The Paperback Explosion:
How Gay Paperbacks Changed America
By Ian Young
n 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 new
emerged from the shadows to enlighten and scandalize a naive public. The new
Homophile movement of the Fifties and Sixties was accompanied by an
unprecedented upsurge of gay literature, and particularly of gay novels, in
both Britain and America. In a time when gay magazines reached only a small
number of people and gay themes seldom made their way into radio or film, gay
novels provided just about the only public information on homosexuality apart
from sensationalist newspaper accounts of prosecutions and scandals.
Students of gay history have become aware of the problems gay writers
in the West had to face in those days. Gore Vidal's postwar gay novel The
City and the Pillar was denied advertising space; James Baldwin's agent
refused his Giovanni's Room; gay books and magazines were put on trial
for obscenity. Though these were relatively minor matters compared to the fate
of writers, gay or otherwise, in the East Bloc, nevertheless in both Cold War
camps, new voices strained to be heard.
But the vicissitudes of advertising policy, the timidity of literary
agents and even the attitudes of the courts were unknown to all but a tiny
segment of the American public. 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, not until they came out in paperback and showed up on a rack
in the local drugstore, soda shop or dime store. For many isolated young gays,
that eye-catching 7" x 4 1/4" cover of Whisper or Rough Trade
provided the first window onto the gay world.
Significantly, the rise of gay movements in the U.S. and Britain
occurred at the same time as the Anglo-American paperback explosion. The wide
availability of cheap paperback books helped spread the word about a sexuality
and 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 strongly reflected and influenced the
emerging gay consciousness. Cheap, easily available paperbacks were as
important to changing attitudes in the pre-Stonewall era as gay magazines and
poetry chapbooks were in the Gay Liberation years that followed.
In the totalitarian society of the East Bloc, tight legal censorship
had to be countered by a lonely, fearful trek backward to make innovative use
of the technology of the past, samizdat, where forbidden texts were
retyped and circulated secretly in carbon copies. In the West, looser de
facto censorship could be surmounted by innovative technology to deliver
the goods in a new way - and consequently, to produce a new kind of goods. The
difference was in the distribution. In the West, where the means of
distribution remained in private hands, new entrepreneurial approaches had a
chance to develop. In the East Bloc, with distribution centrally controlled by
government, new ideas had to tunnel under at enormous personal and social cost.
America and the West prospered. The East Bloc stultified.
In Cold War America, the union of the Queer and the Beat, with a little
help from the Junkie, produced the Freak. The liberated, post-Stonewall Gay was
a late-blooming variety of Freak - the only one, as it happened, hardy enough
to last - at least until 1981 when a death sentence was pronounced on him in
the form of AIDS.
The notorious gay books of those Cold War years of DP's (displaced
persons), JD's (juvenile delinquents), McCarthyism, and Vietnam included, in
1948 Truman Capote's Southern gothic Other Voices, Other Rooms; in 1950
Quatrefoil; in 1951 The Homosexual in America and
Finistère; in 1952 Hemlock and After; in 1953 The Heart
in Exile; in 1956 Giovanni's Room; in 1959 Sam and The
Feathers of Death; in 1961 The Leather Boys; in 1963 City of
Night; in 1964 A Single Man; in 1966 the "Phil Andros" hustling
stories of $tud! From Other Voices, Other Rooms to $tud in
the life of one eighteen year old!
All these titles were initially published in hardcover, but relatively
few people had a chance to hear of the books, and many bookstores - and even
libraries - did not stock them. An early example of this new species of
American literature, Charles Jackson's The Fall of Valor, a sombre 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 as Nial Kent's treatment of the gay theme in
The Divided Path was "overt" rather than "fastidious," it was therefore
a novel "for the sensation seeker" who presumably should not be encouraged to
ascend the steps of the library.
Busy pharmacists, Woolworths proprietors, malt shop managers and owners
of general stores, however, were for the most part not burdened by these
high-minded considerations. If a rack of garish paperbacks showing guys with
guns, busty babes and an occasional pair of half-naked men could boost profits
(and with a monthly turnover of titles anyway) 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. The invention of the steam rotary press and the
proliferation of railroad lines in the 19th Century allowed books to be
produced and distributed cheaply and in large numbers. "Penny dreadfuls" and
"dime novels" became enormously popular. And more dignified literary
productions like the simple, elegant Tauchnitz and Albatross lines were
promoted to the new breed of continental and intercontinental traveler, 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, from 280
different series and countless authors, many using several pen-names. Horatio
Alger published his influential morality adventures in this format - paperbound
on cheap stock that tends to discolor, turn brittle and crumble with time.
