experience of queer culture and history. What was once delivered wrapped in brown paper and discreetly tucked into a nightstand might now make for an eye-catching living room display or showpiece for lovers of literary erotica. Though romance novels continue to quietly put up bestselling numbers for publishers every year, with the occasional breakthrough phenoms like 50 Shades of Gray going on to badly misrepresent BDSM practices in the mainstream, pulp fiction is firmly a product of the last century. These lots manage to shroud lesbianic adventuring and contortions of the English language in a haze of nostalgia, here in the WiFi-enabled present.  

Lot 54: group of 33 lesbian pulp fiction paperbacks (1954–1974), includes 12 Midwood titles and a variety of other publishers

This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.

Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by Tom of Finland, Gerda Wegener, Keith Haring, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar, JEB, and Robert Mapplethorpe, will take place on August 19, 2021.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....