Reclaiming Lesbian Fiction – The Republishing of Ann Bannon’s Lesbian Pulp Fiction Novels by Naiad Press in 1983
By Erin Biddiscombe (2023)
In this paper, I will discuss the republishing of Ann Bannon’s lesbian pulp fiction series, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, in 1983 by Naiad Press, a lesbian publishing company. Bannon’s six novels were initially published from 1957-1962 during the lesbian pulp fiction boom of the 1950s and early 1960s. What made Barbara Grier, founder of Naiad Press, decide that Bannon’s novels were worth republishing? And how did this affect Bannon’s life? In this paper, I will argue that Bannon’s novels held a quality that made them different from many lesbian pulps written in the 1950s and 1960s and more relatable to a lesbian audience, catapulting Bannon’s novels to the status of cult classics in lesbian history and propelling Bannon herself out of the closet. I will make this point through analysis of primary sources which reveal both Bannon’s and Grier’s own thoughts about her rise to fame, as well as how her fans felt about her writing. My first main point is that her novels were different because they were written by a lesbian author for female readers, and therefore depicted many of the difficult internal battles that lesbians at the time struggled with, letting them know that they weren’t alone and they weren’t crazy for having those feelings. Secondarily, in the time between when Bannon’s novels went out of print and when they returned, her novels become cult classics. Therefore, by the time they were republished in 1983, many people wanted to get to know the writer who had so influentially affected lesbian representation and development in America, forcing Bannon to reveal her identity to the world, but most importantly to her children and ex-husband, whom she had been married to when she initially wrote her novels. These primary sources include reviews of Bannon’s novels published in the 1980s, newspaper articles discussing Naiad Press and the republishing of her novels, and interviews with Ann Bannon herself.
How were Bannon’s novels different from other pulps?
Lesbian pulps initially published in the 1950s and 1960s served as some of the first sources of representation for lesbian readers and allowed them to envision a happily ever after for themselves not present in their daily lives. However, lesbian pulps also contained an “undeniably homophobic and voyeuristic appeal to a heterosexual male audience”, including sensationalized covers and some not so happy endings as well (Keller 2005). Bannon and a select few other authors constitute the exception to the rule within lesbian pulp publishing. They produced lesbian pulps written specifically by women for women within an industry dominated largely by male authors writing for a voyeuristic male audience, which is why the endings were rarely happy and the perspective was unrelatable for a lesbian audience. In commenting about her first novel, Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon notes that because “nobody had to commit suicide or beat themselves up, it was considered a positive version of a lesbian love story” (Lootens 1983).
To better understand how Ann Bannon’s novels stood apart from other lesbian novels published in the 1950s and 1960s, I consulted an article published in the Gay Community News titled “Sad Stories: A Reflection on the Fiction of Ann Bannon”. Gay Community News was a progressive national newspaper started in 1973 with the purpose of providing a community for gays and lesbians in the Boston area. The writer of the review, Andrea Loewenstein, starts by saying that she had some preconceived notions going into reading Bannon’s novels because she knew they were lesbian pulp novels. She expected the stereotypes, cliches, shallow characters, and unhappy endings characteristic of lesbian pulps. While she did find some of those things, Bannon’s novels also managed to provoke strong feelings in this specific reader that she wasn’t quite sure how to manage or name. Loewenstein acknowledges that Bannon wrote exceptionally good pulps in the sense that she had good grammar and continuity of her characters, but what inspires those deep and impactful feelings is the inner conflict that Bannon’s characters display: a conflict between loving who they want to love and who they feel is socially acceptable. Bannon displayed the self-hatred and confusion that many lesbians at the time experienced, but also emphasizes the fact that “lesbian love doesn’t have to be brief or heartbreaking just because it’s a love between two women” (Bannon 1983, 207).
