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Press Dresses Up the Queens of Pulp

The Feminist Press, the world’s first independent publisher of women’s writing, started reissuing forgotten texts by American writers, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rebecca Harding Davis, in 1970. When other publishers caught on to the idea of launching their own series of women’s lit, the press looked beyond American borders, translating works by women writers from around the world. Now the press is crossing the borders of genre, launching an unlikely series of pulp fiction—those hard-boiled mysteries and steamy romances that started appearing in the 1920s and that over the next 50 years traded in the clichés that the feminist movement has worked so hard to dispel. So why would a feminist press introduce such a series?

“Many women wrote pulp, in all the classic pulp genres—noir, romance, science fiction, and lesbian,” says Jean Casella, who succeeded Florence Howe as publisher and director of the press in January 2001. “But their work has virtually vanished.” Casella explains that while there has been a revival of pulp in the last decade, with such films as Pulp Fiction and L.A. Confidential and reprints of books by Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, the work of women in the field has remained absent.

Called Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp, the series is being launched this month with the publication of three titles: Skyscraper, by Faith Baldwin, a romance set in 1930s New York City; In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes, a mystery set in post–World War II Los Angeles (adapted to film in 1950, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame); and The Girls in 3-B, by Valerie Taylor, which explores lesbian relationships in 1950s Chicago.

The press plans to publish three pulp novels per year, selecting books based on their literary quality—a quality that, Casella admits, is “slightly different” from that of the press’s signature reprints, including Tillie Olsen’s Silences and Louise DeSalvo’s Vertigo—and on how well they depict society in a given era. “The books are all set in pivotal moments in history, when there was a shift in gender roles,” she says. “For example, In a Lonely Place is written from the point of view of a male serial killer who has just returned from the war and is facing the changing gender dynamics of society; he directs his anger at working women. Skyscraper was published in 1931, when women were just entering the urban workforce. It’s about a woman who loves walking into the office and seeing the rows of polished desks and filing cabinets. She has typical male suitors, but the office also becomes her suitor. The book was first serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine. You can say this protagonist was one of the first Cosmo girls, or that the book was the Sex and the City of the 1930s.”

If the success of the stiletto-heeled women of the acclaimed HBO series, and that of its creator, Candace Bushnell (whose first two books—Sex and the City and 4 Blondes—have sold over a million copies) is any indication, the Femmes Fatales series could become a profitable venture for the Feminist Press. In recent years, books about city-dwelling women in their twenties and thirties facing the challenges of modern life—often referred to as “chick lit”—have met with great success. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner, and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (all New York Times best-sellers) are ubiquitous in bookstores, train stations, and even airports. Many of the heroines of the Femmes Fatales series—those vintage Bridget Joneses—may well appeal to this market.

However financially successful it proves to be, Casella views the series as an expansion of the press’s mission, which is to bring to the public significant but forgotten works written by women. “We want to make the press more relevant and exciting to young readers,” she says. “But at the same time we don’t want to abandon our mission.” For more information about the Feminist Press and the Femmes Fatales series, visit the Web site at www.feministpress.org.

Dalia Sofer is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

Skyscraper and The Girls in 3-B,
part of the new Femmes Fatales series.

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Press Dresses Up the Queens of Pulp (November/December 2003)
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