Out in Paperback is a wonderfully entertaining look at gay mass-market paperback cover art that throws light on the important role of the book publishing industry in the development of gay popular culture. Richly illustrated with over a hundred covers of gay-themed "pulps" published between 1948 and 1998, this fascinating visual history provides new insights into a striking form of gay imagery.
Following the huge demand for portable reading material during World War II, paperback publishing exploded in the post-war years. At the same time, the Kinsey Report and a spate of novels and non-fiction studies about male homosexuality suggested new and sensational subject matter. Literature, mass culture, and the emerging homosexual underground combined in the accessible pulp paperback with its striking, interpretive packaging.For many readers - including young, isolated gay men - an eye-catching, pocket-sized paperback cover on a drugstore rack provided their first intriguing look into a previously concealed gay world.
What were the messages behind the emblematic images and flashy graphics? For whom were they intended? What was their impact on a rapidly changing North American society? Ian Young, author of The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory and an authority on gay publishing, probes beneath the surface of gay pulp covers to reveal their underlying, sometimes surprising, messages.
Ian Young is one of the founders of the Canadian gay movement. His books include Sex Magick, The Male Muse, The AIDS Cult (with John Lauritsen), and The Stonewall Experiment. His essays, poems and short stories have been published in over fifty anthologies including What Love Is and The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. He lives in Toronto with his partner Wulf.
Originally published in 2007, this is a re-issued manuscript.
Anybody over a certain age knows that we rarely get second chances in life; but I’m getting one here.
I was one of the principals of the publishing company which published this book in Canada.
The usual publishing imperatives, time and money, caused us to publish too quickly, before I realized I should have done an introduction to Ian Young’s book, because the story behind this book’s inception is a story I like a lot.
Ian Young started coming into my bookstore over forty years ago. We gradually went from being bookish friends to friends and we have had probably thousands of conversations over all those years.
One day I found myself talking to Ian about my new passion for collecting vintage paperbacks, especially the Signets of which I read so many as a teenager in the 50s.
I had dropped out of school very early and after work I spent most evenings in the poolroom. On my way home from there I would stop in the corner cigar store where I would buy two or three paperbacks for reading that night. My education, still ongoing, began there, with those books.
Being sixteen or so I was, of course, obsessed by sex so I would naturally seek out the paperbacks whose covers promised sex. Sex sold, then and now, and in their attempts to sell their books paperback publishers often stretched their mandate, both in cover art and blurbs, So that unsuspecting, ignorant young men like me often found themselves actually reading good literature masking itself as soft-core porn to further sales.
My most memorable error was when I bought a lurid-covered book which seemed to promise Roman orgies only to discover Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. This book literally changed my life, introducing me to the world of ancient Rome and after that the Greeks and then all history.
I never looked back.
When I recounted that anecdote to Ian he laughed and said that he had done the same but that he had had to learn to recognize the code words and the visual signs that the book would have gay appeal.
“The code words? I don’t understand,” I said.
Ian gave me a lesson. It was still a crime in many places to be gay and that was evident in publishing. Publishers were still testing the market then, wondering how to deal with the increasing reluctance of serious gay writers to mask their character’s true orientation. Many people were still in the closet in those days and in fact, one of the saddest things Ian ever told me was that his dream had been to be a teacher, but being openly gay and one of the founders of the first organized gay movement at the University of Toronto, pretty much put an end to that dream for him.
Writers like Gore Vidal and James Baldwin were not prepared to continue the sham of the closet; publishers, respecting the seriousness of their intent, but still frightened by possible crippling legal hassles, used subterfuge.
The book Ian used for my lesson showed a man and woman, the woman unbuttoning her blouse to disrobe.
“No,” said Ian, “look closely. She is not undressing; she is dressing. And look at him, he is confused. It hasn’t worked, his attempt to fit into straight society has failed and the other man standing in the background signifies what the man must come to terms with. These are the symbols used to inform gays that this is the kind of literature they sought.”
I was fascinated, I’d been completely oblivious to those subtle hints. We used that book as the cover of both Ian’s book and as the cover illustration on our first catalogue.
“I wrote an essay on the subject,” Ian told me. “Would you like to see it?” he said.
I certainly would. And after I read it, I told him I would like to publish his essay, with illustrations. This book is the result.
And to put the icing on the cake, afterwards I sold Ian’s large collection of gay paperbacks, on which this book is based, to the University of Toronto, where it now resides, one of the cornerstones of the University’s important Sexual Diversities program.
We did very well in Canada with this book and I hope it does as well in the United States.
Along with Ian’s earlier bibliographic study The Male Homosexual in Literature this book contributes more to the record of the struggle for gay liberation and also to the evolution of popular culture through the making of books.
So while Ian never got to be a teacher he’s still teaching.