By the 1890's, dime novels were beginning to be superceded 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 into their own again. In 1929, the American publisher Charles
Boni pioneered a modest paperback line using a subdued, tasteful format and
striking cover illustrations by Rockwell Kent. Haldeman-Julius' Little Blue
Books and the orange-jacketed titles of Britain's Left Book Club each filled a
specific need. But the real 20th Century breakthrough into mass sales was made
by the Englishman Allen Lane with his Penguin Books in 1935. The Depression had
caused sales of Lane's publishing firm The Bodley Head to plummet, and the
first ten titles of the now famous paperback line were introduced to turn
The experiment was a great success. The original Penguins employed
superior type, paper and ink and plain but distinctive covers. Savings came
through large print runs and sales at newspaper kiosks and railway stations all
over Britain. Penguin soon opened a U.S. office, and the foundation for the
post-war paperback boom was laid. Soon publishers like Popular Library, Fawcett
Gold Medal and Ace (who published William S. Burroughs' 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 postwar 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 Armed Services Editions 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, with 1,322 titles produced,
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
(and the first leather clubs) were among those readers. Women too, nudged by
war out of their traditional roles, were ready to read. And the greater freedom
young people discovered after the war involved a wider range of available
All this helped fuel the paperback revolution of the Forties, Fifties
and Sixties, the era when America's traditional sexual mores were straining to
free themselves. The Kinsey Reports, released in the late Forties and early
Fifties, shattered the silence that allowed so many misconceptions about
homosexuality to persist. The old attitudes about the Love that Dare Not Speak
its Name were finished. But homosexuals - publicly discussed now, yet not truly
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 1953. In America, Senator Joe McCarthy included homosexuals in his
political witch-hunts - aided by attorney Roy Cohn and secretly assisted by
F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover (all three, as it happened, were themselves
deep closet cases). 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:
"One felt that the police were ubiquitous and omniscient with their spy-holes
and the secret surveillance and their agents provocateurs and their
trawls 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 a
series of revelatory gay novels. In 1951, Pyramid Paperbacks issued a revised
version of The Divided Path, and two years later The Heart in Exile
appeared at the height of the scandals. 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 (now documented by Jaye
Zimet's Strange Sisters), and in the Sixties, erotic gay paperback
fiction became more widely available.
The American public was first introduced to the realities of homosexual
life not by radio or TV, nor by The New York Times or the
Mattachine Society, but by the paperback revolution that brought gay and
lesbian books into every American town. In 1966 there was even a book called
The Homosexual Explosion.
These new "mass market" paperbacks were not sold by reviews,
literary critics, librarians or educators. Produced in 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 their bodices. Then as
now, living authors had no more control than dead ones over cover art.
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 suggests what it's all 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 might reflect the prejudices of the day in either text
or cover - or both. Or they might not. Either way, they popularized the subject
by disseminating millions of images of homosexuals. These images were at once
public and private, because a book, especially a paperback designed to be
carried in the pocket (one of the leading publishers was Pocket Books),
is first seen publicly on the drugstore rack, and later looked at and read in
private or even in secret, often at night. Many dreamboys had their origins in
paperback cover art.
So began the demythologizing of that chimaera The Homosexual.
Paperbacks gave homosexuality enormous public visibility at a time when public
images of gay men were rare, ugly and frightening. At as little as 35c,
paperbacks were priced to appeal to a broad public, and gay paperbacks were no
exception. Today, those paperbacks that have not fallen apart or been discarded
have become highly collectible as interest in their cover art and social
most notorious of the gay novels of the Forties and Fifties was Gore Vidal's
The City and the Pillar, which so unnerved The New York
Times 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 series 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 was frequently used: Dean Douglas' 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; retitled Torment, it
showed a woman reaching out to a man in a suit who appears to be hiding his
head in the curtains.
