June 12, 2018

G&L Pulp Fiction: Effort to Document Obscure Items from U.S. Cultural History

In honor of Pride month, this post is dedicated to something that nearly became lost to history (fortunately, it hasn't been lost).  Although I've addressed the topic of how porn went mainstream (catch a previous post by visiting http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/03/documenting-porns-path-to-becoming_11.html), there's a tendency to think of porn mainly as a visual medium, hence literary porn is sometimes overlooked or forgotten.  But stories and novels depicting erotic behavior and intended to cause sexual excitement are very much part of the category.

Indeed, motion picture erotica basically hit the mainstream when "Deep Throat" premiered on June 12, 1972, but unlike a lot of porn today, there was an actual story and a script that existed in porn of that era.  Most had story lines (however weak) intended merely to introduce some sexual activity (for example, "Deep Throat's" premise was that Linda Lovelace's clitoris was located in a place other than the normal, biological location; it was discovered to be deep inside of her throat, hence the story line follows that premise), nevertheless, much of the early genre made a basic effort to have some kind of story, not simply a film of people having sex.

As a result of a series of different court cases, by the mid-1960's the U.S. Postal Service could no longer interdict books that contained homosexuality.  By the early 1970's, another legal challenge emerged to the inconsistently-applied American obscenity laws (notably Miller v. California, which was a 1973 Supreme Court decision which redefined the legal definition of obscenity from being "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that which lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" which effectively narrowed prior restrictions used to persecute purveyors of "adult" materials not erotic in nature), and that opened the doors to erotica of all types.

Although photo magazines and movies were considered the primary medium for porn, print publishing also had a presence in the form of sexually-explicit fiction novels better known as "pulps".  The term "pulp" originates from the cheap paperback books of the latter half of the 20th century which were printed on cheap "pulp" paper and published as escapist fiction for the general entertainment of mass audiences.

Sex "pulps" took that segment of the publishing industry in a rather different direction, aimed at sexual arousal of the reader.  This was before the internet made it easy for anyone to publish adult stories online.  Paperback pulp porn novels (consisting of both hetero and homo) were often sold side-by-side with porn magazines, although they were also semi-discreetly sold in drugstores and random magazine stands back in the mid-1950's through the late-1970's.  These books were produced quickly and cheaply by sketchy imprints that were often opened just for the purpose of releasing a few titles, then dissolved before authorities could catch up with them.  The gay pulp genre, as it turns out, were dominated by a handful of paperback book publishers, many now known to have been operated by single a Chicago-based publisher which found a very lucrative niche with suggestive titles and covers, even if the published content inside was unrelated to the title or cover.

Author Michael Bronski, who in 2003 published the book "Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps" (see https://www.amazon.com/Pulp-Friction-Uncovering-Golden-Pulps/dp/0312252676 for more) says the first general mass-market paperback book to be published was Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth" back in 1939.  He said during World War II, soldiers had access to government-issued paperback books that supplied them with endless hours of topics to read about while waiting for action on the front-line. After the war was over, there was a boom in paperback publishing as a response to the now-growing demand for fiction that was realistic, edgier and more adventurous.

Most of the G&L pulps that have been re-discovered in an effort to catalogue, archive and retain them were found in garage sales, on eBay, a few porn shops' going-out-business liquidation sales, and even old homes that were sold.  The archives that have so far been documented focus mainly on the first 16 years of publishing by the organization that was run by William Hamling known informally as vintage Greenleaf Classics.  We now know that a man named Earl Kemp was editor at Greenleaf Classics Publishing from 1959 through 1973, and a man named Robert Bonfils was a cover artist during that same period.  During that time, thousands of titles were published within multiple series or lines. The term "imprint" is used for those series or lines; the books had miscellaneous publisher names including Beacon, Nightstand, Companion, Corinth, Pleasure Reader, French Line and others.  The number of titles published peaked during 1969 and 1972.

New Digital Archive

A relatively new, digital archive currently now catalogs some 3,500 titles in 25 different imprints.  All told, its known to have identified some 4,300 titles (also, a few titles were re-run under different titles with different cover art).  Evidently, the company had an organized numbering system which has been identified and is now understood, and most titles followed a fairly specific format in terms of book content; typically each chapter contained a vivid sex scene.  The content of each book is being digitized and at least a handful have been re-published in the modern era and can now be purchased on Amazon.com, perhaps the entire library can someday be available as MOD (manufacture on-demand) content, which as I understand it is still relatively new.

Regarding print-on-demand technology, as noted, its fairly new, but its similar to the technology which now also enables DVD's which have been digitized to be produced on-demand.  Amazon's DVD manufacture on-demand (MOD) gets more press coverage, but it relies upon the underlying manufacturing capacity of Warner Home Video manufacture-on-demand which began in 2009 (also behind the large Warner Archive Collection).  In essence, once a book or movie is properly formatted, the digitized computer files can then be printed on-demand in the form of books or DVD's.  However, particularly in the video space, content owners or managers are really marketing streaming since nothing must be manufactured or mailed to a purchaser.

