Wetlands

// 4 April 2009

So I just read Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, hailed (on the back cover at least) as evoking “the voice of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the perversion of JG Ballard’s Crash and the feminist agenda of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch”.

It’s a book that’s had a lot of attention in the press already – so I thought it’d be fun to compare the UK media’s hype about the book and my interpretations, rather than a traditional review.

The book begins with protagonist Helen in hospital; she cut her anus while shaving and got infected – she has to have an operation. It’s been described repeatedly as taking the reader on a journey around her body (and I would add, bodily fluids)… The first line is: “As far back as I can remember, I have had hemorrhoids.” By the end of the first page, Roche has treated us to a description of using zinc cream to pacify them:

Before I had the salve I would scratch at my butthole in my sleep so much that I’d wake up in the morning with a brown stain in my underwear the size of the top of a cork. That’s how much it itched, and that’s how deep I’d stick my finger in. So yes, I’d say it’s very ladylike.

So, yes, the general gist is that the novel pulverises the idea of women as untouchable ladies.

“A female-penned novel so pornographic that it has reportedly caused people to faint at public readings is to go on sale in Britain.” – The Telegraph.

“The book certainly requires a strong stomach, discussing, as it does, the narrator’s sexual preferences in minute detail, but is it cleverly packaged pornography or an erotic classic?” The Times

Other than the tangental fact that the book was translated from German to English by “Tim Mohr… a staff editor at Playboy magazine”, I don’t get the description of this book as pornographic. There’s some frank descriptions of sex, but not… well… in a sexy way (or I didn’t think so anyway).

People may have fainted at readings (joining Chuck Palahniuk readings and screenings of the Blair Witch Project in the annuals of ever-so-slightly hard to believe report of public fainting). But, if they did, I suspect that would have more to do with the gross-out descriptions of, for example, “pissing out your ass”, rather than any of the passages related to sex.

It’s quite revealing that the reviewers focus in on the idea of this being porn, though. You could read this as a the antithesis to (mainstream, made-for-men) porn in many ways, as it is absolutely centred on a woman’s experience of her own sexual desires and living in her body to the maximum, rather than women’s bodies existing ultimately for men.

However, the character’s attitude to the sex industry is to embrace it – she reminisces about hiring a series of (only) black prostitutes, for example.

For some, the apparent celebration of women using sex workers, and, at that, with the exoticisation and othering of black “hookers”, will immediately rule this out as a feminist book. But even if that’s not you, this problematic passage might:

At one of my numerous brothel visits a hooker told me that some men get off coming in with their cocks dirty and making a hooker suck them off. She said it was a power game. Those are their least favourite clients, the dirty ones. The purposefully dirty ones. They don’t have anything against inadvertantly dirty ones.

I wanted to try that, too. I didn’t wash myself for a long time and then had a hooker go down on me. For me there was nothing different about it from having someone go down on me when I’m clean. Power games aren’t my thing.

Which is, to my mind, a pretty troubling description of purposefully treating a sex worker/prostitute like dirt, just to experiment.

“This may well be a revolutionary idea in Germany, where Roche lives, but in

Britain anybody who sees drunken young women on the pull in city centres knows that, for that generation, feminine mystique is already well nigh extinct.

“Roche and others from the new wave of women shock-jocks tell us that baring their fantasies, or recounting their love lives in lurid and exhaustive detail, is uniquely emancipating.

“While I would fight tooth and claw for women’s right to sexual freedom, I’m not sure the sisterhood has gained much if it sees that freedom as a chance to brag about sex and conquests in the same kind of tedious and lewd manner that made the new lad so obnoxious back in the Nineties.” Rowan Pelling, in the Daily Mail

Hmm, so, Helen is sexual, she has sex, she masturbates. But it’s clearly not meant to be erotica – it’s a story in which the main character is sexual. Pelling’s perspective – that women should maintain a “feminine mystique” in order to be sexy (rather than sexual) seems to have missed the point of the novel by twenty miles.

Here’s an interview with Roche which puts the novel, and its apparently feminist intent, into perspective:

The feminist context of the novel is easier to understand after watching this video. It’s like she took the famous line of Germaine Greer’s:

“If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go baby.”

And ramped the idea up to 1,000. For me, the idea of tasting menstrual blood isn’t a big deal. But wiping your vagina around the toilet seat specifically in order to wipe up other people’s piss? Yeah, that’s too much for me – although I’m not sure if it’s strictly necessary to be OK with that in order to be liberated. Obviously Roche is exaggerating for effect – as she says in the video, she took her own squemishness about all things bodily fluid and created a character who was absolutely the opposite.

