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Porn, pseudo-porn or just bad smut? Add to ...

Elizabeth Renzetti Good morning, fellow eroticians. I sincerely hope that neither of you is eating an avocado for breakfast, because our discussion starts with the abuse of a fruit normally associated with guacamole rather than sexual ecstasy.

Helen Memel, the teenaged German heroine of Charlotte Roche's controversial new novel, Wetlands, uses avocados for her pleasure - as well as showerheads, toilet seats and handles of various descriptions.

What really sets Helen apart is the joy she finds in bodily secretions and effluvia - her own and everyone else's. When we meet Helen, she's about to have surgery on an anal lesion, the result of an unfortunate shaving accident. We are treated to an exhaustive tour of her hemorrhoids. As you both know, I'm scrimping on the details.

Those squishy, squelchy details are so lovingly examined that it was reported that some people in Germany fainted during Ms. Roche's readings, although I suspect that her publishers may be channelling the spirit of P.T. Barnum. Still, there's no doubt that this first novel by a 30-year-old former TV host sold half a million books in Germany and started loud debates about women, erotica and the idealization of femininity. And this week, it has been released in translation in Canada.

"It was just meant to be an honest book about the female body," Ms. Roche recently told a British interviewer.

Every few years, a woman writes a book that reminds us that older women like sex (Jane Juska's A Round-Heeled Woman), that call girls like sex ( The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, by the pseudonymous Belle de Jour), that even French women get lonely and crave a bit of action ( The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet).

Now, we learn that horny, proudly scabby German teens like sex. Should we be surprised?

Michael Valpy Milan Kundera said, "Eroticism is like a dance." Wetlands is more like smut, and I can't say I wanted to get up and waltz after all that orificial minutiae. We should resist paddling in the waters of This Book Has Deeper Meaning - although, having said that, there may be one or two faint resonances from post-structuralist Third Wave feminism, sex-positivity, Riot Grrrl and Elizabeth Wurtzel. (My tongue is not entirely in cheek: The decision by Helen Memel to get sterilized at 18 has, I think, a Riot Grrrl cast.)

The question then is whether it's bad smut or good smut. Likening the penis - her father's - to a "club" is bad smut. On the other hand, I learned things about anal sex that I didn't know.

Charlotte Roche, on her second husband at 30, has said the book is 70 per cent autobiographical. That makes her a scary person.

Tabatha Southey I don't think we should be too quick to blame the Germans for this particular bit of pseudo-porn; Charlotte Roche is British by birth. This is just typical overcompensating expatriate behaviour. Germans love this kind of scatological thing and she's trying to out-German them, poor thing. If history has taught us anything, it's that no good can come of a foreigner trying to out-German the Germans. Not that she's Austrian or anything, but it's a pretty bad book.

I can't see this as belonging to the Riot Grrrl tradition, Michael. It's a step backward in writing about women's sexuality because there's little sexual joy or playfulness here, unlike in, say, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., where she just wants what she wants.

The sex in Wetlands is mainly retaliatory sex. The heroine, Helen, inflicts endless risks on herself - wounding herself until she nearly bleeds to death, various vile infections, toxic-shock syndrome, arrest, reckless drug use and, oh yeah, sex - pretty much without distinction. It's closer to being a morality tale than to smut. Sadly. Other than the nose picking, we're not covering much new ground here - she masturbates, gets her period. It's less a sex book than it is Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret 2.0.

Her sexual encounters are less about pleasure than a need to rebel against her mother, and she explains that they're also motivated by her nearly pathological fear of being alone. This fear of being alone stems ( o tempora, o mores, o enough already) from her parents' divorce. And so despite the titillating promise of a sexual-adventuress-as-heroine, Wetlands' message is actually very puritanical.

I'd rather she had taken her admittedly odd desires and posted them on the German version of Craigslist. There's a passenger for every train, after all.

Renzetti I agree that there's nothing here so new that it requires smelling salts - doesn't anyone remember Canadian writer Marian Engel's novel Bear? That gave me the vapours (odourless variety). Wetlands is deeply unerotic, but I do like what she's saying, however unsubtly, about the whitewashing of women's sexuality.

In cinemas this summer, we had Sex and the City - allegedly feminism's endgame - and what did it give us? Samantha shrieking at Miranda's untrimmed pubic hairs as if she had just spotted a deadly bubo.

