Robin Sharpe is a writer of proven literary merit, as judged by the Supreme Court of Canada no less.
I heartily endorse that verdict. He is indeed a damn fine writer, imaginative and linguistically inventive. Whether Sharpe is conjuring up a primitive paradise or a post-apocalyptic dystopian hellhole, his talented evocations are dotted with freshly minted words and striking images. He is wryly humorous and ironic, with a perceptive eye for the hilarious tragedy that is “the human condition” – whether visited through individual foibles and monstrosities or the bizarre, confused, mishmash of dimly understood myths, rites and traditions we use in order to prise some sort of meaning out of the wild chaos of nature and circumstance.
He is both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. The humour, black as sin, is as colourfully satirical as that of his less subtle namesake Tom Sharpe at his best, in Riotous Assembly, and as outrageous as Iain Banks in The Wasp Factory.
His writing is humane, good-hearted and moral, too, without ever being moralistic – qualities to which those who do go in for moralising will inevitably be blind on account of his disturbing subject matter. And he is honest: the man’s truthfulness emerges clearly in his very candid non-fiction.
But none of these admirable qualities have been anything like as significant to the world at large as the most obviously “outstanding” (so to speak!) feature of Sharpe’s writing: it is blatantly, patently, pornographic. One may meander agreeably through many chapters of less urgent delights than the carnal, but engagement with the latter, when it comes, cums. His prose, while always written with style and sophistication, is what many would condemn as not merely pornographic but also deeply “perverted”. Sharpe takes us into the world of the notorious Marquis de Sade, with whippings and beatings. Most dangerously of all, it is a world heavily populated by sexy young boys.
Hence the unusual interest in literary criticism taken in Sharpe’s case by the criminal courts in Canada – and it is also one of the reasons why Heretic TOC is blogging about him. It all began in 1995 after Sharpe had travelled abroad, visiting Dr Edward Brongersma, famed Dutch boy-love activist and former senator. Sharpe’s baggage was checked by Customs on his re-entry to Canada from the Netherlands. They found a collection of computer discs containing text titled BoyAbuse. This writing, of which he was the author, was alleged to constitute child pornography and Sharpe was prosecuted for possession. The charges also included visual material found at his home but it is the literary side that will concern us here.
Sharpe argued that the law in question targeted the political advocacy of pederasty and served little purpose in protecting children from sexual abuse. Representing himself, he scored a remarkable victory in the British Columbia Supreme Court, successfully claiming that under Canada’s Bill of Rights it would be unconstitutional to deprive him of the private possession of his own thoughts as expressed in writing. The prosecution appealed. The charges in respect of his writings were eventually dismissed in the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001 when it was successfully argued on his behalf that his work had artistic merit. A professor of English compared his written works to “transgressive expression” as seen in Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.
It was something of a pyrrhic victory, though, because the verdict generated a storm of political outrage leading to the passing of a more restrictive new law in 2005 that made the possession of written child pornography permissible only for those deemed to have a “legitimate purpose related to the administration of justice or to science, medicine, education or art”, and if it did not pose “an undue risk of harm” to minors. Written child pornography was defined as writing that “advocates or counsels” sexual activity with a person under 18 or “whose dominant characteristic is the description, for a sexual purpose”, of illegal sexual activity with a person under 18.
Whether “a sexual purpose” can be considered the “dominant” characteristic of Sharpe’s writings depends on how alert one is to their other qualities. His work has much else to offer, in my view, at least in some of the more ambitious pieces. Literary S/M sex definitely isn’t my thing but the book Pagunan Masks: An Ethnofiction, to take one example, is really clever stuff and I found it fascinating. I should add that I would not have enjoyed or appreciated anything that appeared to revel in a callous or cruel attitude to children; on the contrary, I would have been appalled.
Sharpe has said this about his work, which strikes me as a reasonable summary based on the limited amount I have read:
“Most of my BoyAbuse stories have sadomasochistic themes but with little violence, violence in the sense of coercion, aggression and injury. The theme is fortitude, usually willing, for some purpose. They are simple tales of flogging, fun and fortitude appealing to certain fetishes including my own.”
Sharpe’s lengthy legal battles over written pornography have long been over, but his travails are more significant today than ever, as moral entrepreneurs worldwide continue to eat away at freedom of expression in the name of child protection. Back in the early days of legislation against child pornography, most of the countries going in for these new laws focused solely on photographs and films. Laws against “obscene” literature had long been in existence but these were widely falling into disrepute and disuse and were not extended to deal with child protection. Canada was an exception. Although it had a remarkably low age of consent, at 14, since raised to 16, its approach to freedom of expression with respect to written child pornography was far less liberal.
The trend, though, is for greater security, surveillance and suppression to be deployed in endless “wars” against a range of “risks”. Paedophilia now vies with terrorism for top spot in the charts, both having long displaced first communism and then drugs as the great evils of our times.
For this reason, we can expect the written word to come under greater pressure everywhere, with dire implications for everyone’s freedom.