Has anyone else read this?

Comments From You

Ruth // Posted 5 April 2009 at 1:11 pm

Initially, I picked up Wetlands to annoy my co-workers who spent much of one lunch break giggling and eeewing like thirteen year olds over the review, and to see what all the fuss was about.

Now, admittedly, I’m a pathologist and as such professionally not squeamish, but I honestly didn’t think the book was that shocking. Certainly not compared to, say Chuck Palahnuik or Bret Easton Ellis. Yes, some of the descriptions of surgery are a bit gross, and a number of the things Helen gets up to did make me think “hmm, good way to get a nasty infection, there.”, but you’d have to be pretty darn sensitive to faint.

My main problem with this book is that it is stated repeatedly that the main cause of Helen’s attitude to sex and sexuality is becaues her parents split up and she’s terrified of being alone, and to wind her mother up. I felt that this rather reinforced the idea that women who sleep around do it because they’re vunerable and emotionally damaged, not because, oh I don’t know, they like sex.

Also, I agree that the section regarding the prostitutes was troubling. One could argue that Helen doesn’t seem terribly concerned about the feelings of anyone, but all the same.

As a great big two-fingered salute to the “feminine mystique”, body fascism and the female body existing for male entertainment, yes, I think the book does it’s job. As a great piece of feminist literature… it has a few bugs, but imho it has a place.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 5 April 2009 at 1:14 pm

This book is pornographic because in essence it reduces a woman to a dehumanised body and one furthermore which is seen as essentially ‘dirty.’ Now imagine if a man had written this book and graphically detailed his biological desires. The book would be hailed a ‘masterpiece of understanding the human experience.’ But because a woman has written this book she was immediately castigated by male writers because women are not supposed to write about such aspects of the female body, so it is judged by these men as pornographic.

Yes, I know Rowan Pelling is a woman but she too was enforcing the male perspective not a woman’s one and one furthermore which is anti-feminist.

Now a book which did challenge male-centered perspectives was ‘Girl With A One Track Mind’ but that female author too was trounced as being ‘dirty-minded.’ So women cannot win either way, if they write a book which is deliberately catering to the male pornographic mind it is dismissed as ‘pornographic’ and if a woman writes from a perspective which centralises her own sexual autonomy but does not exploit or coerce men’ then she is judged to be a s…..’

This book is just a boring piece of nonsense cleverly promoted and hyped as promoted as ‘pornographic’ and therefore guaranteed huge sales. But similar writing can be found with the work of misogynistic Norman Mailer and not forgetting that other misogynist Marquis De Sade. But these two men’s works are widely regarded as masterpieces of art all because they wrote about women as men’s dehumanised, slaves. Female bodies were depicted as ‘dirty, gross and obscene’ whereas the male body was depicted as ‘a phallocentric masterpiece.’

Our patriarchal society uses the same old tricks wherein always the focus is on criticising women who write pornographic novels’ whilst simultaneously proclaiming men’s pornographic writing as ‘transgressive, revolutionary, etc. etc.’

Yes Roche was exaggerating for effect but is writing about bodily fluids a matter of great interest or is it more about profit? As for liberated? A much overused word when in fact it is the exact opposite. Catering to male supremacist notions that women’s bodies are really dirty and disgusting.

Saranga // Posted 5 April 2009 at 2:32 pm

I haven’t read the book but in reference to the character’s treatment and use of the sex workers, I wondered if you thought the text condemned her actions or praised them? Or neither?

I am curious because I think that novels can feature misogynistic/sexist scenes, but this doesn’t mean the text itself is misogynistic, if the context in which it is done condemns said action/scenes.

I think the book sounds really interesting and I definitely want to read it now, so thanks for featuring it!

ichsageuchmalwas // Posted 5 April 2009 at 3:05 pm

Thanks for posting this. The video is especially enlightening.

Jess McCabe // Posted 5 April 2009 at 8:00 pm

@Saranga It’s hard to know really – it’s a really short section. Because the whole book is told entirely from the protagonist’s point of view, and it’s not really the kind of book which has an overarching moral or anything, I’m not sure what the author intended – other than, maybe to shock?

What was troubling to me, though, was that it’s mentioned in a really offhand way. And it’s pretty unpleasant – basically, Helen is taken into the confidence of the sex workers she visits (perhaps precisely because she’s not a man). They tell her what they really, really hate, and then she makes use of that insight to do exactly what the men do that they are complaining about, while outright knowing that it’s something the sex workers she visits detest.

