1993 - France: Virginie Despentes, "Baise-moi"
The Author was screenwriter and Director for the Film (2000)
1993 - China: Zhou Wei Hui "Shanghai Baby"
The Author was screenwriter for the Film (2007)
1999 - France: Christine Angot, L‘incest
2001 - France: Catherine Millet, "La vie sexuelle de Catherine M."
2002 – Canada: Nelly Arcan, "Putain“
In Germany with the title “Hure”
2002 - USA: Phoebe Gloeckner, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
2002 - Poland: Dorota Maslowska, Snow White and Russian Red
In Germany with the title "Schneeweiß und Russenrot"
2003 - Italy: Melissa Panarello, 100 colpi di spazzola prima di andare a dormire (One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed)
2004 – U.K.: Helen Walsh, "Brass“
In Germany with the title "Millie”
2005 – Norway: Edy Poppy, Anatomi, Monotoni
In Germany with the real name of the Author, Ragnhild Moe and the title „Die Hände des Cellisten”
In Italy: Anatomy, Monotony - Vie di fuga dall'amore
2005 – USA: Chelsea Handler, My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands
2005 - U.K.: Belle de Jour, The Intimate Adventures Of A London Call Girl
2005 - Brasil: Raquel Pacheco (or Bruna Surfistinha), "O Doce Veneno do Escorpião: o Diário de uma Garota de Programa"
In the U.K. with the title "The Scorpion's Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl"
In Germany with the title: „Das süße Gift des Skorpions”
2006 - USA: Diablo Codi (real name: Brook Busey), "Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper"
In Germany with the title “Nackt”
Her Screenplay for „Juno“ won the Oscar in 2008
2006 – UK: Abby Lee (real name: Zoe Margolis), "Girl with a One-track Mind: Confessions of the Seductress Next Door”
2006 - Russia: Oksana Robski, "Casual, A Novel"
2007 - USA: Miranda July, "No One Belongs Here More Than You"
In Germany with the title "Zehn Wahrheiten"
2007 - Sweden: Maria Sveland - "Bitterfittan"
In Germany with the title "Bitterfotze"
2007 - Israel: Iris Bahr, "Dork Whore"
In Germany with the title "Moomlatz oder wie ich versuchte in Asien meine Unschuld zu verlieren"
2008 – Germany: Rebecca Martin, "Frühling und so"
2008 - Germany: Charlotte Roche, „Feuchtgebiete“
In the U.K., "Wetlands"
2008 – USA - Deirdre Dare – Expat Online
2010 - USA - Karen F. Owen - The F...- List
Sunday 18 January 2009
Most people expect Virginie Despentes to be angry. Perhaps they have seen the film she directed nine years ago, Baise-moi, a highly explicit rampage of sex and violence where a man gets beaten to death by two women simply for wanting to wear a condom.
Perhaps they have read the 1994 novel it was based on, also called Baise-moi, in which the two rage-fuelled anti-heroines shoot dead a three-year-old child in a sweet shop. Perhaps they know from interviews that Despentes was raped at 17 and that, for a brief time afterwards, she earned her living as a prostitute. "Rape creates the best hookers," she writes in her new book, King Kong Theory. "Once opened by force, they sometimes retain a sort of skin-level burnished quality that men like."
Whatever the reason, people expect the 39-year-old Despentes to be wild-eyed and furious. But the woman who buzzes me into her flat on the outskirts of Barcelona speaks in hesitations and half-smiles. She seems nervous, almost girlish, twirling strands of her shoulder-length dirty blond hair as she talks. She smokes a constant stream of Chesterfields, but not before asking if I mind. An excitable pitbull terrier called Pepa skitters around the parquet floor. I thought you were going to be terrifying, I say. "I know," she replies. "I get that a lot. But I can be conflicted. Most of the time, I am quite calm and shy." Is she less angry than she used to be? "No," she says, with a short, dry chuckle. "Anger must be my essential component."
Baise-moi (translation: Fuck Me) lit the touchpaper for a new movement of French extremism in cinema and literature. The movie, which starred two former porn actresses, proved so shocking that it became the first film in France to be banned for 28 years and was only released after an outcry from anti-censorship campaigners.
With its depictions of graphic sex and nihilistic violence, the film has become the visual mascot of a new wave of hardcore feminism in France that seeks to subvert traditionally male boundaries with a savage and frequently uncomfortable honesty. Just as French women have begun to emerge in the political arena - Ségolène Royal was the first female presidential candidate in 2007; almost half the members of Sarkozy's cabinet are women - so they have also started to demolish cultural stereotypes.
In her 2002 memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, the author Catherine Millet details with unflinching precision her childhood experiences of masturbation and her adult predilection for group sex. Her new book, Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M, examines the debilitating nature of her own envy when she discovered her husband was also having affairs. It, too, describes her masturbation fantasies, but neither work was written to titillate a male audience. "For me, a pornographic book is functional, written to help you to get excited," she explains. "If you want to speak about sex in a novel or any 'ambitious' writing, today, in the 21st century, you must be explicit. You cannot be metaphorical any longer."
Similarly, Catherine Breillat's 1999 film Romance blurs the line between porn and erotic provocation, taking sexual images out of their usual context and making them deliberately unappealing - a woman's genitalia, for instance, is filmed as she gives birth. "People asked why I filmed the birth face-on," said Breillat. "I say: 'Because you're asking me that question.'" Despentes puts it another way: "The point is not to be shocking but to change the shape of things."
France has a long tradition of writers and artists who have propagated their own challenging visions of sexuality - from the Marquis de Sade's sadomasochistic reveries to Georges Bataille's explorations of the ambiguity of sex as a subversive force in Blue of Noon. More recently, Michel Houellebecq's work has included unsparing descriptions of sexual conquest.
