Sunday, May 27, 2018

Happy Birthday to Pioneering LGBT Writer Marijane Meaker, Launched Lesbian Pulp Fiction Genre

Happy 91st birthday to Marijane Meaker, who was born today, May 27, in 1927. She is an American novelist and short story writer in several genres using different pen names. From 1952 to 1969 she wrote 20 mystery and crime novels as Vin Packer, including Spring Fire, which is credited with launching the genre of lesbian pulp fiction (although few of Packer's books address homosexuality or feature gay characters). 
Using her own observations of lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s, she wrote a series of nonfiction books about lesbians under the pen name Ann Aldrich from 1955 to 1972. In 1972 she switched genres and pen names once more to begin writing for young adults, and became quite successful as M.E. Kerr, producing more than 20 novels and winning multiple awards including the American Library Association's lifetime award for young-adult literature, the ALA Margaret Edwards Award. 

She was described by The New York Times Book Review as "one of the grand masters of young adult fiction." As Mary James, she has written four books for younger children.

Regardless of genre or pen name, Meaker's books have in common complex characters that have difficult relationships and complicated problems, who rail against conformity. Meaker said of this approach, "I was a bookworm and a poetry lover. When I think of myself and what I would have liked to have found in books those many years ago, I remember being depressed by all the neatly tied-up, happy-ending stories, the abundance of winners, the themes of winning, solving, finding — when around me it didn't seem that easy. So I write with a different feeling when I write for young adults. I guess I write for myself at that age."

Meaker was born in Auburn, New York, where she also spent her childhood. She mentions in an autobiography that Carson McCullers' book Member of the Wedding influenced her. In a 2006 interview, Meaker said of McCullers', "I was drawn to all McCullers’s books. She was an underdog-lover as I am. She was also this sensitive, intelligent writer whose words were lovely. I felt she was a champion of everyone who felt out-of-step with the world. I still feel that way." Meaker grew up in a house filled with books and was fascinated by the concept of writing and writers. She was particularly interested in the idea of a pseudonym, that one could invent a new name, and a new personality with each name.

Meaker asked her parents to send her to Stuart Hall School, a boarding school in Staunton, Virginia, when she heard that lesbian activity occurred frequently at boarding schools. Unfortunately, she was kicked out: "I was an unruly, rebellious child – a troublemaker with low marks. I was suspended in my senior year for throwing darts at a dartboard decorated with the pictures of faculty members cut out of an old yearbook. My mother's pleas to the bishop (it was an Episcopal school) got me reinstated long enough to graduate." As a high-school junior she began submitting stories to women's magazines under the name "Eric Rantham McKay" and was soundly rejected.

She later attended Vermont Junior College in 1945 and the University of Missouri from 1946 to 1949, where she was a member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority. She wasn't interested in conforming to the rules of a sorority, though; she preferred to seek friends who were also writers. She made frequent submissions to literary magazines and collected many rejection slips.

Meaker sold her first story to Ladies' Home Journal under the name Laura Winston for $750.

Upon graduation, she worked as a file clerk with Dutton Publishing, then as a proofreader with Gold Medal Books, and began writing mostly mystery novels as Vin Packer. According to her autobiographical young adult book ME ME ME ME: Not a Novel (1984), Meaker began her professional writing career by posing as a literary agent, whose "clients" consisted of her own pen names. As Packer, Meaker wrote 20 books in all, including The Evil Friendship from 1958, an account of the Parker–Hulme murder case in New Zealand. Two books by Packer were loosely based on the Emmett Till murder and the aftermath of the investigation: 3-Day Terror and Dark Don't Catch Me

Unlike other popular crime writers in the pulp market, Packer's books were less based on action (such as Mickey Spillane's books), and more "psychologically dense" and "insidious." One mystery critic said of Packer's books, "Her probing accounts of the roots of crime are richly detailed snapshots of their times, unconventional, intensely readable, and devoid of heroes, villains, or pat solutions."

As Vin Packer, Meaker wrote the groundbreaking romance novel Spring Fire, published in 1952, which is now credited with launching the genre of lesbian "pulp" fiction. Spring Fire was a response to the immense success of a previous Gold Medal Books publication named Women's Barracks, that sold 4.5 million copies. Eager to continue their financial success, editor Dick Carroll asked Meaker to write a book with a lesbian theme. 

Her original story idea involved a romance between two students of a boarding school, but editor Dick Carroll asked her to change it to sorority sisters because the boarding school setting was too risky. "He said, 'Well, it has to be a sorority, because a boarding school is too young.' He added, 'Make sure that these girls turn away from homosexuality because it is immoral, don't just have them talk about it being a hard life. We have to pass postal inspection.'" 

Writer Ann Bannon  (at left with Meaker) has credited her beginnings as an author of lesbian fiction to discovering the Vin Packer novels in the 1950s. The response to Spring Fire was beyond all Meaker's and Gold Medal Books' expectations. Meaker states she got "boxes of mail" from women who were thrilled to see a book that addressed a lesbian relationship; gay audiences weren't considered a market at this time.

Paperback novels were rarely reviewed by mainstream literary reviews, but a Packer novel titled, Come Destroy Me was noticed by The New York Times crime-fiction reviewer Anthony Boucher. Meaker said, "I decided then and there that I would never write an ordinary story again; that if I was writing for paperback, I would write suspense because I wanted the reviews." Soon after editor Dick Carroll from Gold Medal Books died, Meaker stopped writing as Vin Packer.