For some reason, Signet dropped Avati's painting from its 1955
edition of The City and the Pillar and replaced it with a cropped
version of a picture it had used on a gay novel from 1952, Fritz Peters'
Finistère. On Peters' novel ("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 somewhat 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. The couple have been replaced by
a quotation from a review.
The Concerned Woman is only one of a number of frequently recurring gay
cover motifs. The Looming Presence is another: 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, Daniel Schwartz cleverly brought the Looming
Presence out of the shadows and into the foreground, to be revealed as the
tall, dark and 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
A copy of Giovanni's Room appeared as a prop
in the Jeremy Thorpe murder conspiracy case in 1979. Thorpe, leader of the
British Liberal Party, stood accused of conspiring to have a talkative
ex-boyfriend disposed of. Thorpe was acquitted, after a somewhat campy trial.
His loan of a copy of Baldwin's novel to the alleged victim, and their
subsequent night together, were detailed in court. Would the book gently tossed
on the bed have been a dusty old hardcover without its jacket that had been
hanging around Thorpe's library for years and trotted out on appropriate
occasions? Or would the recently reissued Corgi edition be a more likely
candidate? It shows two scantily dressed young men, one looking at the other,
who is looking away. The Corgi seems somehow appropriate.
Looking Away, as it happens, is one of the most frequent of repeated
motifs on gay paperback covers. 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 several decades, cropping up again and again on
titles that included Finistère in the Fifties, Sean
O'Shea's Whisper and Ben Travis' The Strange Ones in the Sixties
and Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner in the Seventies. 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 and smoking a cigarette, while the blond - gay but still a
virgin - is pretending to be fascinated by a daisy.
An improvement on Looking Away
was the Cruising motif. Here one man looks at the other who turns, perhaps
about to exchange glances. Images of male couples actually Face to Face were
rare. Avon's 1971 paperback reprint of Gordon Merrick's The Lord Won't Mind
was quite revolutionary; a romantic realist painting depicted two handsome
blond men Face to Face, reaching out as though about to hold hands, almost
touching. Men embracing or holding hands were seldom shown, and men kissing one
another remained taboo. One exception was Adonis' 1975 title Stud Joint
by Ross Helden, which shows a handsome sailor in the foreground, and,
through an open saloon-type door, a male couple kissing in the back room.
The kiss prominently displayed on Avon's
1979 edition of Paul Monette's Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll ("A moving
celebration of gay love") furthered the paperback publisher's reputation as a
pioneer in gay paperback cover design.
The rise of the Hippie movement in the mid- to late Sixties was
reflected only slightly in the gay paperbacks of the time. Dick Dale's The
Price of Pansies (Phenix, 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 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.
In the Sixties and Seventies, movie and TV tie-ins began to appear,
sometimes screenplays but more often novelizations of films or TV shows,
displaying photos of the stars and sometimes including several pages of
(usually black & white) stills. One of the first of these was
Victim, William Drummond's 1961 Corgi novelization of a powerful Dirk
Bogarde film about a blackmailed gay lawyer. Later tie-in titles included
Sunday Bloody Sunday, Fame, An Early Frost, Making Love and that gay movie
for straight people (or was it a straight movie for gay people?) Can't Stop
The solitary Handsome Young Man or Pretty Boy was of course 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
("The Sensational Novel of Perverse Love," Bantam, 1968), 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' 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. Another spectacular pretty boy
is discreetly but enticingly nude on John Rechy's Numbers (Grove/Black
Occasionally a symbolic approach was favored. Signet's 1966 edition of
Sanford Friedman's gay novel of the Korean war, Totempole, featured a
salamander with its tail cut off, implying a perhaps unsuccessful attempt at
castration. But as the Gay Liberation era approached, these negative
assumptions began to ebb and fewer novels ended in tragic death. Kennedy
replaced Eisenhower in the U.S., the Swinging Sixties got under way in Britain,
and things started to loosen up. A number of important censorship trials
(including that of the paperbound Howl) overturned the outright
ban on published erotic writing. The golden age of gay erotica began.