But it is only relatively recently that women have felt able to tackle these same themes in public. As late as 1954, Story of O, an erotic novel of dominance and submission written by Anne Desclos, was published under a pseudonym. In 1968, while students were shouting Marxist slogans from the barricades, French women were still not allowed to wear trousers to work, and wives required their husband's permission to open a bank account.
The paradoxical relationship between misogyny and liberality in France meant that when Despentes broke through the gender divide, she did so in spectacular style. Baise-moi blazed the trail for other female artists who sought to shatter cultural and sexual taboos, including the director Claire Denis, whose 2001 film Trouble Every Day depicts a female cannibal sated only when she consumes the bodies of her ill-fated lovers. Less brutal, and yet equally revealing in its own muted fashion, Christine Jordis's 2005 novel Rapture was a candid account of erotic love and sexual abandon. The intention of these women, it seems, is to reappropriate the traditionally male preserves of sex, pornography and aggression by bringing them firmly into the female sphere.
Despentes's new book, King Kong Theory, gives them a manifesto. Part memoir, part political pamphlet, it is a furious condemnation of the "servility" of enforced femininity and was a bestseller in France - the title refers to her contention that she is "more King Kong than Kate Moss". Superficial femininity, she argues, must be challenged so that women become free to act as they really are, rather than how their menfolk most want them to appear. It also deals with Despentes's experience of rape. In 1986, when she and a female friend were hitch-hiking back from Paris to their home town of Nancy, the two girls were picked up by three men who attacked them. Despentes explains that while many rape victims respond by feeling misplaced guilt - as though they brought the attack on themselves by being too conspicuously female; as though their mere survival indicated they somehow "wanted it" - her conscious response was anger. She chose fury. That was how she coped.
It is no coincidence that Manu, one of the two female protagonists in Baise-moi, is brutally raped by three men before embarking on her indiscriminate killing spree. Her reaction is the traditionally male response of undiluted aggression. "Girls are never, never taught to be violent," says Despentes. "We are accustomed to seeing women being killed [in films], being really afraid, covered in blood. I think it's good to see the counterpoint."
Femininity, she says, has had to become harmless in order to reassure a 21st-century masculinity that finds itself in crisis. So that "ugly women" or threatening women, women who are too aggressive or ambitious, violent women who kill on a whim, women who choose to sell sex for a living, are deliberately sidelined and ignored. According to Despentes, they are not part of the socially acceptable face of femaleness. "There should be dozens of movies showing lots of violent, angry, sexually active women getting really wild," she says, taking a languid drag on her cigarette.
Not everyone agrees. When the film of Baise-moi was released, it was almost universally denounced as crude, profane and "tediously bleak". One reviewer described it as "Thelma & Louise as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt". In 2005 the critic James Quandt wrote an influential article for Artforum in which he coined the term "New French Extremity" and described the current vogue for French hardcore cinema as a determination "to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation and defilement".
Although Breillat, Despentes, Denis, Millet and their peers might claim their work has a philosophical or artistic rationale, how far can one intellectualise exploitation? Is pornographic content any more acceptable for being played out in the guise of the political? Is indiscriminate violence on film or in books any more justified for supposedly being a comment on female empowerment? "These women are operating in a traditionally male milieu," says Ginette Vincendeau, a professor of film studies at King's College, London, "and the price they have to pay is to tone their feminism down, so they make films that explore sexuality and sexual difference but are not threatening to the male establishment. There is something in there for the men to enjoy too, if you like."
The killing in Baise-moi is depicted as a cartoonish, randomised cruelty that makes minimal narrative sense. The sex scenes, too, often seem to sail rather too close to the pornographic objectification they are meant to be challenging. "The comparison is surprising to me," says Despentes when I put this to her. "I didn't meet many men who told me how excited they were by Baise-moi. Excitement is not the point of it."
And yet, in King Kong Theory, she derides the trend for "hooker chic" - for adolescents to dress in provocatively adult clothes. Does she acknowledge that her own work, with its gun-toting females in G-strings and leopard print, has its part to play in glamorising precisely this sort of teenage behaviour? Her reply is unequivocal. "If young people were really influenced by movies, we would be in real trouble. You don't go out of a movie and do what you've just seen."
Despentes insists her work is a challenge to the unquestioned supremacy of the male viewpoint in both film and literature. As opposed to using female porn stars as wordless vehicles of male lust - their faces out of shot, their dialogue restricted to orgasmic grunts - both Despentes and Breillat deliberately put them at the centre of their work. They become active participants: in charge of the action, rather than subjected to it. In the literary sphere, Millet and Jordis choose to explore the female sexual experience rather than the male - in part, their work is shocking because we are so unused to hearing a woman speak about sex like a man.
In this respect, the new French feminists have been influenced by the existentialist philosophies of Simone de Beauvoir. "Man today represents the positive and the neutral," de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, "whereas woman is only the negative, the female." The Belgian-born philosopher Luce Irigaray carries this one step further: "One must assume the feminine role deliberately, which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to thwart it."
Beyond the theorising, however, there lies the simpler goal of showing things as they really are. After centuries of concealment within the dark folds of patriarchy, these women seek to reclaim their space and illuminate their experience. Just as Despentes decries the social pressure for "ugly women" to prettify themselves in King Kong Theory, so Baise-moi deliberately set out to depict the sexual act in its myriad forms. It might disturb rather than arouse, and it might challenge rather than comfort, but at least it does not patronise us with the soft-focus romantic myth peddled by the mainstream. In Intimacy, the 2001 movie adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel, the French director Patrice Chéreau filmed several explicit sex scenes, including one that depicts the heroine, Claire, fellating her lover. Kerry Fox, the actress who played Claire, said she was drawn to the part precisely because "I felt the way that sex was represented [in traditional cinema] was very false. It is not an artist's duty to shock. Shock might be a by-product but it is an artist's duty to portray reality. It's about encouraging people to understand others in a way they haven't before."