Meaker used the pseudonym Ann Aldrich for a series of five books published as paperback originals, but which were in fact nonfiction works. She read Donald Webster Cory's book The Homosexual in America, which was a nonfiction book about gay men. Noticing there was nothing similar for lesbians, Meaker used her own observations of lesbians and the lives of lesbians that included We Walk Alone in 1955, We, Too, Must Love in 1958, Carol in a Thousand Cities in 1960, We Two Won't Last in 1963, and Take A Lesbian To Lunch in 1972. The Feminist Press re-released We Walk Alone and We, Too, Must Love in 2007. Meaker said of this series, "The Aldrich books were more like resource books. A lot of the mail I got was from people wanting to know where the bars were in New York, where they could live, where I had lived. You know, they wanted to know how to get to New York and how to get to these bars."

In an interview with the Lambda Book Report in 2005, Meaker reflected on the impact of her books as Ann Aldrich, saying, "I honestly never thought about anything except people like me buying the book. I never thought of us having any entitlement or any importance; it just never dawned upon me. If somebody had showed me the [gay couples in the] wedding pages of The New York Times, which was awaiting us in the future, I wouldn't have believed it. I thought books were important, but these were paperbacks and so I didn't think they would last any longer than the paper that they were printed on." 

Meaker was persuaded to try young adult fiction at the suggestion of author Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy), and chose to do so after reading Paul Zindel's The Pigman. She chose the pen name M. E. Kerr, as a phonetic play on her last name. Although the audience was different from Vin Packer's, Kerr's approach to her stories and characters seemed to vary little. She still addressed topics not usually covered by children's books: racism, AIDS, homosexuality, absent parents, social class differences, and her characters still had problems that had no easy solutions. She said of this direction, "I tend to write about people who struggle, who try to overcome obstacles, who usually do, but sometimes not. People who have all the answers and few problems have never interested me, not to write about, not to befriend."

Kerr's first attempt was extremely successful. Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! was published in 1972 and was about an overweight girl whose mother is so preoccupied with assisting people addicted to drugs that she virtually ignores her own daughter. It was listed by the School Library Journal's 20th century 100 most significant books for children and young adults. The story was inspired by a class Meaker taught by going into high schools and talking to students about writing. One overweight girl wrote stories Meaker characterized as "really grotesque;" when her mother, a local do-gooder, found out Meaker was encouraging her, she complained that Meaker was trying to get her daughter to "write weird." The novel would later be turned into an ABC Afterschool Special (as Dinky Hocker) in 1979.

Is That You, Miss Blue?, published in 1975, involves a girl in a Virginia Episcopal boarding school who develops a crush on her religiously devout teacher. Kerr modeled the story on her own experiences in boarding school when she developed a crush on one of her own teachers.

1978's Gentlehands is about a young man who becomes involved with a young woman from a much wealthier family. When he tries to get to know his estranged grandfather, he learns that the man was a Nazi who killed Jews at Auschwitz. The premise for the book, stated Kerr, was, "I wanted to provoke the idea of what if you meet a nice guy, a really nice man, and what if you find out that in his past he wasn't such a nice man? How would you feel?"

In 1994's Deliver Us From Evie, 16-year-old Parr tells the story of his 18-year-old sister Evie's relationship with another girl and also of his own interest in a girl whose family rejects homosexuality as immoral. Kerr again addressed homosexuality in 1997's "Hello," I Lied, about a young man who finds himself pulled in multiple directions.

In the 1990s, Meaker added the pen name Mary James for a series of novels aimed at readers younger than the Kerr readership; it was not until 1994, after the publication of the third Mary James novel, that the covers indicated that the author was also known as M. E. Kerr. Mary James books include Shoebag, The Shuteyes, Frankenlouse and Shoebag Returns.

In her early life, Meaker said she dated men because it was expected of her. She said of meeting the expectations of her family and friends despite knowing she was a lesbian: "I dealt with it by playing the game: dating, going steady with a serviceman I really liked, but not 'that way' and in general coping as we all had to do by behaving like everyone else."

Meaker was involved romantically with author Patricia Highsmith for 2 years. She wrote about this relationship in the 2003 nonfiction memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, and discussed it and her own pulp fiction novels in interviews around the time of the book's release.

The Golden Crown Literary Society awards a Trailblazer Award each year to one author for groundbreaking works in the field of lesbian literature. Meaker won the award in 2013 and joined the likes of Ann Bannon, Sarah Aldridge, Jane Rule, Ellen Hart, and many others as guiding lights of lesbian literature.

The ALA Margaret A. Edwards Award recognizes one writer and a particular body of work for "significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature". Meaker won the annual award in 1993 as M.E. Kerr, citing four books published from 1972 to 1986. The young-adult librarians called her "a pioneer in realistic fiction for teenagers. Her characters and plots often deal with ordinary teenagers who, faced with extraordinary situations and events, must make tough choices."

She received other lifetime achievement awards from Publishing Triangle in 1998 (Bill Whitehead Award), the New York State Library Association in 1999 (Knickerbocker Award) and the Assembly on Literature in 2000 (Adolescents Award).

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