Monday, October 19, 2009
This excerpt from The Gay Publishing Revolution by Victor J. Banis is included in The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn.
The Golden Age of Gay Fiction
MLR Press (September 16, 2009)
The rise of gay fiction in the aftermath of WWII coincided with the explosion in popularity of the paperback novel, and paperback books weren’t distributed or sold beside their hardcover cousins in the bookstores of the day. They were distributed along magazines, newspapers, and periodicals and sold mostly in bus terminals, train stations, drugstores, and five and dimes. The proprietors of drugstores, dime stores, et al., gave little thought to the high-mindedness of the literary and library mavens. If the garish covers with smoking guns, lascivious women, and from time to time, a half-naked man could sell books and boost profits, who cared what the critics thought? Cheap books, widely available in nontraditional outlets, made it easier to spread the word.
Contributing significantly to the availability of these choices was a new phenomenon that appeared in the early 1960s and is not often mentioned in the histories of the period, but which had great influence on what was to follow — the paperback bookstore, the very concept of which was revolutionary. By the early 1960s, paperbacks were no longer limited to the outlets to which they had previously been restricted. And it was the publishers on the fringe, the publishers of sex-oriented material, who were leading the charge. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, a handful of publishers, most of them on the West Coast, had begun publishing and distributing sexy magazines and periodicals, and in time they added paperback novels to their wares. As these grew in popularity, bookstores devoted to them began to open in major cities like Los Angeles and New York. By 1962 most cities of any size had entire bookstores specializing in the enormously popular paperback books. At first, most of these publications were heterosexually oriented, but in time gay magazines and fiction found their way into the mix as well. It was in this different kind of bookstore where the new genre of gay paperback fiction would eventually be found. The gay male could walk into one of these stores and for the first time ever choose books of a kind never before available to him.
The Fall of Valor and The Divided Path were not, of course, the only works of gay fiction. There were others. Sometimes even so-called legitimate novels touched on homosexuality. James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951), for instance, had a homosexual subplot, a queer network hidden within the army, though that was whitewashed out of the movie. In Mickey Spillane’s Vengeance Is Mine (1950), tough guy Mike Hammer spends the novel lusting after femme fatale Juno before in the final pages ripping off her dress. Midst the fabric, bangles, and spangles dropping to the floor, it’s easy to miss the mention of foam rubber, but there’s no missing Spillane’s dramatic finale: “Juno was a man.” In all, we were mostly freaks or creeps, alcoholics or molesters.
And the truth is that it’s easy to list the books because there were, alas, so few of them. It especially seemed so at the time, perhaps because in those early days, before the paperback bookstore, they were so hard to find. Often, finding them was a matter of happenstance — as a teenager, for instance, I discovered a copy of The Divided Path on the paperback rack of Campbell’s drugstore in my little hometown of Eaton, Ohio. Ideally, you had a friend in a local bookstore who would let you know when something “of special interest” came available. Even when you found the books, however, it was often difficult to find the homosexuality in them. Sometimes it was so discreet as to be nearly undetectable.
There was a sad similarity to most of these books too. Michael Bronski describes this early gay fiction (in Writing Below the Belt, ed. Michael Rowe, 1997): “Young boy comes to New York, meets people in the theater, gets fucked over, and then commits suicide.” All of it wasn’t that bad — Lonnie Coleman’s Sam (1959) comes to mind as a notable exception — but the description certainly fitted a large portion of what was available.
While the publishing world did not have the sort of Hays Office moral code that the movies of the 1940s and 1950s had, neither did publishing exist in a vacuum. A publisher could do books on any number of sinful subjects: drug abuse, for instance, or rape — or homosexuality. But to do so was to take a certain risk. The essential point for the publisher was that he must not seem to espouse these behaviors nor condone them; to present these activities in a positive light was to invite criminal charges. It must be made clear that these were bad people, doing naughty things for which they must be punished by the end of the book. For gay protagonists, that mostly meant cure or kill. Here, then, is why the possibility of “happy ever after” simply did not exist in that early fiction. To have introduced that kind of choice for the characters would have been seen as approving of or espousing a homosexual lifestyle — a sure invitation to arrest and prosecution.
From the earliest days, writing and publishing gay fiction was dangerous. Editors and publishers were routinely arrested. The story is told that H. Lynn Womack, founder of Guild Press, worked for a time out of a mental institution where he was hiding from the police.
... by the late-1960s I was not only a writer myself, and a very busy and prolific one, but an editor, a writing instructor, an agent, and a publisher. With my partners, employees, students, and clients, I was supplying a very large portion of what was being published in gay fiction and nonfiction. Not until I looked back some years later was I able to fully appreciate the impact that we had on the publishing scene of that time. There was a joke in the industry then that the gay publishing revolution had mostly occurred at my kitchen table, and there was more than a grain of truth in that. It was a rare afternoon that did not see several of us consulting around that table. It was exciting, if a bit exhausting.