Some early gay erotic novels had been published by outfits on
the cusp of legality like 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, porn publishers proliferated. Most authors of gay
erotica used pen names ("Billy Farout" for example was the poet William Barber;
"James Colton" later made his reputation as Joseph Hansen, author of the Dave
Brandsetter detective novels) but a few like the Englishman C.J. Bradbury
Robinson used their own names. One of the
first, and best, writers in the field was Samuel Steward whose "Phil Andros"
stories were published by Greenleaf Classics and Frenchy's Gay Line. Piracy was
sometimes a problem for such legally dubious material. Steward's San
Francisco Hustler was ripped off by Cameo Library who reprinted it as
Gay in San Francisco by "Biff Thomas" - though the fact that the pirate
edition included a chapter excised from the original edition raised unanswered
While Steward/Andros dealt with rough trade, hustlers and S/M, another
writer of Sixties erotica, Carl Corley, specialized in romantic stories of boys
from the country. He adopted a distinctive camp/kitsch style to illustrated 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
which made their way to America. An edition of The Young & Evil, the
classic novel of New York gay life in the Thirties by Parker Tyler and Charles
Henri Ford, featured a wrap-around cover with a delicious black-&-white
photo of a reclining near-naked young man. Later Girodias' U.S. imprint issued
the non-fiction gay guide The Homosexual Handbook, around the time of
the Stonewall rebellion. Threatened retribution by F.B.I. Director J.
Edgar Hoover and conservative columnist 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 elegantly conservative in appearance.
The leading publisher of gay erotica in the Sixties and
Seventies was Phenix/Greenleaf Classics whose later productions adopted a
distinctive H-format cover style. It was Greenleaf who in 1970 issued the first
post-Stonewall anthology of contemporary gay literature, E.V. Griffith's In
Homage to Priapus. They were also responsible for Richard Amory's 1966
Song of the Loon, a "gay pastoral" about love and sex between white men
and red in the American wilderness. This Leatherstocking tale with the sex put
back in became the most famous of all gay erotic novels, at least prior to the
arrival of the unbearable Mr. Benson fourteen years later. Song of
the Loon's wrap-around cover design avoided both the old "people of the
shadows" stereotype and the blatantly sexual approach that would become
standard for later gay porn. It 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 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 indicated 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-opera plots
and gay heroes gifted with spectacular endowments both physical and financial.
All but the first of these were published as paperback originals, and it fell
to them to break completely the Looking Away fixation. Avon's matching,
romantic-realist covers for the series featuring men reaching out to each other
or showing affection were displayed in supermarket bookracks all over America.
With even 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 Seventies erotica publishers was Blueboy Library,
associated with the then-popular magazine of the same name. It was Blueboy
Library that published a number of titles by John Ironstone which combined
erotica with gay political themes. The cover of Ironstone's I Am 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 Eighties, the tide had begun to turn for gay
paperback porn. A changing legal and economic climate led to the demise of the
leading Seventies 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
Nowadays more gay books are published in the larger Trade Paperback
format (approximately 8 ½" x 5 ½") though some still appear as
Mass Market paperbacks. But some of the old gay paperbacks have survived and
are still to be found cheaply in junk shops and secondhand bookstores. They are
starting to be recognized as important cultural artefacts, 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 climbing
even higher! Savored when they appeared, often taken for granted or discarded
later, gay paperbacks are beginning to acquire a nostalgic, Antiques Roadshow,
"I Found It in the Attic" glamour. And they retain all their initial pulpy
Reach Out And Buy Me appeal..
Gay paperbacks have been part of my own life since before I walked out
of a dime store listening to my heart beat, with a copy of Two in my
pocket (together with a Signet Classics Walden - one never bought
only a gay book!). I was 18. And years later, wandering around Greenwich
Village at night, I usually had a paperback in my jeans or coat. (I liked - or
rather, enjoyed and admired - City of Night, but I thought Mr Benson was
Let's leave with a pair of very different quotes, one suggestively
macabre, the other combining the joys of the orgy with the pure sentiment of
the pastoral romance. Both are from gay books published as paperback originals.
The first sentence of William Talsman's The Gaudy Image (Olympia
Press, 1958): "I regret that I shall be unable to spend my eternity listening
to the rain as it falls upon my casket roof."
And the ending of Jack Evans' The Randy Young Runaway,
published, undated - 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?"
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