Back in Barcelona, the ashtray on Virginie Despentes's living room table is half full of crumpled cigarette butts. As I leave, she is powdering her face with a small mirrored compact in preparation for the photograph. Despentes is, as she admits, a contradictory mass of different characteristics. She can be angry and yet she can be sweet; tough yet fragile; she can decry enforced femininity and yet she can care enough to put on make-up for a photograph. She is, like her characters, a woman of multiple facets. For all the controversy generated by the new wave of French feminism, maybe this is what lies at its heart: the permission for women to be themselves, however conflicted they might be and however uneasily it sits with conventional notions of what it is to be female. It is the permission, perhaps, for a woman to be more King Kong than Kate Moss.
King Kong Theory is published by Serpent's Tail
February 1, 2009
Feminist slant for female erotica writers
A nod in Andrea Dworkin's direction and possibly killing off a male character allows women to escape the tag of peddling porn
It is vitally important, if you are a woman writing bodice-ripping, moist-patched, ultra-explicit porno erotica, to give it a bit of a feminist slant if you wish to be taken seriously. If you do that, you can write pretty much any old rubbish and the critical plaudits will burst through the soft, yielding . . . well, on second thoughts, let’s not do the simile. Instead of being condemned as a cheapjack book slut pandering to male fantasies, you will be profiled in the serious press, with a photograph of you dressed demurely, and women will not be ashamed to be seen reading your book on the Tube. Feminist websites will praise you for “provoking debate in intellectual circles” and claim your book “does not intend to function as porn” (even though it sort of is porn).
You don’t even have to make it very feminist, just a quick nod in the general direction of Andrea Dworkin and Erica Jong, or, better still, Valerie Solanas (she of the short-lived Society for Cutting up Men). Here’s a good idea — pander to male fantasies for ages, then have the man killed off, preferably in a horrible fashion, by the female narrator, who suddenly realises she has been degraded, not only by this particular man, but by patriarchal society as a whole. This ploy worked a real treat for Helen Zahavi, whose Dirty Weekend was a scandalous success back at the turn of the 1990s. Zahavi’s female characters had all sorts of sex with all sorts of men, but then tortured and killed them — feminist slant, you see? What you might call very affirmative action. Dworkin dutifully praised the book as being “real”, presumably because all the men in it were vile. Dirty Weekend was later made into a film by my bra-burning, radical-feminist fellow Sunday Times columnist Michael Winner. That’s how feminist it was.
It’s a compelling formula, however: explicit sex, followed by some misbegotten, gory revenge, still sells well and is still capable of generating positive press, as you will see by the success in France of Virginie Despentes’s nasty little novel Baise-Moi. (That’s “F*** Me” in French, which is useful to know if you’re planning a booze cruise to Calais in the near future, although I always think it is polite to add “s’il vous plaît”.) This is Thelma & Louise as rewritten by a semiliterate psychopath, an orgy of explicit sex and indiscriminate violence. Despentes was sure to tell all the interviewers who came knocking that she had once been raped herself. Ah, right, we understand, love — that’s awful. Hence the extreme violence: we get it. That’s all okay, then.
It is not absolutely necessary actually to kill the men: you can simply dehumanise them and treat them as sex objects. That commends itself to the critics just as well. Those quotes up above about “provoking debate” and not functioning as porn were taken from a radical-feminist website in its review of Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, a huge porno succès de scandale in France (and later here) at the turn of this century. This tiresome, boring and very French drivel was praised for its bravery, for its candour, for its “exploration” of female sexuality, whereas in reality it was simply a rather strange lady shagging her way through the whole of Paris and mostly enjoying it. The men here were simply incidental creatures, sort of cartoon penises on legs.
Women writing porno stuff was once a remarkable thing, an occasion of shock, outrage and thrill; and, though it is commonplace enough these days, there is still a lot of publicity to be had if the stuff has been marketed cleverly. Women were a little late to the game, so to speak — let’s call it girl lag — and the pioneers of female erotic fiction are regarded with reverence for their bravery and candour. Anaïs Nin, for example, is held by many feminists in the highest esteem, while her, uh, close associate and collaborator, Henry Miller, is still regarded as a misogynist. Nin’s writings are arguably more exploitative than Miller’s, and there is surely no doubt as to who was the greater literary talent.
A generation or so before Nin, there was the American Kate Chopin, who was simultaneously shunned by polite society and revered by feminist intellectuals for The Awakening. Yet, despite its undoubted bravery for the time (1899), it is difficult to find much within that is erotic.
It’s a bit naughty, maybe, here and there. Opinion on Chopin — a fine writer — has been revised once again, downward, on account of her somewhat unenlightened approach towards the race issue. It’s no use pushing back the boundaries in one direction if you allow them to hem you in from another, I suppose.
It was, as you might expect, French women who, with a willingness for the time that seemed quite remarkable and refreshing, first got their kit off in print. Pauline Réage’s Story of O, published in 1954, led to an obscenity trial against the publishers. Even in France, the notion of a woman writing about sadomasochistic sex — and, indeed, much, much more — was not met with universal approval. Even today, one might add. This was another case of girl lag: Story of O owed a lot to Georges Bataille’s earlier compendium of pretentious French filth, Story of the Eye, but was even more shocking because of the gender of the writer. Perhaps wisely, Réage kept herself hidden and anonymous, ’fessing up to having written the book only 15 years ago, not long before her death.