In Katherine Ashenburg's history of hygiene, The Dirt on Clean, she tells us that cleanliness was not next to horniness throughout most of history: "There's no evidence that the birth rate ever fell because people were too smelly for copulation."

We seem to be far from the days when Napoleon wrote to Josephine, "I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don't wash."

Southey With all due respect for Katherine Ashenburg's excellent book, it just might not have worked out between me and Napoleon. I love soap, hot water, steam, good perfume and, yes, girlie shaving cream. I've never felt oppressed to live in a era of good hygiene. Fluid-wise, I'm happy to start from scratch, so to speak. (Maybe Napoleon just lacked skills.)

Honestly, had the book been funny or sexy, none of Wetlands' inconsistencies would've bothered me, but what with all the ripping and the polyps, it's about as erotic as What to Expect When You're Expecting. Meanwhile, Helen puts makeup on her vagina, shaves everything and is nauseated by her own leg hair. So the author's claims are pretty questionable, beginning with her stated premise: "What if there was a woman who had no shame?"

Remember when Spike Lee did all those interviews for She's Gotta Have It and he eagerly explained that his concept for the film was, "What if there was a woman who liked sex as much as a man?" The obvious reaction was, "Wow! Was that an Isaac Asimov plot? So very science fiction, Spike!"

Wetlands feels like a bit of a throwback to that to me. Girls today are ahead of this book, way ahead. It's slightly less frank and certainly less witty than a thread on the sex-and-gossip site Jezebel.com.

Valpy Given that adults with happily integrated personalities aren't likely to buy Wetlands, maybe all that's left is to look at it as a sexual guide to the culture. Tabatha, you say girls today are way ahead of the book. Define "ahead."

Southey I would define "ahead" as being informed about all aspects of their bodies and their enjoyment of them. They go on the Internet or they talk to their friends and they ask, "Is this normal?" And then someone either says, "Yes" or, better still, "Who cares?"

This book is no more a sexual guide to the culture than the ubiquitous "teenagers hooking up" pieces that newspapers run on slow weeks. They are both meant to shock us and neither is really reflective of our culture.

Oh, and Liz, I so agree about Sex and the City, which is so deeply conventional, but I hardly see it as the feminist endgame. It's just shopping. I think women mostly know the difference between these two things and might even enjoy both.

Renzetti I think Roche at least deserves praise for sticking her real name on the jacket cover. We're supposed to be so hyper-liberated, writing blogs about spanking, reading books about wanking - but it's all under cover of night. The non-fiction memoirs of young women's sexuality - such as Confessions of a London Call Girl, Girl With a One-Track Mind and the new I-was-a-teenage-tart manifesto Scandalous - are written under pseudonyms.

There's a new collection of short erotic stories by top British women writers called In Bed With ... but you wouldn't know who the writers are, because they've written under pseudonyms such as Minxy Malone and Cassandra Bedwell. Apparently many writers were approached to contribute but declined, even though they were given the protection of pen names (or should that be peignoir names?).

And the covers of these books are painfully coy, all wistful line drawings of backsides clad in cute ruffled panties. God forbid that anyone on the subway should know you're reading smut.

Doesn't that suggest that we're all still a little Victorian at heart, no matter what our mouths say? The Victorians, after all, were the great purveyors of anonymous porn. They also knew that shame has an erotic power of its own, a lesson we pretend we've forgotten.

Valpy Yes, praise for Ms. Roche for using her real name. I Googled her photo; she looks elfin, as I expected.

One inevitably is drawn into considering what cultures produce what sorts of pornography. Here you have athletically secular societies like the Germans and the Brits producing Wetlands and spanking blogs - kind of giggling send-ups - while the religious Americans flood the Internet with solemn photos of two, three or four people boinking. You don't hear much these days about the French and Italians, although the most erotic painting I've ever seen is Parmigianino's Madonna of the Long Neck: It's the endlessly long, bare leg of a teenaged angel stretching up to a wisp of cloth at the groin.

Which brings me to our own culture in Canada. If you accept Harold Innis's theory of the significance of the voice at the margin of empire, we should be producing some of the world's most creative, out-of-the-box pornography, of which I've seen no indication. But I did look in the paper this morning to find an article about a pre-op transsexual in St. Catharines, Ont., filing a human-rights grievance over the rejection of her application to join a women's-only gym.

Southey I sincerely wish her the best of luck. What she's asking for has nothing to do with the gratification of a fetish. It's entirely different from a spanking - or an avocado.

