Out in Paperback

A Visual History of Gay Pulps (Lester, Mason & Begg) by Ian Young (http://ianyoungbooks.com/)

Ian Young is a founding member of the modern Canadian gay movement as well as one of Canada’s first out gay poets. It seems fitting that he brings both his literary and political attributes to bear in his newest volume, Out in Paperback, a visual decoding of gay fiction cover art in the second half of the twentieth century.

Young’s poetic flair is evident in his ‘Note to the Reader’, a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek selection of cover blurb excerpts that makes for a marvelous piece of found poetry, from whispered hints of scandal to full-blown, out-and-out promises of hitherto unheard of sexual revelation.

Most, though not all, of the writing during the time covered (1948-1998) falls in the genre of pulp fiction. Like their covers, titles range from the overt: Stud Bar, Summer in Sodom and Strange Marriage, to the mere suggestive: Lost on Twlight Road and Man Divided. Many of the authors are pseudonyms for writers better known under their real names. Literary-minded authors publishing under their own names, like Gore Vidal and William Burroughs, were exceptions to the rule, while a book like Forster’s Maurice had to wait till Forster’s death in 1970 to see the light of day. Many of these authors remain unknown even today.

The symbology lurking beneath the cover images is fascinating, as anyone familiar with examples of early volumes can attest. Written at a time when being gay was still largely a matter of shame, early publishers cleverly targeted their readership through their cover art. Like the authors, many of the artists remain anonymous, though some, like Tom of Finland, achieved recognition and fame.

Using selections from his own collection, Young decodes the body postures and facial expressions of the “cover boys” (and their often bewildered looking female counterparts), along with subtler clues like physical placement, proportions of light and shade, and state of dress. This is an insightful and often amusing study of artistic symbolism, as intricate as any pocket hanky colour-code, and carefully positioned in the political and literary landscapes of the times.

As Young shows, cover art evolved over the years, the codes becoming more overt as a knowledge and understanding of homosexuality changed and grew. The earliest volumes were clearly harbingers of the coming gay movement, as well as path lighters to those who sought them out. The appearance of these mass-market pocket books helped make gay-themed literature readily available for the first time, whetting an appetite for more than just reading.

Young charts their path from underground anomalies to mainstream works over roughly the second half of the twentieth century, until much that was hidden began to come out of the shadows, replacing a history of shame with something like pride. A companion volume of literary exegesis would be more than welcome.
 

 
 

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