Introducing Femmes Fatales to a New Generation

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    Hard-boiled noir, taboo lesbian romances, radical science fiction, and other forms of pulp fiction written by women can be found in a new series called Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp, which was recently launched by The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

    The idea for Femmes Fatales, which presents books originally published from the 1930s through the 1960s, came after a used-book seller in Gainesville, Florida, sent the Feminist Press a book by a local author that was originally published in the 1930s. "We felt it was touching on issues that were kind of explosive for its time," Feminist Press publisher Jean Casella told BTW. "It deals with an interracial romance. It was a great read."

    That title, which Feminist Press is choosing not to name, didn't make it to the first round of fall releases. "Yet we're still considering it," Casella said.

    What is scheduled for publication in early November are Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place, Valerie Taylor's The Girls in 3-B, and Faith Baldwin's Skyscraper. While some might be a bit surprised that the press is publishing pulp fiction, others might wonder whether Hughes' harrowing 1947 novel -- which is narrated by a male serial killer and rapist -- is appropriate for Feminist Press' raison d'être, Casella said. "I think it's going to be controversial. I'm sure there will be people who don't think this was appropriate for the Feminist Press to do. But I think the distinction that should be made, and that's made almost from page one, is that this is about misogyny, as opposed to books by Jim Thompson, which are misogynistic."

    Casella explained that Hughes offers plenty of commentary in the novel through its main character. "Why else would she have named him Dix Steele?" she queried.

    A number of today's leading women mystery authors, including Sarah Paretsky and Marsha Muller, have agreed to write blurbs for In a Lonely Place.

    "Dorothy was like their grandmother," said Feminist Press associate publisher Lisa London. "They're thrilled that she's getting her due and being brought back to print with a very serious emphasis. We're not just going for the fact that this is pulp. It's also literature."

    Backing up London's point is Lisa Maria Hogeland's afterword to A Lonely Place, which features this quote from Erin A. Smith's study of hard-boiled fiction: "Reading these texts [pulp fiction at large] as classics is not at all the same as reading them as trash." Hogeland continues, "This reissue of In a Lonely Place invites us to read its feminist work."

    London also commented that Feminist Press is actively working with the academic community to seek course adoptions for In a Lonely Place. The "tremendous" advance response to the book's republication inspired the press to contract a second Dorothy Hughes book -- a World War II espionage novel titled Black Birder scheduled for publication in the spring.

    Meanwhile, The Girls in 3-B, which was originally published in 1959, deals with lesbian romance and the drug culture of the '50s while turning conventional ideas of femininity during that era upside down.

    "Lesbian pulp is a huge sub-genre," Casella said. "It was very important in the underground history of lesbianism in America, and it was also read by men as something titillating."

    Casella feels that the book actually presents three sub-genres: "One of them is the lesbian theme and the discovery of lesbian romance, another is the involvement in the Beatnik scene -- and there's an incredible description of a peyote trip in the book, and a third deals with office romance between the working girl and the married boss."

    And then there's Skyscraper, a steamy, working-girl's tale that was originally serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1931. "Skyscraper was the Sex and the City of its time," Casella maintained. "It shows independent, empowered women, as well as traditional concerns. It was a new kind of story in which work, career, and independent choice were now issues for women."

    Science fiction is another genre that will be explored in the Femmes Fatale series. Casella said the Feminist Press is going to have an easier time finding sci-fi that fits the series' mission than, say, noir. "That's because science fiction is speculative," she continued. "It's envisioning worlds as they might be, and there's actually a long tradition of women who have written utopias and dystopias that comment on, among other things, gender."

    So what have been some of the reactions from booksellers about Femmes Fatales?

    "We're working with some of the independent booksellers on doing special displays," London said. "Buyer Paul Yamazaki at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco can't get enough of the series. He said, 'I'm putting this in my window whether you give me materials or not.'"

    "I love the series," Yamazaki affirmed, "and how the press understands this popular literature. I think they've done a brilliant job of selecting titles, publishing them, and marketing them for a contemporary audience. We have very high expectations for the series." --Jeff Perlah