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James D. Forbes collecting prize

31 August 2021

Two School of English students, postgraduate Paul Thompson, and undergraduate Chloe Chuck, have earned both the first and runner-up positions in this year's James D Forbes Collecting Prize.

Paul Thompson, a PhD Candidate in the School of English, was selected as the 2021 winner for the prize.  Paul's first-prize essay, From Salt to Satan: An introduction to a collection of ‘lesbian pulp’ as cultural items discusses the artwork and paratext on the covers of his collection of lesbian-themed fiction from 1950s and early 1960s America. Chloe was awarded the runners-up prize for her collection of twentieth-century handwritten postcards.  A formal ceremony is to be held in November.

For students interested in applying for this year's prize, the application can be found on the Library website.

"It came as a wonderful surprise to me when an email arrived telling me I had won the 2021 James David Forbes Collecting Prize. You could say that this unexpected honour had been a long time on the road, as I had originally entered the 2020 competition – but then came covid-19 and lockdown, and so much from that year fell by the wayside. I had heard about the competition from Hilda McNae, Senior Librarian (Academic Liaison), and also from my colleague in the School of English, Parker Gordon, who was the 2018 winner with his splendid collection of pageant items. Both encouraged me to put my hat in the ring, and showcase my growing collection of cheap, lesbian-themed paperbacks from the mid-twentieth century.

"Mine may seem a rather bizarre collecting specialism to some of you. Most of the books, with their lurid covers and sparse, formulaic plots, were no more than potboilers with very little literary merit. But they were nonetheless part of an enormous mass literacy event in the United States, in the couple of decades after World War 2. The first publishing house to mass-produce paperbacks over the Pond was Pocket Books in 1939, following the lead of Albatross Books in Germany and Penguin in the UK. During the war, Editions for the Armed Services produced more than thirteen hundred different titles – reprints of recognised literary works – for American service personnel. So successful was this enterprise, so cheap was production of such books, that the main post-war marketplace for books moved out of bookstores and into the world of the commuter, the traveller, and the casual shopper. Books became commonplace on the racks of newsstands, in railroad stations and Greyhound bus depots, and in corner drugstores.

"Another change in the market occurred when New American Library entered into a distribution contract with Fawcett Publications. Fawcett was both a distributor and a publisher, and part of their agreement was that Fawcett would not distribute any of their own reprints. That left an avenue for Fawcett to look for authors who would write direct for the paperback market, and what became known to latter-day collectors as the “paperback original” was born.

"In 1950, Fawcett published Women’s Barracks, the novelised wartime memoirs of Tereska Torrès, a former member of the Free French Forces. Amongst other matters, this book dealt very frankly with lesbian encounters in the barracks. The book became a bestseller, and two years later Fawcett published the novel Spring Fire, a story of a doomed lesbian affair between two college girls. Spring Fire, under the authorship of Vin Packer, sold more than a million-and-a-half copies, outselling books like Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. Vin Packer, by the way, was a pseudonym of the prolific author Marijane Meaker. The plot of Spring Fire, with its tragic outcome, became a template for a flood of lesbian-themed novels. By the late 1950s Fawcett had been joined by a number of smaller companies, who had sprung up to exploit the market – Midwood, Avon, Nightstand, Domino, Beacon – and lesbian stories sat beside westerns, whodunnits, Cold War spy adventures, and romances on the newsstand racks. Plots became more extreme, cover illustrations became more lurid.

"Amongst these books were some that became “underground” classics amongst closeted lesbians – Vin Packer’s Spring Fire was one despite its tragic ending, along with novels from the later 50s and early 60s by Ann Bannon, for whom Packer was a mentor. Female readers would approach the drugstore counter, timidly or boldly, and buy a book on the strength of its featuring two women on the cover. Copies would be passed from hand to hand, sometimes used as a pretext for coming out to a friend. Novels such as Bannon’s Women in the Shadows had second, third, and fourth lives, being republished by feminist presses and even by publishers of erotica, through the 1980s and 90s, and into the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the ephemeral potboilers, along with the original underground titles, became collectables.

"How did I come to have a collection? To be honest, I don’t know what came first, the idea of basing a PhD project on how these novels imagined American masculinity during a period of “male panic,” or the idea of trying to establish the first academic collection of “lesbian pulp” this side of the Atlantic. I’ve been aware of the cheap American paperback for quite some time, having had a handful of Erle Stanley Gardner’s courtroom mysteries, featuring lawyer Perry Mason, in the cheap format. I recall that I became aware of a 1952 paperback called The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan, and that the author was in fact Patricia Highsmith writing under a pseudonym. I have always admired Highsmith as a storyteller, and when I found out that The Price of Salt was roughly contemporaneous with Spring Fire, and that Meaker and Highsmith were partners at the time, that got the ball rolling for me!

"Tracking down original copies isn’t easy. A lot of them have fallen by the wayside. Some change hands for ridiculous prices, and not necessarily based on literary merit. The Price of Salt and Fred Haley’s Satan was a Lesbian go for dollars in three figures, despite the former being a well written story and the latter being a daft melodrama. I have been helped greatly by knowledge gleaned from other collectors, and in particular by Lisa Vecoli, who was an archivist at the University of Minnesota for many years. Lisa has helped me to source some very hard-to-get books without breaking the bank. It’s thanks to her that I have both Salt and Satan on my shelf! I have had one or two surprises amongst my purchases. On the flyleaf of one I found the rubber stamp of the shop where it was originally sold; a search on Google Maps led to an image of the very corner of the street in the USA where the shop had been. On the title page of a copy of Ann Bannon’s The Marriage I found the author’s autograph! Ann Bannon is still alive, and she and I have been in contact throughout my PhD research.

"Apart from my gratitude to Lisa Vecoli and Ann Bannon, I owe thanks to Hilda McNae and Parker Gordon for their encouragement. Also to the august judging panel of the J.D. Forbes Prize for the honour they did me in selecting me as this year’s winner. Thank you all, most sincerely."

Paul Thompson,
PhD Candidate