Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

     Ann Bannon's classic pulp novel introduces us to Laura Landon, a freshman at a midwestern college, who is extremely shy and quiet, but determined to join a sorority.  Soon Laura moves into the sorority house and meets her new roommates, Beth and Emmy.  Emmy is a wild, outgoing party girl - and maybe just a little boy crazy.  But Beth is older, wiser, and much more aloof when it comes to relationships.  Sure, she's dated plenty of men, but she never seems to be in a committed relationship.  At first, Laura is intimidated by Beth's commanding presence, but it doesn't take long for the girls to become close friends - and within a few weeks, both the girls are aware of a magnetic, intense attraction between the two of them.  They may not completely understand it, but they don't fight it, and by the end of the first semester, Beth and Laura are lovers.

     But things get complicated for Laura and Beth when Charlie enters the picture.  Charlie is an old friend of Laura's, but he is noticeably attracted to Beth - always complimenting her, staring dreamily at her, and constantly making excuses to spend time together.  And what worries Laura the most is the fact that Beth seems to enjoy the attention from Charlie.  But more than that, she seems to encourage it.  The rest of the novel explores the tumultuous, intense aspects of Beth and Laura's romance as both Laura and Charlie fight for Beth's affections.

     Compared to today's standards, Odd Girl Out is incredibly tame, but when it was published in 1957, it was scandalous and shocking.  In the age of The L Word and Sex and the City, it isn't abnormal to see depictions of same-sex couples engaged in graphic sexual behavior, but more than 50 years ago, homosexuality was still illegal, not to mention a complete social taboo.  After all, 1957 was the same year Leave it to Beaver made its television debut, so you can probably imagine how the first lesbian pulp novel was received by the media.  But (not surprisingly), Odd Girl Out was a bestseller.  Gays and lesbians were thrilled to see a positive, realistic depiction of homosexuality in literature, and straight folks were curious as to what all the fuss was about.

     So with this novel, Ann Bannon unknowingly launched the lesbian pulp movement in America.  Odd Girl Out became the first in the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a series of 6 novels featuring Laura Landon and a host of other nontraditional literary characters.  Odd Girl Out is surprisingly subdued considering the cultural shock waves its publication initiated.  But when the world is reading things like the 50 Shades trilogy, a kiss on the lips between two women is nothing to bat an eye at.  But it's important to remember that Ann Bannon paved the way for "queer lit," and with her novels, she bravely acknowledged that heterosexuality doesn't have to be the only option for romance, sex, and relationships.

     Odd Girl Out is not sultry or steamy, and the writing is neither complex nor imaginative, but that's ok, because it wasn't written for literary critics.  It was written to fill a literary void, and to demystify and openly address a very controversial topic.  So the next time you read a book or short story featuring a lesbian relationship, just remember that Odd Girl Out was the little pulp novel that made it all possible. 

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