Valpy I wasn't equating them. My point is that Canada is a rights culture - you look for international public statements on sexuality and you get Wetlands from Germany, spanking blogs from Britain, truckloads of Internet porn from the U.S. and human-rights action from Canada. (Oversimplified, I know, but I like contributing to our national mythologies.)

Southey As for Charlotte Roche - look, she's a very pretty, well-known German TV personality and this is her first book. I don't think her publishers would have touched Wetlands without her very-household name on it. Certainly it wouldn't have received the attention and the sales it's generating.

So yes, she deserves credit for putting her name on her book and a cute dress on her "elfin" frame and then doing a million interviews - for not being an idiot. On the other hand, she also deserves credit for the relentlessness of her book. Sure, it reads like a writing exercise. But as writing exercises go, it's a committed one, and I respect her for that.

Valpy As for pornographic anonymity, Liz, it could be that the authors just don't want to be identified with a spent genre. I was telling a young woman friend this morning about our discussion, and she replied: "Pornography is so Nineties. … Enough with Bridget Jones and her dildo." Maybe that's part of what Tabatha meant by young women being ahead of Wetlands.

Southey Recently, I sat for a while in the Musée d'Orsay, watching the faces of the people as they came around the corner and found themselves in front of Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World. The painting is hung, possibly deliberately, so that one can almost sit behind it, reviewing the ways in which the gallery strollers react as they're brought abruptly in front of Courbet's work - that is, in front of his model's mound of dark hair, her wanton yet exhausted spread legs and the lips of her vagina, beautiful and explicit. Even her left nipple, high up where her face might have been, were this a classic portrait, is one hell of a shocking nipple.

At nearly 150 years old, this painting still has immense power. It unsettles me. Some viewers approached it more closely, trying to look at it studiously; some stepped back; all of them had to make some effort toward composing themselves.

Periodically, a few nine-year-old boys rounded the corner, shrieked and ran away. And then glanced back. These boys probably have access to the Internet, yet this oil painting is still shocking to them. It's actually pornographic. It's intended to provoke us and it does. It feels like a victory for mankind. It's so open-ended that it demands a response from the viewer and in that demand lies the rather delicious confusion that makes a work genuinely erotic.

In a work like Wetlands, there's no room for the viewer. That room is something that pornography requires to be effective. Therefore, I think it fails as porn. We've already agreed that it fails as literature. It's not the explicitness of a work that crowds the viewer out. Most very hard-core works allow room for the viewer, but that is not a wavelength on which Ms. Roche is yet able to write. She lacks empathy - something I think Courbet must have had.

American film scholar Linda Williams, in her excellent book Hardcore, writes of pornography that "this most maligned and scapegoated of cultural forms is in desperate need of defence." I agree. Show me some actual porn and I'll defend it.

Renzetti Michael's question about the lack of Canadian pornography is interesting: We certainly have enough kinky filmmakers and visual artists - perhaps that's the problem: We're too twisted. Erotica demands a certain adherence to form. Or maybe it's out there and we just don't know it - maybe there's a whole subculture devoted to maple-flavoured body lotions and candy panties in the shape of Wilfrid Laurier.

Of course, we did have one famous volume, written by Lisa Kroniuk and called Masquerade: Fifteen Variations on a Sexual Fantasy. It didn't even crawl off the shelves until Pierre Berton admitted that he, in fact, was Lisa Kroniuk, and then it became a bestseller. That might be my favourite Canadian story of all time: People wanted to own pornography written by Pierre Berton.

Southey Actually, Montreal and also Toronto and, I believe, increasingly, Calgary now produce a fair amount of video porn. Although of course the overwhelming majority of the world's filmed porn is still made in the San Fernando Valley in California.

I wish I could say that it was made in Europe - that way I could say that it's because they have so many great daycare programs there, and then what we're talking about might be connected to an actual, vital feminist issue.

Renzetti Ah, there are so many vital feminist issues out there - like, what am I going to read in my 10 free minutes? I think we've agreed that it probably won't be Wetlands, especially if you plan to eat that day. But there are so many other places to turn - luscious pictures, lascivious blogs, lewd classics. I'm going to take Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint off the bookshelf to remind myself that there is a proper way to combine smut, humour and making love to food.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau, Michael Valpy is a Globe writer based in Toronto and Tabatha Southey writes the Tart column each week in Focus.

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