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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 745-764

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The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction

Christopher Nealon *

Forty years after the demise of the genre, lesbian pulp fiction seems both funny and sad. In part, the novels seem funny because of their outrageous melodrama; and sad because the women who wrote the most popular lesbian pulp novels of the fifties and early sixties were always under pressure to remember that, officially, they were writing for a male readership, who would best appreciate stories that would ultimately either punish lesbian characters (with suicide or insanity), or "reform" them (with men for sexual partners). But the ambivalence about the novels extends to its latter-day readers: as lesbian pulp gets claimed as US queer "heritage," it turns out to be hard to say what exactly is being claimed--is it the novels' production, or their consumption? Is it the courage it took to have written such novels in the McCarthy era, or the camp pleasure we feel, reading them now, that we can recycle earlier forms of pain at an ironic distance?

Another way of putting this ambivalence is to say that, in most readings of lesbian pulp fiction today, two theories of US queer history are at work, each animating a particular kind of historical affect--a feeling about history, and a feeling generated by it--and each making a different claim on our understanding of the last half-century. Both approaches to the pulps take for granted that things are better now than they used to be; but they see the relationship between the homosexual past and the lesbian, gay, queer present in slightly different terms. In one reading, the melodrama of the pulps, their failure to depict long-term monogamous relationships, all the self-hatred they wallow in--all this has been transcended but must be respectfully memorialized. In the second reading, the pulps are worth calling heritage because they lead, pretty directly, to the door of a contemporary sex-positive queer politics. One reading assumes that the McCarthy era is a kind of cul-de-sac off the road to liberation; the other sees it as an on-ramp. One reading focuses on the anguish of the break-up scenes, or the alcoholism of the characters; the other focuses on the sex scenes. [End Page 745]

This ambivalence about whether we should experience "queer history" as an identification with fading anguish, or burgeoning delight, is bound up with the idea that lesbian identity is a kind of gender inversion. The "inversion model" of homosexuality, which ultimately derives from mid-nineteenth-century German sexology, is essentially a normative idea that describes homosexuality as a state of gender-mixing, or gender-disjunction: so that lesbians, for instance, can be seen as having too much of the masculine in them, or gay men as having too much of the feminine. While this idea began in hostile and pathologizing terms in the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, other Victorians, like Edward Carpenter, tried to put it to use to describe sympathetically the particular psychic shape, and the possible social roles, of homosexuality in modern, industrial culture (Carpenter, who was gay, imagined homosexuals might be capable, by virtue of the insight offered them through their gender-mixed sexualities, of easing a heterosexual "war of the sexes"). Even if we leave its homophobic origins aside, the inversion model is strangely undescriptive of particulars: it depends on an essentially metaphysical idea of masculinity and femininity, or women and men, as "opposites"--like, say, silver and gold, or Pepsi and Coke; but Carpenter was far from the last homosexual to have a go at using it to describe what Biddy Martin might call "the significance" of being gay or lesbian. 1

There is a century-long history, in fact, of lesbians and gay men consuming the inversion model in order to make a theoretical space in which to account for their origins, even if the terms of the theory are a mixed blessing. At the turn of the twenty-first century, for...


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