Whereas most of the book is just about what Helen does to herself and doesn’t involve exploiting anyone else or impinging on anyone else’s bodily autonomy, that really stood out for me. And it was so casually inserted into the text… Hmmm…

@Jennifer Drew – I dunno, I don’t really agree with you on that one – I don’t think the character thinks of anything she does as disgusting. She sort of enjoys it and revels in it, which does rub off on the reader a bit. I didn’t read it, anyway, as “women’s bodies are gross” so much as “women’s bodies are human”…

Lara // Posted 6 April 2009 at 9:38 am

I read it and found I was intermittently nauseous and really quite bored. Once you get past the supposed ‘shock’ factor it is really quite dull.

I also found the use of the Roche’s 18 year old protagonist Helen, a little exploitative. It didn’t really bring anything to the story other than ‘oooh, she wipes her bits on toilet seats AND she’s only 18!’ It also felt like a 30-something woman projecting her fantasies onto a much younger fictional character.

I don’t really buy the notion of it being a feminist text, I think that sort of undermines feminism. It’s almost a parody of feminism – ‘you can’t handle my raw femininity’. And yes, the treatment of sex workers is abhorrent. Roche seems to think that because Helen is female, she can treat prostitutes like dirt, unquestioned.

It’s just pointless sensationalism for the sake of it.

Ellie // Posted 6 April 2009 at 11:29 am

Jennifer Drew, I disgaree quite robustly with this statement:

“This book is pornographic because in essence it reduces a woman to a dehumanised body and one furthermore which is seen as essentially ‘dirty.'”

I don’t think the character’s body is dehumanised one bit, if anything it’s the complete opposite. She revels in her how human she is and all the filth that comes with that. Also I don’t get your use of the word dirty. You put it in quote marks like you’re referring to the school of thought where women who enjoy sex are considered ‘dirty’, but that isn’t at all the same as the dirtiness of the protagonist.

I like revelling in the dirt of my own body, I’m not quite as unhygenic as Helen, but it can feel like reclaiming your body from all the people and institutions that tell you about your body and what it should be and feel like. That was the feminism I took from it.

I enjoyed the book, it wasn’t astounding writing but it was funny and interesting. The only bit I got squeamish about was when she makes her post surgery injury worse because she wants to stay in hospital longer.

Kate // Posted 6 April 2009 at 1:08 pm

Have to agree with Lara that I was both bored and slightly nauseated at times. I was laughing about this book with two of my close girl friends this week end, saying how I thought it was just a case of trying to be shocking for the sake of it. She’s a girl! And she loves wanking and isn’t afraid to admit it! And she hires female prostitutes! And she takes it up the back passage! And she revels in her bodily fluids and isn’t going to let a few little haemorrhoids get in the way of her fun!

This kind of sexual sensationalism is a trait I abhor in authors both male and female (for example, Irvine Welsh and some Will Self, also *Brass* by Helen Walsh)- it really annoys me as I believe you can write some really honest, visceral stuff woven into a story about things other than just the ‘gross parts’.

I liked the candid voice at the beginning of the book, and it was initially refershing to hear about the realities of living inside the human body from a female perspective, but this quickly wore thin for me.

I’m a fairly ‘low-maintenence’ girl comfy with my own body and I have no qualms about tasting myself a la Ms Greer’s suggestion back in the ’70’s but some of the stuff in this book was just absurd- I would have felt this way whether the protagonist was male or female, it’s the overall tone of ‘I am sooooooooooo liberated’ that jars.

Lisa Rose // Posted 9 April 2009 at 11:19 am

After watching the video of Roche explaining her aims when she wrote the book, I can now see what it was she was trying to do, and I think, in parts, the book does this and is insightful, witty and challenging.

However, it seems to have pushed the idea of the female grotesque and somehow made it a bit “ickey” and nasty.

I felt that the protagonist of the story was in a lot of emotional pain but this came out on the page as arrogance although I do believe that it was insecurity.

Overall, I did not enjoy the book, although I am now clear what the author intended, the power of the reader suggests that the product served up for consumption had either been misinterpretted or badly written…

thesvenhunter // Posted 9 April 2009 at 11:41 am

I think it’s a shame that a promising premise was let down by Roche’s obvious lack of talent as a writer – she was approaching this with an agenda I sympathise with (the battle against OTT hygiene etc.) but both the plot and character development are so utterly inadequate as to render any feminist arguments therein difficult to take seriously.