Anyway, the new publisher known as 120 Days Books run by Maitland McDonagh is a small press that has reprinted a few of the Hamling/Greenleaf titles including "Night of the Sadist" and "Demon's Coronation" and soon "Gay Cruise".  The re-printed titles are sold on Amazon.com.

A handful of the G&L pulp book authors and/or artists who created cover artwork for Greenleaf were also able to be identified and interviewed (before a few, unfortunately, passed away).  But the interviews with those individuals answered some important questions about the underlying business that was done largely on the "down-low" before that term even existed.  In those days, it was a necessity to avoid law-enforcement from dismantling an otherwise law-abiding publishing business serving a neglected "niche" market.

We now know that the publisher, Mr. Hamling, kept First Amendment lawyer Stanley Fleishman, busy defending the right to publish and distribute erotic fiction in the many obscenity prosecutions that were mounted to try and suppress Greenleaf Classics. The winning results in those trials helped establish the case law that Americans enjoy now, and many publishers and movie producers continue to rely on today.  They did not win every trial, but the trial record helped establish an American right to publish (and consume) such materials that many now take for granted.

Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover each had issues with sexuality that was at odds with their public face. They took it personally that Greenleaf Classics sex novels were even being published. They used their position and power to repeatedly go after the Hamling organization.  Eventually the Feds won one.  Hamling and editor Earl Kemp, were however, convicted of "obscenity" in federal court and were forced out of the business in 1974 (their convictions were for mailing a promotional brochure about a book, not for the book itself).

Gay and lesbian sex pulps were cheap, and intended to be read and discarded.  Many people did just that, so there's no telling exactly how many ended up in landfills.  However, traditionally, Greenleaf Classics books were actively suppressed by book collectors. Some thrift stores threw donated copies into the dumpster.  Many used book stores wouldn't buy them for resale.  Estates took them to the landfill before the sale.  This means that searching for these books has been more work and a rather different experience than building a collection of say, the first 500 vintage Bantam paperbacks.  The primary method of acquisition has been active book scouting in every flea market and used book store in every city ever visited.  The tricky moment in searching for vintage Greenleaf books is how to ask about sex novels without appearing too creepy.

To some extent, the assembly of a coherent cataloging of these books has involved a few very dedicated people with an interest in the project.  Many aren't even gay or lesbian, but still found the work very interesting.  Notably, publisher and film scholar, Maitland McDonagh, a straight woman, says these books themselves provide a rare glimpse in to a world that was largely kept secret out of fear and shame.

"They're not poking fun at what they're describing," she explained. "Some of them are funny and humorous but they take their subject as seriously as if they were mainstream books." Given the insight these "stroke books" provide into gay life of another era, she began to view them and their preservation as a way of honoring a past that has long been hidden to all but a select few.  Fortunately, she has found others to work with who are also interested, albeit for different reasons.

Several sites emerged to showcase the vivid artwork that graced the covers of gay pulp books.  While the book content may not have been true gay or lesbian pulp, covers featuring scantily-clad women or semi-nude men on the cover with an identifiable publisher name made them sufficient to appear on the lesbian-themed http://www.strangesisters.com or its gay male counterpart http://www.gayontherange.com websites.

The artwork doesn't always mean the content of the classic gay pulp books is online (yet).  But a handful of titles have since been reprinted (see http://greenleaf-classics-books.com/vintage/ for the site that's now seriously archiving these books, and another organization has reprinted a few titles at http://120daysbooks.blogspot.com/2015/.  Others are taking the subject of these books to an audio podcast in which the podcasters read the contents of a gay pulp book aloud to listeners (each podcast reads a chapter from one of the Greeleaf Classics gay pulp fiction novels), visit http://gaypulp.podomatic.com for more on the podcast.

An excerpt from one these podcasts (if you're inclined to listen) can be listened to below, or by visiting Summer in Sodom, Chapter 14, "Gay Whore":

Erotic pulp novels (both straight and gay) were largely a function of the era from the mid-1950's to the early-1980's before cable television, VCR's and subsequently, DVD's and then later, broadband internet became so pervasive.  G&L pulps were part of a larger erotic narrative pulp genre that also proliferated during that era.  But because this sub-genre was very actively suppressed, its since become very lucrative to collectors.  Although no one envisions a return to the day of erotic pulp novels being sold in newsstands, drugstores, and supermarkets around the country, for anyone old enough to remember seeing, buying or reading any these books, the emergence of the internet may just restore a hidden part of pop-culture (admittedly, a somewhat sleazier part of pop-culture) that until quite recently, might have been lost forever.

The full list of titles in the collection are based on the fact that most book titles were published at the back of each of these books (with headlines saying something along the lines of: "If you enjoyed reading this, you might also be interested in reading the following").  While most titles have been cataloged, the cover artwork scanned and content in the process of being digitized, the entirety of the collection is still very much a work in-process.  Notably, a few titles are identified but copies of those particular books have yet to be located.

For anyone interested in exploring this topic further, its quite interesting.  Below is a list of some relevant links (including some actual news articles from publications like Rolling Stone) to explore.


















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