Only five years after Réage went into print, a French-Indochinese woman called Marayat Bibidh published an entertainingly explicit account of her own sexual inquisitiveness, which stretched to oral sex with pubescent rickshaw wallahs in Bangkok and the first literary evocation of what it meant to be in the “mile-high club”. Bibidh adopted the name Emmanuelle Arsan, and her book, Emmanuelle, was made into a predictably exploitative film in the mid-1970s. I still remember Emmanuelle, the book, being passed feverishly around the sixth form back in the late 1970s, with nudges and sly, knowing winks.
Among the boys, at least — the girls who could read preferred Jong’s “zipless f***” and her novel Fear of Flying, or The Prostitution Papers by Kate Millett, and anything by that new cool chick on the scene, Kathy Acker. This was clever, sharp, hardline 1970s feminism, which may well have paved the way for the drivel of Catherine M and Zahavi, but scarcely deserved to be saddled with such a responsibility.
These novels paved the way, too, for an endless multitude of exploitative books by women that make no pretence at carrying any sort of message or revealing an unspoken truth; books that cater for every possible sexual combination, position, flavour, perversion. Do you know what a “ponygirl” is? There are quite a few women out there writing ponygirl fiction. I assumed it must be the sort of nice, well-bred young women John Betjeman once lusted over in his poems. But it isn’t. It’s women who like to act like ponies. I’m telling you, I don’t get the attraction, but then maybe I’m getting too old.
Lisa Hilton 2:12pm
Literary news this week suggests that when it comes to women writing about sex, reviewers are still reacting in the same way as Dr Johnson to his walking dog, surprised that it’s being done at all. So hats off to Charlotte Roche, who has managed to give both the Sunday Times and the Guardian the willies by cheerfully confessing to consuming pornography with her husband and starting her book Wetlands with a graphic discussion of hemorrhoids.
Male reviewers seem barely to have moved on from the mentality of the Chatterley trial: anything which disturbs or shocks them must be dismissed as pornography. Thus Rod Liddle (who presumably wouldn’t want his servants reading Wetlands) fulminates against dim feminist critics who interpret the ramblings of “cheapjack book sluts” as serious art. In the Standard, David Sexton slags off the offerings of Faye Weldon and Rachel Johnson in the short story volume In Bed With... whilst claiming that a new edition of My Secret Life, the sexual memoir of a Victorian gentleman, reveals its author “Walter” to be a surprisingly modern writer.
If women are so bad at erotic writing, though, where are the male masters of the genre? I had four English graduates to dinner last night and we couldn’t come up with anyone decent except Rochester and Cleland. De Sade only works if you don’t read him (the bad boy of Victorian poetry, Swinburne, upheld the Divine Marquis as “the apostle of perfection” until he arranged a reading of Justine and his guests fell about with laughter. Presumably, as an old Etonian, Algernon felt he knew a thing or two about flogging.) In the Twentieth Century, the Great American Novelists, Roth, Mailer and Updike, just got plain embarrassing in their dotage. They can’t hold a candle to Pauline Reage, Anais Nin, Alina Reyes or Catherine Millet, whose prose Mr Liddle perhaps didn’t appreciate in translation, but whose “rather strange” predilection for “shagging her way through the whole of Paris” clearly put the wind up him.
Writing off writing women should be an old man’s game by now. Yet the reception of Wetlands suggests that when it comes to writing about sex, the chaps are perturbed enough to maintain that nice girls still shouldn’t.
'It should make you blush'
People have fainted at public readings of Charlotte Roche's debut novel Wetlands, which makes The Vagina Monologues sound tame. But is it a daring feminist work or just puerile porn? Decca Aitkenhead meets her
Saturday 17 January 2009
Feuchtgebiete, which translates as Wetlands, or Moist Patches, is the debut novel from Charlotte Roche. As it opens, we find 18-year-old narrator Helen Memel in hospital, after an accident shaving her intimate parts. The remainder of the book plays out entirely on the proctology ward where, in between ruminating on her haemorrhoids and sexual proclivities, Helen asks her male nurse to photograph her wound, tries to seduce him, and hides under her bed to masturbate. She has an insatiable, childlike curiosity about the sight and smell and taste of bodies, especially her own. She is also exuberantly promiscuous. Hygiene, she reflects, "is not a major concern of mine". When she uses public toilets, she likes to rub her vagina around the lavatory seat, and she has experimented with "long periods of not washing my pussy", to investigate its erotic impact - dabbing her own personal pubic perfume behind her earlobes. "It works wonders from the moment you greet someone with a kiss on each cheek."
Wetlands became a literary sensation when it was published in Germany last year, selling well over half a million copies - the first German book to top Amazon's global bestseller list. Audience members have fainted at public readings, and comparisons have been drawn to JG Ballard's Crash, The Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. It makes The Vagina Monologues sound like Listen With Mother. Helen's oblivion to bodily shame and all the normal conventions that govern female sexuality make the novel both shocking and funny - but critical opinion is divided on what it represents. To some, Helen is a daring, feminist heroine, to others the book is a work of puerile pornography - in the words of one German newspaper, "a masturbation pamphlet". The debate has certainly been electrified - and possibly obscured - by the fact that Wetlands' author is a famous and beautiful young TV presenter.
Roche, 30, was born in High Wycombe, but moved with her British parents to Germany as a young child, and has been a national celebrity there since her teens, presenting music and culture shows. We meet in her home city of Cologne, and although she speaks with only the faintest trace of a foreign accent, vocabulary often escapes her. "English people always think I'm a disabled person," she laughs, "because I sound English, but then I don't know really simple words." In person she is dainty, almost exaggeratedly ladylike, and much more playfully ambivalent than the public debate about her book. "Some people don't actually get the humour," she marvels, smiling, "but, for me, writing it was laugh out loud."
Wetlands, Roche says, had originally been intended as a serious polemic against the tyranny of female sexual hygiene. "The first idea I had was a nonfictional thing against chemicals. People think the smell and the slime and the liquid in the vagina are dirt, and they have to get rid of it. But it's like in the nose - you need the liquid. They think they have to shower three times a day, and then they ruin the body's own barriers.