If you’re going to write a novel set almost entirely in a hospital bed and the imagination/recollection of one character you’re setting yourself a pretty difficult task. Some writers could pull this off. Roche couldn’t and didn’t.

Anon // Posted 13 April 2009 at 1:43 am

“But wiping your vagina around the toilet seat specifically in order to wipe up other people’s piss? Yeah, that’s too much for me.”

Wait. WHAT?

I started to watch the interview and, while it was loading, my eyes wandered and I saw what was written in the rest of the article.

I mean – like – why? What?

I like my vagina. I’ve had some really good times with it. It does fun things. One day it might even do something as magical as to bring babies into the world. I want to look after it and I want other people to respect it.

With that in mind, how does using my innocent, vibrant vagina as a sponge to wipe up stranger’s piss from a dirty toilet seat help liberate me from patriarchy? How?

Most feminists already get that their bodies aren’t dainty pretty things. Come to that, most men have never seen their bodies as dainty pretty things and don’t feel the need to use their penises to wipe in urine.

Perhaps I’m jumping the gun not having read the book, but I don’t see how it would help women to connect with their bodies – or men to connect with women’s bodies – in a deep and meaningful way. From what I’ve seen so far, I think it alienates people and caricatures feminism but, again, I admit I’ve never read the book.

Rosa // Posted 21 April 2009 at 12:12 am

You can listen to an interview with Charlotte Roche here on the BBC Radio 4 website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/01/2009_05_thu.shtml

I’ve only just started to listen to it, but so far she’s softened me up because she keeps saying “bits and blobs” rather than “bits and bobs.” She also talks about why she chose to make the character so young and why it’s “necessary again” to talk about women’s bodily functions and not clean them up so much in our minds.

It’s 11.01 minutes long.

FeminaErecta // Posted 12 January 2010 at 3:28 pm

Loved it. Absolutely loved it. I didn’t read it thinking in my head ‘this is a feminist masterpiece, this is goiing to lift up the strain of patriachy hanging round my shoulders, I will be free if I read this and take on board everything said in it’, because its a fiction book, not a seminal, peer reviewed essay, or 1970s tract, so I didn’t feel I HAD to go into it thinking like that.

The reasons I loved it are

a) it made me feel it was OK to explore my body. It also made me feel good to be gross sometimes, because it is a human body and everything that comes out of it is completly natural, and why shouldn’t we explore what our bodies can do? Althetes push the limits of their muscles and lungs, why shouldn’t we also explore the limits of our vaginas and anuses? I’ve been eating my period blood for years (tasty) and I was not in any way grossed out by the thought of rubbing myself on a toilet seat because when I’m pissed I probably do already.

b) It is so incredibly detatched from reality in its style (I read the English version as my German is appauling and would love to know what people who read the German thought…was the translation any good?) that it is hilarious. The character of a selfish, self obsessed nihlistic emotionally immature 18 year old girl came accross very strongly, and for me one of the biggest things was how much power we have in ourselves when we are too emotionally immature and incapable of controling our actions or limiting the exent of our id. Helen sterilises herself, no problems there, but she talks about this constantly as something she had done ‘without her parents permission’, as if it is the reaction to her actions from others that she is responding to rather than because she wants to limit her bodies repoducation facilities as a thinking and consenting adult has every right to do. Helen visits prostitutes, and exploits other women for her own gratification; of course as a feminist I am appauled by this prospect in real life, no one should be objectified and objectification itself should not be capitalised, but this is a FICTION BOOK! And as a device used in fiction, it works in further exploring the selfish egocentric nature of Helen’s character. Form matches content was the mantra my English GCSE teacher hammered into me, and Roche doesn this, and its therefore good.

c) Every other women I have talked about the book with has something to say about it. I originally got this of my sister, I leant it to a female friend whose jaunts into fiction are limited to Picault, Cooper and Steele, and she loved it! Well, she didn’t love it love it, but she read it, and leant it to someone else, a book is being passed around women that is about a woman and written by a woman about women’s bodies, with a metaphor for a vagina as the title. Brilliant! These things need to be talked about because they aren’t talked about enough! And anything that gets more people into reading is bound to be a good thing.

I do get why people didn’t like it, even why they were offended by it, but I wasn’t. And for a debut novel I thought it was brassy and bold and the author comes accross as someone I would love, so two enthusiatic thumbs up from me.

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