Loewenstein points out that readers can tell even Ann Bannon is struggling to believe the messages she puts forth in her writing, and many lesbians at the time experienced those same struggles. Her novels were real, relatable, and often the first time lesbians were able to see better, more accurate representation in fiction. These messages transcended continents, cultures, and languages, appealing to such wide audiences that they were translated into different languages and sold globally. Bannon herself recounts her efforts to translate and understand the fan mail she received written in many different languages, stunned that so many people were able to identify with her characters. Bannon’s pulp distinguished themselves not only through their female authorship but also through their female audience, who read as equally for the “pleasure of self-confirmation as for the pleasure of the text” (Walters 1989).
Why were these novels important?
To understand the importance of these novels to their audience, it is key to place their initial publishing into its specific historical moment. The cultural context of 1950’s lesbian life encompasses both the growth of gay communities and violent backlash that accompanied having this identity in a patriarchal society that was predominantly homophobic. Bannon’s novels were initially published at a time when lesbians questioned their identity, and to many, “buying an Ann Bannon book in the 50s and 60s when the books were first coming out was tantamount to coming out yourself” (Lootens 1983). The historical significance of these novels cannot be underestimated, and Barbara Grier understood their importance.
Barbara Grier initially started Naiad Press in 1973 with the intention of giving lesbian authors a place to be published and give lesbian readers a place to access lesbian materials that allow them to understand that nothing is wrong with them. She felt very passionately about providing a space for lesbian audiences, and the letters she received proved that her work was greatly appreciated. The overwhelming support she received in the form of fan letters proved that her work did not go unnoticed, and readers appreciated finding representation in literature, writing “At last I’ve found you. Thank God you’re here” (Gambill 1987). Barbara Grier helped cultivate a culture of acceptance and authenticity and wanted Bannon’s books to be a part of that legacy, not the legacy of pulp fiction. Specifically, Grier chose to republish Bannon’s first five books in The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, because the sixth novel had a predominantly heterosexual focus, and her goal was to republish novels that were important to lesbian history specifically, not just pulp fiction history.
In an article published by Publisher’s Weekly in 1983, Barbara Grier comments on why she thinks these novels are worth being republished. She describes Ann Bannon’s novels as being written “by women, for women, which gives them a different quality” (Davis 1983). She also mentions that in the time between the end of pulps being published and when she decided to republish those novels, Bannon’s novels had become lesbian pulp classics and she herself a cult figure. However, Bannon was completely unaware of this status until Grier called her and told her that she thought they should be republished. When Bannon expressed confusion about such interest in her novels, Grier told her that although her novels might not be great literature, they were “emotionally, socially, and historically a part of lesbian development in this country and in this century” (Lootens 1983). Grier recognized the importance of those novels to lesbian history in America and wanted to reclaim them for the lesbian community. The Beebo Brinker Chronicles had been republished by Arno Press in 1975, but they were clothbound hardback covers that cost $10 a piece. Grier acknowledged that was an inaccessible price for her target demographic and wanted to reissue them as paperbacks at $3.95. And so, twenty years after Bannon finished the last novel in The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Naiad Press reissued the novels featuring covers with outlines of women dressed in 80s clothing, and a photo of Ann Bannon on the back, the first time her face had ever been attached to her work.
How was Bannon’s life affected?
Ann Bannon is the pseudonym used by Ann Weldy, who, when she started writing, had recently graduated from college and married a man. Off Our Backs, a newsjournal by and for women, published an interview with Ann Weldy in December of 1983, the year that Weldy’s novels were reissued. The interviewer sought to learn more about Weldy’s life when she initially published the novels, but also wanted to know how their republishing affected Weldy’s current lifestyle as an English professor in Sacramento. From the beginning, Weldy acknowledges that marriage was not right for her, but instead of uprooting her family and a good man, she decided to make the best of it. Her decision to write professionally stemmed from the fact that traditional married life led to her having far too much time on her hands and so she began writing her first novel.