"But then I thought it would be too much like a teacher talking at them, this TV host telling them" - she wags a finger - "'That's the way I want you to treat your vagina.' And so I thought maybe it's better to have someone who can do all those things who wasn't me, and that's when Helen was invented. It was much more fun. I was sitting there laughing. I didn't know that all these things were in my head."
The only difficult part was inventing new names for the components of female genitalia - such as "pearl trunk" for the clitoris, and "lady fingers" for labia. "I thought, 'Right, I've got to think about what it looks like, what I can compare it to.' With self-confident women, everyone thinks, 'Oh, you don't have to worry about them', we seem to be very strong and open about everything. But when it comes to the vagina, we're not at all open yet. When I talk to people, they never talk to their best friends about any of this, how they masturbate, what they like. And there is lots of stuff in the book that I am embarrassed about myself, tons and tons. The big misunderstanding is that people think, 'OK, if someone writes a book like this she must be the coolest sex maniac, not ashamed of anything, running around naked, going rarrrrghh!' And it's exactly the opposite, of course."
Roche's mother was a feminist, the sort of mum who talked about contraception and allowed her daughter to have sex at home from an early age. "But I would see as a guest in other families that there's something going completely wrong between mothers and daughters, with the mothers teaching the daughters that the vagina is something dirty." Roche's mother didn't talk to her about masturbation, though, "or teach me that is a good thing for a girl to do. She had a very posh mother; my grandmother in Wimbledon is like a 50s perfect housewife, teaching my mother to lie in bed with her hands on the blanket so she didn't touch herself. My mother read tons of books to learn all this stuff, but I think it's more like an artificial emancipation than something you really believe in. In my generation it's sinking in more, because you actually believe it."
When the book was originally rejected by a German publisher on the grounds of being pornographic, Roche insisted to them that it was no such thing. But she admits the defensiveness was somewhat disingenuous. "I wanted to write about female sexuality and go into detail very strongly. And I wanted it to be funny and light to read. So I definitely wrote a few scenes in the book to make people horny. For the reader it should make you sort of blush and get warm, like when you watch a scene like that on TV."
If Wetlands is pornographic, it has certainly subverted the genre. The defining feature of most pornography is the excision of any element of the body judged less than flawlessly alluring - whereas Roche likes to follow an account of Helen's favourite masturbatory technique, involving a shower head, with a description of the bilious, postoperative smell her bowels are emitting, "like warm pus mixed with diarrhoea and something acidic". She wanted to integrate the erotic with the scatological and menstrual (Helen fashions homemade tampons out of toilet paper), and present a woman's body in its unedited entirety. Roche is disappointed that women readers admit only under duress that they found the book erotic - "You have to beat them up to get them to say it!" - but men apparently always volunteer their arousal. "Men, they say the erection grows," she grins, "and then it falls again. It grows and falls again. So it works!"
It's not always clear, however, whether Helen is sexually liberated, or slightly mad. When not trying to seduce the nurse, she is preoccupied by a childish fantasy that if she can only get her long divorced parents' hospital visits to coincide, they will get back together again. Panicking that she may be discharged before engineering their reunion, she forcibly ruptures her wound to prolong her stay - a feat of self-harm almost unreadable for its violence, and ultimate futility. A feminist critique might question why Roche has created a character who seems to conform to the old notion that sexual liberation always comes at the price of instability.
"But I would say everybody is damaged," Roche responds. "Everybody I know is damaged, completely. I always get very upset when people say, 'Oh, Helen had a bad childhood, she's crazy, and that's why she's sexually obsessed by stuff.' Yes, she had a sad childhood, but that's also made her very special somehow, she knows exactly what she wants, she doesn't want to play any games, she gets rid of all these rules women normally have. I think as a healthy human being you could see in the book what you could copy to have a fun sex life, and what you shouldn't copy because you'd probably die of a bacterium shock."
Another way of reading it could be as an allegory about the self-destructive consequences of women's obsession with shaving. Roche agrees that everything goes wrong for Helen because she tries to shave her own anus. But why, if Helen is so liberated, does she shave at all?
"Yes, you're right, it would have been more logical if she had had hair. But you see, the book started off very political. But then it got very unpolitical, it just happened."
Shaving has always been a major preoccupation for Roche. Ten years ago she decided to stop shaving her armpits. "Looking back, I think, how brave, what an amazing thing to do on TV, aged 20. Brilliant! I was on TV with tank tops on, and you could see the bundle of hair sticking out. It's probably one of the worst things a woman can possibly do: it really is as if you are a witch; people want to burn you for it. I got emails, especially from females, saying that what I was doing was disgusting and that they wouldn't watch my show. It was written about in the press, and taken the piss out of on other late-night shows. They would stick wigs under their arms and go, 'Hah hah hah, who am I?'"
Eventually she began shaving again, just "to get rid of the issue", and still does. "At the moment I just feel the pressure so strongly, and I don't understand why it's there. So I want to talk about it." At public readings women often tell her they daren't have sex with their husbands if they have not shaved their legs for one day. "They think they are so unsexy - they think they are not a woman - because of that one millimetre of hair. It's just so crazy! And young men say to me, 'Your book starts off with this woman shaving her bum hole. Why does she do that? Women don't have hair there.'" She shakes her head in amazement, laughing. "They fall for the whole shaving myth."
The expectation of pubic and genital depilation has been widely attributed to its prevalence in contemporary pornography. When I point this out, though, Roche says quickly: "Yes, but I am very much for pornography. And I think they should be shaved in porn films. It makes sense, for close-ups, so you can see everything. Otherwise you would just have two hair bushes knocking into each other. I consume pornography with my husband, we like it very much. For us it's like a substitute for having a joint, the children are in bed, 'Oh, we're going to watch some porn', we'll probably have sex afterwards, which is a different kind of sex to sex you'd have without having watched porn. It's just like some sexual input - relaxing, grown-up stuff.
