We usually think of pulp as occupying an unremittingly male corner in the literary world. A juvenile male corner at that. Women, in classic pulp novels, are often little more than the damsels in distress, who exist only to give male heroes someone to rescue. That is the common perception. The Feminist Press at The City University of New York sees it differently.
“But women did write pulp, in large numbers and in all the classic pulp fiction genres, from hard-boiled noirs to breathless romances to edgy science fiction and taboo lesbian pulps. And while employing the conventions of each genre, women brought a different, gendered perspective to these forms. Women writers of pulp often outpaced their male counterparts in challenging received ideas about gender, race, and class, and in exploring those forbidden territories that were hidden from view off the typed page. They were an important part of a literary phenomenon, grounded in its particular time and place, that had a powerful impact on American popular culture in the middle of the twentieth century, and continues to exert its influence today.” (Livia Tenzer, Editor and Jean Casella, Publisher, Publisher’s Foreward:Women Write Pulp).
When I was in Brattleboro last week, I picked up a copy of The Blackbirder at the independent bookstore, Mystery on Main Street. The Blackbirder, by Dorothy B. Hughes, was originally published in 1943. It was re-published in 2004 by the Feminist Press as part of a series, Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp.
“Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp restores to print the best of women’s writing in the classic pulp genres, originally published in the 1930s, 1940s, and the 1950s. From hard-boiled noir to racy romance to taboo lesbian pulp, these rediscovered queens of pulp offer subversive perspectives on the heart of the American century.”
The Blackbirder is a spy novel, set during World War Two, a story born of the paranoia of refugees who worked with the French Resistance. It takes Dorothy B. Hughes just a few paragraphs to capture the paranoia of illegal refugees from occupied France, trying unsuccessfully to be invisible in New York City. This is a well-written bit of espionage fiction, the writing taut, the story compelling. I’ll leave it to others to decide just what constitutes feminist pulp. I’ll just say it’s a good read.