In that first novel, what she thought was a very subtle side plot about two female college roommates turned out to be her publisher’s favorite part of the novel. She reworked it to make the roommates the focus, and Odd Girl Out became Gold Medal Publishing’s second best-selling paperback of 1957, a fact she remained unaware of until revealed by Grier in 1982. When Bannon tried to write things that were “socially respectable” they always fell flat, so she returned to that original plotline again and again until The Beebo Brinker Chronicles was finished. She frequently received fan mail thanking her for letting her readers know that they weren’t alone. However, for fear of her children finding the letters, she discarded them. By the time she finished the last novel, her children were starting school, starting to read, and her husband, who accepted her writing those books as long as she was not publicly associated with them, was beginning to get anxious. To protect her marriage and her children, she decided to set that part of herself aside.
Twenty years later, in the spring of 1982, Barbara Grier reached out to let Weldy know that she wanted to republish her novels, and they did just that. Weldy’s marriage had ended, she was independent for the first time, and she was ready to both step into her identity publicly and take credit for her work. The novels came out in January of 1983, propelling Weldy from the closet through her association with them. She experienced some anxiety not only from the forced exposition of her sexual identity, but also because of the association with material written by her naïve 20-year-old self, who was coming to terms with the fact that she had locked herself into a marriage with a human who she would never feel truly comfortable or happy with. Bannon believes that those influences affected how she presented her characters, but given the opportunity to rewrite her novels, she chose to leave them the same. To change them would spoil the essence that provided so many lesbians with comfort and community for so many years, so she decided to let them stand as social history. The republishing of her novels not only allowed her to confront her past feelings and pitfalls, but also the possibility of writing more in the future, of finding that passion and inspiration that she had twenty years before.
Originally published as lesbian pulp fiction novels, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles were later republished by Naiad Press, a lesbian publishing company, in 1983. The popularity of these books and their impact on the lesbian community earned Ann Weldy the title, “Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction”. Bannon’s novels stood out in the sea of lesbian pulps published between 1950 and 1965 because they were published by a lesbian author for an audience of women, and thus included themes that many lesbians at the time were able to relate to and find comfort in. When Weldy initially published her novels, however, she was a closeted lesbian who had married a man and was raising children. By the time Barbara Grier approached her in 1982, her marriage had ended, her children had grown up, and she was ready to accept the spotlight that came with claiming ownership of her work and her identity. For the lives that her novels touched in the 1950s and 1960s, and her bravery in the 1980s, Ann Bannon has earned her place in lesbian history in America.
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Davis, Joann, ed. “1950s Lesbian Novels Reissued by Naiad Press.” Publisher’s Weekly, February 11, 1983. https://digitalarchives-publishersweekly-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=BG19830211.1.44&srpos=8&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN%7ctxRV-Naiad+———1.
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Keller, Yvonne. “”Was It Right to Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?”: Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965.” American Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2005): 385-410. doi:10.1353/aq.2005.0028.
Loewenstein, Andrea. “Sad Stories; A Reflection on the Fiction of Ann Bannon.” Gay Community News, May 24, 1980. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/sad-stories-reflection-on-fiction-ann-bannon/docview/199354585/se-2.
Lootens, Tricia. “Ann Bannon: A Writer of Lost Lesbian Fiction Finds Herself and Her Public.” Off Our Backs, Dec 31, 1983, 12. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/ann-bannon-writer-lost-lesbian-fiction-finds/docview/197145930/se-2.
Nealon, Christopher S. “Invert-History: The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction.” New Literary History 31, no. 4 (2000): 745-764. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/24532.
Passet, Joanne E. “Barbara Grier and the World She Built.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 18, no. 4 (2014): 315–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/10894160.2014.901843.
Walters, Suzanna D. “As Her Hand Crept Slowly up Her Thigh: Ann Bannon and the Politics of Pulp.” Social Text, no. 23 (1989): 83–101. https://doi.org/10.2307/466422.