"I was always very jealous of the women in porn films, though," she adds, "because I look very different naked to the porn actresses, and I would always think my husband would prefer somebody like that. It took ages for me to understand that they are there in their crazy little porn world, and have nothing to do with us and our life."
The fascination in Germany has inevitably centred on how closely Helen's sex life resembles Roche's own. Her celebrity status in that country locates her here somewhere between perhaps Davina McCall and Jo Whiley, either of whom would excite a high degree of personal intrigue were they to write a novel whose opening page announced, "I can come with just a cock up my ass." The important autobiographical theme, however, according to Roche, is not sexual but familial.
Her father, like Helen's, was an engineer - he built factories for Mars in Germany - and her parents divorced when she was five. "Like all children of divorce," her poignant prologue reads, "I want to see my parents back together." She made them both promise not to read the book, and has since wondered whether subconsciously it was the protagonist's preoccupation with divorce she wanted to protect them from.
"I'd thought it's because of the sexual stuff, but it's such a nasty thing for my parents to read because every page is, 'Why did they get divorced?' It's a massive thing in my life that my parents' home broke up. For me it's a very strong problem; somehow I don't feel that I have roots anywhere. I also think it's why I'm a TV host, to get the applause to compensate for something I didn't have in childhood. Which is a very sad thing."
Seconds later, though, Roche switches from psychotherapeutic solemnity to hilarity when I suggest that she probably didn't want her father to read Helen's fantasies about sleeping with her dad either. "Oh yeah, I forgot about that! Urgh! That's disgusting! That's the real reason why! And then," she giggles, "yes, because maybe my father wants to, too! He'd say," she puts on a deep, fatherly voice, "'Yes, Charlotte, I've also been wondering for years.' And then we have a big problem! And we have to! Urghh!" She clasps her arms around her, squirming with laughter.
A lot of the critical confusion about how to read the book probably stems from Roche's appealing determination not to be "an author who takes herself too seriously". But it is, for all the humour, a serious feminist book. Roche has a five-year-old daughter, and so I ask if she hopes she will grow up to share Helen's relationship with her own body.
"Some aspects, oh yes. The using the liquid as a perfume? Yeah. Brilliant! The men I know, privately, they all love the smell of the vagina. I grew up with only jokes that the vagina smells of dead fish, which is the worst smell you can think of. So I was always wondering, why do men like oral sex with women? It's only recently that I've thought the fish jokes have got nothing to do with the normal man and what he likes. I would love my daughter to have fun with her body and be happy in her body."
Wetlands publishes in the UK next month, and Roche looks forward to seeing how it will be received by a public who have not heard of her. "In Germany the critics can say, 'It's a famous woman talking about vaginas - of course it's going to sell.'" But when people ask her what Helen looks like, "I always say," she smiles wickedly, "exactly like me!
"When it started off, I was afraid people would think it's me, but it's also fun. It gives me a sense of strength. Men think they can be disgusting and sexual and stuff, and now I've shown them that women can do the same. When I walk into a pub now, and I see men saying, 'Look, that's Charlotte Roche', it's as if I've stolen something from them. I like that feeling."
June 6, 2008
By NICHOLAS KULISH
TEGERNHEIM, Germany — Not many literary readings are restricted to an over-18 audience. Fewer still take place under circus tents. Yet nothing could be more appropriate for the scandalous German best-seller “Wetlands,” by a television personality and author, Charlotte Roche.
With her jaunty dissection of the sex life and the private grooming habits of the novel’s 18-year-old narrator, Helen Memel, Ms. Roche has turned the previously unspeakable into the national conversation in Germany. Since its debut in February, the novel (“Feuchtgebiete,” in German) has sold more than 680,000 copies, becoming the only German book to top Amazon.com’s global best-seller list.
The book, which will be published next year in the United States, is a headlong dash through every crevice and byproduct, physical and psychological, of its narrator’s body and mind. It is difficult to overstate the raunchiness of the novel, and hard to describe in a family newspaper.
“Wetlands” opens in a hospital room after an intimate shaving accident. It gives a detailed topography of Helen’s hemorrhoids, continues into the subject of anal intercourse and only gains momentum from there, eventually reaching avocado pits as objects of female sexual satisfaction and — here is where the debate kicks in — just possibly female empowerment.
The subject has struck a nerve here, catching a wave of popular interest in renewing the debate over women’s roles and image in society.
With its female chancellor, Angela Merkel, and progressive reputation, Germany would hardly seem to be thirsting for such a discussion. Yet, Germany has an old-fashioned tendency to expect women to choose between careers and motherhood rather than trying to accommodate both.
Last year, another German television personality provoked a storm of controversy about the role of women by suggesting that they should stay home to raise their children, and then referring approvingly to the Nazi policy of encouraging German women to have large families.
Beyond the historical land mines, there are also measurable gender-equality problems in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. Of the 27 European Union members, Germany is tied with Slovakia as third worst in the wage gap between men and women, with women earning 22 percent less, a figure surpassed only by Cyprus and Estonia.
So the topic is being debated in every newspaper and magazine in Germany right now. The discussion has been amplified by two nonfiction books about young women, the more traditional “New German Girls” and “We Alpha-Girls.”
A provocative female rapper in Germany, Lady Bitch Ray, who runs her own independent label, Vagina Style Records, grabbed headlines when she accused Ms. Roche of stealing her explicit form of empowering raunch. “I am what’s in the book,” said the rapper, 27, whose real name is Reyhan Sahin, in a telephone interview.