In the UK, the latest manifestation of this trend is to be seen in the Serious Crime Bill, which has already been debated in parliament and will reach its report stage in the next session a couple of months from now. This is the one Heretic TOC mentioned in May: Paedophiles to be treated like terrorists.
It has a clause banning the possession of “paedophile manuals”, defined in the Bill as “any item that contains advice or guidance about abusing children sexually”. Maximum sentence is three years.
Could Sharpe’s work be construed in this way? I don’t think it could, in fairness, from what I have seen of his writing; but fairness is unfortunately not what we can expect in the current climate. So, what about Heretic TOC even mentioning Sharpe’s work by way of recommending his literary talents or providing online links to his work? Would this fall foul of the new law? Who knows how broadly it will be applied? What is certain, though, is that it will have a chilling effect on expression: valuable thoughts will go unexpressed through self-censorhip out of entirely justified fear of the consequences.
Another reason for mentioning Robin Sharpe at the present time is a more sentimental one. Robin, as I shall now begin to call him, is old and very unwell. He is 81. He suffered a terrible blow earlier this year after being in hospital for eight months, which was doubtless bad enough in itself. He was illegally evicted from his home in Montreal when his landlord expected him to die. All his possessions were stolen or trashed, including his entire library. He took refuge back on the West Coast where he has family and friends. He is now in the process of taking his former landlord to court.
It is high time Robin’s great fighting spirit and literary talents were acknowledged here, and I am pleased to do so. Robin and I have corresponded from time to time. He kindly wrote to me when I was behind bars, and I returned the compliment when he suffered a similar fate.
He is too ill to do anything quickly but in a sense he is an old man in a hurry, anxious to see his work published before he dies. Unfortunately, there are huge problems with this. One, obviously, is finding a publisher willing to take the risk of being labelled a pornographer and charged under either traditional obscenity law or newer child protection law. Another is that in his generosity Robin has long made all of his work freely downloadable from his two websites, primarily at robinsharpe.org and also with some titles at robinsharpe.ca. While there are no doubt those among his many readers who would like to possess bound volumes of his writings, that too would be worrying on legal grounds for many (depending where they live) and publishers are unlikely to be persuaded they could cover their costs on such a project, never mind make a profit.
Robin has had a few volumes printed privately and he might be able to send copies to those who contact him via his websites. As a limited item (and perhaps hand-signed if you are lucky) they will have a value beyond the words they contain.
One aspect of this added value is the illustrations. Robin’s career was as a town planner, which may have given an outlet for his skills in drawing maps and plans, as demonstrated on the back cover of his novella Blood & Semen. Another string to his bow is wood-carving, beautiful large photographs of which form an integral part of Pagunan Masks. This book is about an imaginary primitive tribe and their discovery by westerners. The chapters, or parts, of the book feature the various masks worn by the tribe members for their rituals: Lizard Mask, Demon Mask, Death Mocking Mask, and so on. Each has a special purpose and history, skilfully woven into the story and illustrated in an “ethnographic” account with close parallels to early attempts at anthropological writing, which he seeks both to satirize and draw upon for allegorical purposes.
Robin’s legal battles have been the subject of numerous papers in academic law journals and citations in law books. His own writings cover the legal issues ably and thoroughly. There was also a book, On Kiddie Porn: Sexual Representation, Free Speech and the Robin Sharpe Case, by Stan Persky and John Dixon (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001).
I was going to finish at this point but an item in the current issue of the London Review of Books absolutely demands at least an additional paragraph or three. It is a review of A Sentimental Novel, by the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, published in an English translation in May. Judging by this review, it makes Robin’s writing look about as sadistic and perverted as Harry Potter. Reviewer Adam Shatz describes it as a work of “unrelenting and graphic sadism in which women – or rather, barely pubescent girls – exist to be raped, tortured and murdered”. The work features “a harem of child sex slaves…violently deflowered, in scenes described with Robbe-Grillet’s obsessional precision: murderously large dildos, seats made of nails, sliced and grilled breasts”.
But Robbe-Grillet was never arrested and jailed. On the contrary, long acknowledged as a leading intellectual, he had been elected to the prestigious Académie française in 2004. Un roman sentimental appeared in 2007, shortly before his death the following year. This particular book was not well received, to be sure. Shatz tells us it was “treated with derision”. But now we find it is being respectably republished in the UK with no calls as yet, it seems, for the publishers to be clapped in irons; nor has there been any controversy so far as I am aware over LRB and some of the upmarket national newspapers legitimising it through their reviews. Funny old world, as they say!
Let’s not forget, though, that even Robbe-Grillet’s “sentimental” novel is just words. He didn’t kill anyone; like many other writers, he may have used his work cathartically, to purge his inner violence rather than victimise anyone with it. Meanwhile, people are actually being killed. Children are being ripped to bits in Gaza and deliberately starved on a mountain in Iraq. Is it because their killers have been reading too much Sharpe and Robbe-Grillet? Somehow, I doubt it.