We were a motley crew. Jim Westlake’s exposé Prison Confidential (1969) had to be smuggled out of the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he was an inmate at the time. Since then there have been other writers writing from prison, but at the time this was sensational stuff.
Lance Lester (Cruising Horny Corners, 1967) was George Davies, a writer for the Disney people, who, as another sideline, did stories for a series of underground pornographic comic books of Mickey, Donald, et al. — gosh, didn’t the Disney folks want to find out who he was! George also wrote a hilarious spoof of the Loon books, Fruit of the Loon (1968), as Ricardo Armory.
What’s really important in all this, though, was not my success nor that of my writers, but that the genre of gay publishing had arrived — gay paperback publishing, at least; the hardcover publishers were slower to get on the bandwagon, though they got around to it in time. Suddenly, gay fiction went from being under the counter to occupying entire walls in bookstores — even entire bookstores and, eventually, entire publishing houses.
In the decade leading up to 1966, when my first gay books were published by Greenleaf, there were probably no more than two or three dozen genuinely gay novels published. In the decade following, there were thousands — probably no one can say with any certainty how many — some say as many as ten thousand, though the actual figure is almost certainly less than this; still, the very fact of that perception in itself says something about what happened. For the most part, these books were free from the burden of tragic endings or the limitations of genre. Perhaps the most dramatic change of all was that we were now free to write about gay people and the lives they really lived.
Not all these books, of course, were published by Greenleaf Classics, but many of them were. It was indisputably Greenleaf and its editor Earl Kemp who had led the way, who had opened the doors. So, yes, we had brought about a true revolution in gay publishing — and for the most part in that interim between 1965 (and more significantly, 1966) and 1969, which is to say, before the uprising at Stonewall. While historians treat gay political history as Before Stonewall and After Stonewall, in the publishing revolution it was mostly Before Greenleaf and After Greenleaf. Or more accurately, Before Earl Kemp and After Earl Kemp.
By writing at such length about the contributions of Earl Kemp and Greenleaf to gay publishing, I may be giving some false impressions which I should perhaps correct: Earl Kemp was and is heterosexual. Greenleaf was never exclusively, nor even primarily, a gay publishing house. For all the enormous numbers of gay books that they published, gay material nevertheless remained by far the lesser part of their total output.
Greenleaf was established by fantasy and sci-fi wunderkind William Hamling and New York literary agent Scott Meredith, though Meredith remained throughout a very silent partner.
Though the new publishing house justified its existence by printing paperback editions of classic novels, the intent from the beginning was to jump into the then-blossoming sexual revolution. Of course, they wanted to make some money by doing so, but there was also a conscious desire, certainly on the part of Earl, to contribute to what they saw as some fundamental and large-scale changes in American society.
Homosexual material was not a major goal for the newly established Greenleaf. Nevertheless when Earl Kemp bought The Why Not, he saw that novel as a way of advancing gay themes, a worthy frontier for their censorship battles.
The Guild Press and DSI were the first two publishing houses devoted exclusively to publishing gay works, but as victims of aggressive federal harassment both had suffered checkered histories, and by the early 1970s both were gone. In 1975, Winston Leyland launched the Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco, and in 1977 in New York, Felice Picano launched Seahorse Press. What is significant in the efforts of Leyland and Picano is that they were able to venture into this realm with relative impunity without the fear of prosecution and possible imprisonment that haunted Lynn Womack, Earl Kemp, and the rest of us only a few years before. And that is due, of course, to those others, in particular Greenleaf Classics, who, regardless of their heterosexual primacy, had fought the battle to legitimize gay themes.
And it is due as well to all the many writers who made possible the kinds of books eventually offered by these newer publishers.
But that battle was still being fought in those years between 1966 and 1969, and we were just beginning to appreciate what was being won. It was a heady experience to come out from under the covers, to be able to go into a store and buy not one, but two, three, a dozen books of whatever sort we wanted. Funny books, scary books, cookbooks, westerns, mysteries — they were all there. And so were we. We held hands in these new books — and held hands eventually as we shopped. We walked together in the pages of those paperbacks and marched right out of the pages to walk — and eventually march — together in the streets. We shopped. And cruised. And chatted. And began to perceive that we were far less alone than we had heretofore thought.
And yes, I do believe that it was here, as much as anywhere — among the beefcake covers and the campy titles and the astonishing variety of stories and themes that were suddenly there for us to choose from — that the sense of community, of oneness, first took seed.
The paperback books of the 1960s weren’t just books to those of us writing and publishing them. They were our town hall meetings, where the newly emerging gay community first began to exchange ideas. They were our forum, our agora. They were statements as much as they were entertainment, a message to the rest of the gay world that new choices were there for them, in and out of our books. A message that a generation of gays and lesbians got and shared and that would soon lead to Stonewall and The Castro and the entire gay political revolution.
By the time Golden Sunshine Press and Seahorse Press were launched in the wake of Stonewall, gay publishing had already come of age. Our gay publishing revolution had already been accomplished.
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