Germans have been accused, on occasion, of overanalyzing. Sometimes a funny, dirty book is just a funny, dirty book, but not this one, according to its author.
Ms. Roche, 30, has long identified herself as a feminist and, in a vein first explored in 1960s-era American feminism, describes the book as a cri de coeur against the oppression of a waxed, shaved, douched and otherwise sanitized women’s world.
Newspapers here have contrasted her unhygienic, free-spirited fictional heroine to an American-import model of womanhood: the stable of plucked, pencil-thin contestants on “Germany’s Next Top Model,” a popular reality show hosted by the German supermodel Heidi Klum.
But Ms. Roche told the audience here that her inspiration for the book came not from those women, but from the feminine-product aisle of her local store. Peeking out at the audience from under dark brown bangs, speaking in a childish voice that accentuated her transgressions against propriety, Ms. Roche explained, to howls of laughter, how the lemon-scented products called out to her in uncensored terms that she was, as the commercials put it, not so fresh, or at least not fresh enough.
“It’s not feminist in a political sense, but instead feminism of the body, that has to do with anxiety and repression and the fear that you stink, and this for me is clearly feminist, that one builds confidence with your own body,” Ms. Roche, the mother of a young daughter and more serious in person than onstage, said last week in an interview after her reading here.
Ms. Roche’s critics say that it is just a modern spin on not shaving your legs, this time for the genital-waxing generation. Meanwhile, sex sells and tends to grab the spotlight. As a result, a debate that might more profitably center on career counselors and day care is instead mired in old questions about sexual liberation.
With this in mind, critics have asked what practical help a book like “Wetlands” can offer, and even whether, by hyper-sexualizing the main character, it represents an all-too-familiar commercial ploy rather than a step forward.
“The combination of pornography and feminism is old, and was already a favorite marketing strategy for Playboy in the ’70s,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s best-known feminist and founder of the magazine EMMA, modeled in part on Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine, in an e-mail message responding to questions about the recent books. “Right now we’re living through another revival.”
Those revivals come along fairly frequently — think the porn star turned “sex educator,” Annie Sprinkle, Madonna and Eve Ensler of “The Vagina Monologues” — with varying degrees of relevance to feminism.
“When a woman breaks a taboo, it is automatically incorporated into the feminism debate, whether it really belongs there or not,” said Ingrid Kolb, a German writer and longtime feminist.
While her generation in Europe and America grappled with many of the same issues in the early 1970s, there are differences, said Ms. Kolb, 67. For instance, the extremity of the beauty cult, particularly with surgery, was nowhere near what it is today.
The notion of sexiness and sexual frankness as feminism — pop empowerment, if you will — is well established on both sides of the Atlantic. As in the United States, “Sex and the City” roared past the new “Indiana Jones” movie for the top spot at the German box office last weekend.
“Wetlands” is something different. It is far more anatomical and scatological than erotic. In the interview, Ms. Roche said she wrote scenes specifically to build up arousal, only to bury them again in the repulsive. Lost in the whole hubbub is also a very sad story about a young woman who has undergone family traumas, the emotional core of the novel.
The event had something of a circus atmosphere. Some 200 fans showed up at the yellow-and-red-striped tent, paying more than $25 each to hear Ms. Roche read and answer questions. As the signing began, the song “Rivers of Babylon” pumped through the speakers, which, in the book, one of Helen’s lovers sang as an ode to her sexual readiness.
Ardent fans have shown up to her readings with avocados as presents and, in several instances documented in the local media, the unprepared have fainted at some of the scenes. In one of those, Helen describes saving dried semen under her fingernails as “a keepsake” to savor later. And as attested by the reading in tiny Tegernheim — a suburb of Regensburg on the Danube River, in famously conservative Bavaria — the controversy surrounding the book is more than a media ruckus just in Berlin and other big cities.
“ ‘Sex and the City’ is always just about sex, whereas this is more about hygiene, or, better put, not-hygiene. It’s just something completely new,” said Katja Bergmeister, 24, a student in Regensburg. She came with her roommate and her roommate’s sister, all in their 20s and all clutching autographed posters of Ms. Roche. “I could see how we would be able to speak more openly with one another now,” she said.
Ms. Bergmeister and her friends knew of Ms. Roche from her work as a presenter for music video channels, but many others said they had come to her through the book. “It’s sexuality like it’s never represented in women’s magazines, but more the way it is in real life,” said Silvia Wilfurth, 28, a psychiatrist. “It speaks to themes of the body and sexuality that normally are not addressed and that it is not bad at all to be discussed.”
Ms. Roche, who was born in Britain but moved to Germany when she was a small child, said she hoped to help women find “a language for lust.” The sensational response to her book was unexpected, but she has taken it all in stride, including her first turn under the big top. “I would say that my own profession is circus pony, so I feel quite comfortable,” she said.
Alex Bolland, the organizer of the reading, said that the local authorities had made him limit the event to an over-18 audience, but that he was still glad he could book Ms. Roche.
“There are almost no taboos today,” Mr. Bolland said. “I appreciate it when someone can show that there are still a few out there.”
"Feuchtgebiete", "Bitterfotze" oder schlicht "Hure": Buchtitel dieser Art sind immer häufiger zu finden. Die Romane stammen von jungen Schriftstellerinnen aus aller Welt. Mit billigen Sexromanen haben sie nichts zu tun. Vielmehr etablieren sie ein neues, freizügiges Frauenbild in der Literatur.
Es gibt Neues von der Rolle der Frau in der Gesellschaft. Zumindest in der Literatur. Dort blüht eine sexuelle Befreiung mit seltsamen Vorzeichen. Etliche junge Autorinnen bringen erotische, oft intellektuell gefärbte Romane heraus. Sie sind freizügig, schonungslos direkt - und fast immer unzufrieden.
