“Provocative” is one of those publishing buzzwords reflexively used to stir up interest in the most banal of books. Next month, however, a work of fiction lands in Canada for which the overused descriptor is tepid. The book is Wetlands, a translation of Feuchtgebiete, written by 30-year-old German TV personality Charlotte Roche. The novel, which has sold some 1.5 million copies in Germany and became the first German work of fiction to top Amazon.com’s global chart, has caused a major Teutonic commotion since its publication last February, so much so that smelling salts have become necessary at Roche’s public readings due to people fainting. Just what’s most shocking about the novel is up for debate: is it the defiant shamelessness with which its troubled 18-year-old narrator, Helen Memel, who’s recovering in hospital from surgery to remove an infected hemorrhoid, boldly charts her bodily secretions and sexuality? (“I use my smegma the way others use their vials of perfume,” she claims.) Or is it that the novel’s utterly original, occasionally stomach-churning imagery was written by a woman who resembles a young Audrey Hepburn?
The British-born Roche, speaking on the telephone from Cologne, says her smegmatic tour de force came easily, once she decided on the subject. “Those are my topics,” she says. “I enjoy talking about them, even when I’m embarrassed. If I cut myself shaving, I’d show everybody, even if I think it looks ugly.” She’d been wrestling with what to write about after signing a book contract and spending the advance: “For seven years I had a bad conscience,” she says. “The idea started with writing about the secret embarrassing things I do on the toilet and even the things I hide from my husband—just getting the secrets inside out.” She and her protagonist share some biographical details: both are children of divorce; Roche too was a wild child who dropped out of school in Grade 11, formed a female garage rock band, cut herself to paint with blood, experimented with drugs and shaved her head before getting a job as a video jockey on Viva, the German MTV. The author is amused by the extent to which the media have identified her with her character. “They’re always sniffing around me, to see if I’m dirty like Helen,” she says.
The Germans don’t know what to make of Roche’s novel: it has been denounced as a “masturbation pamphlet” and staged theatrically. Roche says the response to a book she and her publisher saw as fitting in a “special interest genre” has amazed her. “The people who come to the readings, mostly young women, are very positive,” she says. “Press has been written that ‘it’s scandalous, it’s disgusting,’ but women in the readings aren’t shocked at all,” she says, referring to those who don’t faint. “And there are lots of women who say, ‘I used to feel so embarrassed about certain things involving my body but since I read the book I don’t feel embarrassed anymore.’ That’s the best thing that can happen.” Roche says she’d like to see an end to the taboo of female masturbation. “But women lack the language to discuss it,” she says.
Wetlands’ verboten subject matter was seized upon by publisher HarperCollins Canada in its marketing: advance reading copies were wrapped in a plain black cover bound with a combination lock to elicit prurient interest. Publisher and editor-in-chief Iris Tupholme says she’s never published anything like it. “Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it’s gross,” she says. “Sometimes you think, ‘I’m never going to recover from that.’ ” She surfaced from the novel’s viscosity to appreciate its unique perspective: “It’s a fresh portrait of women and women’s sexuality and comfort with their own bodies, which is such a departure from what we see all around us—this hyper-sanitized, plucked, shaven, and otherwise ‘cleaned-up’ version of women.” With a first print run of 20,000, they’re banking on a bestseller.
When Wetlands is published on March 7, there’ll likely be a reprise of the “Is it a ‘feminist erotic literary classic’ or ‘brilliantly marketed pornography’ ” debate seen in Germany, a discussion that erroneously presumes any explicit, iconoclastic book about female sexuality must be one or the other. Roche has learned to disarm her critics with charming candour: “There were some scenes I wrote to make people horny,” she admits. “But when people ask me whether it’s pornography, I always say, ‘It depends who’s asking.’ If it’s a man, I say, ‘It’s pornography.’ ”