Lisa Hilton

Fearful of the Wetlands?

Fearful of the Wetlands?
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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.