"Feuchtgebiete" war keineswegs der Anfang dieses weltweiten Trends. Das auf Ekel getrimmte Buch der Moderatorin Charlotte Roche war allerdings für Deutschland ein Startschuss. Was die französische und italienische Bekenntnis-Literatur seit einigen Jahren mit Catherine Millet ("Das sexuelle Leben der Catherine M.") oder Melissa Panarello ("Mit geschlossenen Augen") vormacht, ergreift nun den Rest Europas.
Die 18-jährige Berlinerin Rebecca Martin feiert die 100 000er-Auflage ihres sexuellen Generationenportäts "Frühling und so", das kurz vor Weihnachten erst erschien.
Im Februar erscheint als nächster Höhepunkt ein Buch mit dem gewöhnungsbedürftigen Titel "Bitterfotze" im Kiwi-Verlag. Darin schreibt die Schwedin Maria Sveland sich ihren Frust als junge Mutter von der Seele.
"In diesem verfluchten Patriarchat ist es schwer genug, Mutter zu werden", heißt es einmal. "Wenn Du dann noch die Welt mit feministischen Augen siehst, ist es fast nicht auszuhalten." Eines ihrer zahlreichen guten Argumente: Das ganze Land jubelt darüber, dass ungefähr jeder zwölfte Vater die zwei Pflichtmonate Elternzeit nimmt. Dass aber 100 Prozent der Frauen mindestens ein ganzes Jahr nehmen, sieht niemand als besondere Leistung an.
In der Sexualität, auf die auch Sveland immer wieder zu sprechen kommt, gebe es auch keine Gleichberechtigung. "Wenn man bis zum Platzen geil ist und einen Mann haben will, vergisst man leicht, dass das verboten ist.
Das heißt, wenn du eine Frau bist", so leitet sie ein Kapitel ein. Es wird die bittere Abrechnung einer Frau, die ihre Bedürfnisse unterdrücken musste. Bis heute, so Sveland, dürfen Männer sexuell aktiv sein, gelten dabei sogar als Erfolgstypen, Frauen aber nicht - sonst werden sie als "Hure" beschimpft.
Dieses Missverhältnis treibt die meisten der jungen Autorinnen an - als Reaktion darauf beschreiben viele sich nun als sexuell besonders aktiv. Gemeint ist das also nicht als Porno, sondern als Kulturkritik. Manchmal drängen die Verlage das in eine wohlfeile Erotik-Ecke, die dem brisanten Thema seinen Stachel nimmt.
Letzten Mittwoch drängelten sich 250 Gäste und sogar TV-Teams zu einer seltsamen Veranstaltung im Osloer Litteraturhuset: Die in Berlin lebende Autorin Ragnhild Moe protestierte mit einer Kunstausstellung gegen ihren deutschen Verlag Goldmann. Der Grund ist ebenfalls ein intellektueller Erotik-Roman.
Moes Buch "Anatomi/Monotoni" wird in Norwegen gefeiert, sie gilt als weibliche Antwort auf Houellebecq. Auf Deutsch erschien das Buch als "Die Hände des Cellisten" in kitschiger Aufmachung mit nassen Haaren, die über eine nackte Brust fallen. Es wirkt wie ein billiger Softporno. Nun haben 40 Künstler alternative Cover gestaltet, um zu zeigen, wie es besser hätte sein können.
Beim Goldmann-Verlag, der den Fall nicht kommentieren will, dürfte sich inzwischen der eine oder andere über seinen Fehler ärgern: Im Jahr von "Feuchtgebiete" hätte man aus Ragnhild Moe alias Edy Poppy leicht einen großen Bestseller machen können. Die Autorin ist hübsch, elegant und hoch gebildet, lässt in ihre Story Nietzsche einfließen, nutzt den Sex als Mittel, Einsamkeit zu thematisieren.
Das ist perfekt für den aktuellen Buchmarkt. Denn wir erleben eine zweite Welle des ambitionierten Frauenromans nach den Siebzigern. Damals hatten Autorinnen wie Erika Jung die erotischen Abenteuer ihrer Heldinnen als Selbstverwirklichung gesehen.
An diesen fröhlichen Feminismus erinnert heute nichts mehr, sein Untergang ist auch ein Symbol für das Scheitern der Frau. Die Träume von damals sind vergessen, der Sex ist oft freudlos, die neuen Standortbestimmungen entsprechend verbissen. Auch die Sprache wird drastischer, was auch aktuelle Buchtitel wie "Seelenficker" zeigen.
Der Soziologe Georges Bataille hat in seinen kühl-analytischen erotischen Schriften zur "souveränen Selbstverschwendung" aufgefordert. Auch bei ihm war der Sexus ein Instrument radikaler Kritik, sein Libertin stellt sich freiwillig an den Rand der Gesellschaft. "So bedeutet der ernst, der tragisch genommene Erotismus eine völlige Umkehr unserer Vorstellungen", sagt er im Vorwort zu seiner Erzählung "Madame Edwarda".
Daher gehört Gefahr zum Erotismus - und deren Opfer waren meist Frauen. Ihre große deutsche Heldin und Vorläuferin, Effi Briest, hatte noch kurz vor ihrem Freitod einen Wutanfall. "Mich ekelt, was ich getan; aber was mich noch mehr ekelt, das ist eure Tugend. Weg mit euch. Ich muss leben", ruft sie aus - und fällt dann "wie leblos" zu Boden. Wütend, aber machtlos.
Heute ist die Gesellschaft an einem ähnlichen Punkt angekommen. Nicht Geilheit treibt die jungen Autorinnen zur sexuellen Freizügigkeit - sondern Wut. Wut über die Welt, in der sie leben. Das ist das Geheimnis der neuen Erotik-Welle in der Literatur.