Warm & Willing by Jill Emerson (Lawrence Block, Midwood Books)
Robert Silverberg wasn’t the only man writing a plethora of lesbian titles under female pseudonyms — Lawrence Block had him beat.
In fact, Block’s first sale, in 1958 (at the age of 19 -20) was the lesbiania novel, Strange Are the Ways of Love by Lesley Evans (again that pun with the first name, like Leslie in Longman/Silverberg’s Sin Girls). And here you tought Mr. (Ms?) Lawrence Block started off as the great crime fiction writer he is today…
He only used that pen name once — he then went on to be Sheldon Lord at Beacon and Midwood, Andrew Shaw at Nightstand, and then Jill Emerson at Midwood for several titles — one, Enough of Sorrow, is considered a lesbian classic, and has been excerpted in a Cleis Press anthology, Lesbian Pulp, where no mention is made that this is a man writing as a woman — as all the other writers in that book are actual women (and lesbians) it seems Block duped the editor, which attests to his skills as a writer.
He later switched lesbian and bi-sexual novels to Putnam in the 70s, such as the explict The Trouble with Eden, about swingers.
As Dr. Benjamin Morse, he wrote the faux sexology studies The Lesbian and The Sexually Promisciuous Female (discusses lesbianism and bi-sexuality) akin to Silverberg’s L.T. Woodward, M.D.’s Twilight Women, for the same publishers (Monarch and Lancer).
In a funny act of postmodern reflexivity, in the Andrew Shaw novel, Butch, a confused woman sees and buys Morse’s The Lesbian on a newsstand; after reading it, she realzies this is what she is and sets herself on a stange sexual journey (such references to other books is common in the Shaws and Sheldon Lords, plus a continuous ref. to a film/book, The Sound of Distant Drums).
So: a fake gender study influences a fictional character’s life path…this begs a question with moral and ethical undertones: did any actual women read The Lesbian at the time and were influenced by what was fiction masquerading as fact?
Back to Warm and Willing…
This certainly is Block’s style (another one, by Sheldon Lord, The Sisterhood, I’m not sure) and is set in Greenwich Village — so lush is the detail (and in other Block books) we know Block loves this part of New York, and lived there at the time (he may still).
The protagonist is Rhoda, 24, just out of a loveless marriage (usual set-up for many lesbian novels). Why did she marry? She thought that’s what young women do by age 22. But she did not care for sex, did not love her husband. She was “frigid.” She let her husband go out and have affairs.
She works in a gift shop in the Village, lives in a small room nerby, lives an uneventful, invisible existence until one day a 28-year-old blonde, Megan, comes in to buy a gift (for the woman she juts broke up with, we later find out). There is an odd connection. Megan comes back the next day and asks Rhoda out to lunch. Rhoda accepts, and she has no idea Megan is gay.
Later, Megan lures Rhoda up to her apartment on the West Side and plies Rhoda with scotch and proceeds to tell her that Rhoda probably doesn’t know, but the reason she could not enjoy sex with her ex-husband is because she’s a dyke, in the closet. Megan “knows.” Rhoda is shocked. But Rhoda lets Megan have sex with her and the doors to escstasy com flying open and Rhoda has never felt such “release” before.
She moves in with Megan. Megan is an interior decorator. They hang with a group of lesbians at lesbian-only Village bafrs and events. At a party one night, a tall woman, a trust fund baby, a 19 year old girl named Bobbie, dances with Rhoda all night because Megan does not like to dance. Megan gets very jealous.
Then Rhoda gets jealous of any woman that pays Megan attention. Soon the two are living in constant battle of distrust, they fight and argue, etc. They are like any straight couple: the same issues of insecurity and fear.
Megan turns to Bobbie for love, and moves in with Bobbie, and whioe it seems magical at the start, the two are worse than Rhoda was with Megan: constant fighting and jealousy.
Rhoda sees a lot of “disfunction” among the lesbian crowd: attempted suicides, infidelity, going from one meaningless relationsip to the next, hurt feelings…thinking she may have made a mistake, one week while Bobbie is out of town, Rhoda acceopts a dinner date with a man who comes in to the store. She decides she will sleep with him and find out if there is passion, if she’s not gay…
Now, this book was published in 1964 — had it been 10 years, five years earlier, the set-up would have been obvious and common: Rhoda would sleep with the guy, stars would fly, she’d fall in love and marry the man, denouncing her lesbian past. But that was for Beacon and Nightstand books…for Midwood, Block takes a funny turn –
Rhoda stops the man from sex, half way through foreplay. She admits to him that this was an experiment, but she says she feels nothing and does ot find the male sex attractive. She says she will go through with it for leading him on but he says no, he says, “Go away.”
So Rhoda leaves — back to her apartment with Bobbie, back to her lif as a realized, maybe empowered lesbian.
Well-written, well-crafted, maybe a tad slow in parts — I was disappointed that none of the Block/Shaw/Westlake/Marshall/Lord in jokes were absent from the text, but perhaops Jill Emerson, being a lesbian, did not hang with those “guys.”