Jesse Monteagudo

Jesse's Journal: Gay Pulp Fiction

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | January 24, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: LGBT, LGBT people, literature, richard amory, song of the loon

One of the most important gay books of the 20th century was Richard Amory's Song of the Loon: A Gay Pastoral in Five Books and an Interlude (Greenleaf Classics). While of doubtful literary value, Song of the Loon made gay literary history with its explicit depictions of gay male sex, its positive portrayal of male love and its poetic, almost mystical vision of a gay brotherhood that transcends racial and cultural barriers. For his "gay pastoral," Amory took "certain very European characters from the novels of Jorge de Montemayor and Gaspar Gil Polo, painted them a gay aesthetic red, and transplanted them to the American wilderness."

Angelo d'Arcangelo compared Song of the Loon to The Last of the Mohicans and "Hiawatha," while I myself described protagonist Ephraim MacIver as "Natty Bumppo after Stonewall." Song of the Loon was so popular that it inspired a movie of the same title, two sequels - Song of Aaron and Listen, The Loon Sings - and even a parody: Fruit of the Loon by "Ricardo Armory."

Fortunately, Song of the Loon is back in print, in a handsome edition published by Vancouver's Arsenal Pulp Press as part of its Little Sister's line of lesbian and gay classics. It certainly deserves the honor. The publication of Song of the Loon in 1966 launched a wave of gay erotic pulp fiction, as paperback publishers discovered the genre's financial benefits. The rise and fall of gay pulp fiction is the main topic of The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, an anthology edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn (MLR Press). In this book, the "golden age of gay fiction" runs from 1948 to 1978, though Gunn and his contributors recognize the landmark importance of Amory's first novel..

In his introduction, Gunn writes about the historical importance of fiction that was "for, by, about and out" gay men. Contrary to popular belief, the gay men who populated pre-Stonewall novels were not always doomed "to suicide, institutionalization or (assumed) celibacy in the priesthood." Rather, gay pulp heroes "never practiced celibacy (quite the contrary!), did not kill themselves, and were institutionalized, if at all, only in prisons (in order to have lots of sex with guards and fellow convicts). Even more extraordinary, they often fell in love, and though monogamy was seldom part of their vows, they fully intended to live lives committed to others unto death." Critic David Seubert, writing elsewhere, described the state of affairs in gay pulps as "homotopia ... where everything is imbued with sexual content, no one is straight and characters stumble into one sexual encounter after another without danger, fear, or for that matter, without even really trying."

But gay pulp fiction did more than make gay sex writing possible. According to Gunn, "it is among the pulps that such distinctive genres as gay horror, the gay gothic, to a large extent the gay mystery and the gay spy story, the gay cop story, and the gay western developed." (Song of the Loon, of course, was a major contributor to this last genre.) The Golden Age of Gay Fiction includes detailed studies of gay science fiction, gay mystery, gay horror, gay western (including Loon) and gay military fiction, and in all counts the genres were well-established by the time gay militants faced the cops at the Stonewall Inn.

One of the characteristics of gay pulp fiction was the use of pen names by authors shy about being exposed as creators of smut. In fact, some authors used many pen names: In the Golden Age, Victor J. Banis wrote pulps as "Don Holliday," "Victor Jay" and "J. X. Williams," among others. Since then, Banis has come out of the literary closet, and has written many books under his real name. Banis also contributed an essay to The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, as did Jan Ewing AKA "Jack Evans." Other contributors provide critical analyses of the works of Banis, Joseph Hansen ("James Colton"), Gordon Merrick and Lonnie Coleman. All in all, The Golden Age of Gay Fiction is a valuable resource for lovers of gay literature, history and sex. If nothing else, it would lead to renewed interest in the works of our literary ancestors.

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Jesse, thanks so much for this look at the importance of pre-Stonewall gay literature. We're living in an era when books and literature are being sloughed off by American education and media. The problem is especially bad in the LGBT world, where most of the media are only interested in TV and movies and politics, and don't care about our literature any more. And it doesn't help that LGBT bookstores have been closing.

All the more important that the whole historical range of our books and authors get significant coverage like this.

Hopefully you'll write about lesbian pulp fiction too. I vividly remember Ann Bannon's "Odd Girl Out" circulating quietly in the dormitories at my Catholic college (Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart) in the 1950s! Ann's works, and others by women of that period, have also been revived. In fact, a stage production based on her "Beebo Brinker" series is about to open.

Agreed, LGBT literature is Jesse's forte, but I'd love to see a post on lesbian literature too.

Or - what if they two of you did a joint post? Jesse the reviewer meets Patricia the author and the two of you write about some of the best LGBT books of the last century, perhaps?

Jesse Monteagudo | January 24, 2010 5:51 PM

Thanks, Patricia, for your comments. Actually, I am a bit younger than the "Song of the Loon" generation, and in fact went through my coming out process by reading (among other books) your very own "The Front Runner." We met in South Florida a few years ago, at a brunch sponsored by the local gay athletic group, and I look forward to working with you in the future.

I remember maybe over forty years ago coming across the Loon trilogy and was so inspired and inspired by it in that it was the first gay literature where the hero did not end up walking into the ocean. I treasured my copies and have donated them to our Lavendar Library and Cultural Exchange.

To turn the sex knob down a bit, and the yearning passion knob up a bit, try gay pulp fiction written by straight women.

I discovered The Charioteer by Mary Renault during my college years, after being assigned to read her The Persian Boy which is semi-historical.

I have been waiting for The Charioteer to be made into a movie --- whether a Hollywood B-movie or a shoestring indie. I've always thought it needs to be shot in fine grain black-and-white in the style Peter Bogdanovich used for his 1973 film Paper Moon.

(Luckily, none of the Charioteer characters commit suicide, although unfortunately one does give it serious thought.)

ShipofFools | January 26, 2010 6:11 PM

Mary Renault isn't quite what I would call straight *lol* - wasn't she living in a lifelong relationship with a woman?

Jesse, thank you for this cool text. I learned a lot. More?

For information about lesbian and trans pulp check out Susan Stryker's book Queer Pulp with lots of kinky covers.

Drewey Wayne Gunn | April 4, 2010 8:23 PM

Thanks, Jesse, for such a wonderful review of our book. I personally appreciate it since I respect your opinion so much. But above all I am glad you are helping us get out the word even more about all these literary treasures that have been largely ignored.

By the way, even though as editor I concentrated on gay works written by gay men, there was no way we could not mention Patricia Nell Warren and Mary Renault. They are too important, and both are mentioned and covers of their books are reproduced in The Golden Age of Gay Fiction.