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The Book of the Ocean

As I mentioned a while back, one of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now is an anthology of writing about the ocean for Penguin. It’s been a fascinating process, both because it’s given me a chance to revisit a number of books that have meant a great deal to me over the years and because it’s forced me to acquaint myself with many more I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation.

As the imbroglio over the Macquarie/PEN Anthology demonstrates, assembling anthologies is a perilous business. The bigger the subject, the more people have invested in it, the more likely you are to come in for a bucketing for mistaken emphases and omissions. And since the literature of the ocean is one of those subjects which is both vast and weighed down by its history it’s one that offers plenty of pitfalls.

As a result I decided early on that I had no desire to be either definitive or exhaustive. Instead my intention has been to assemble a relatively personal collection, which draws together a selection of writing I love. As someone whose life has been spent on the shores of the Southern and Pacific Oceans I also decided I wanted to put together a collection that spoke to and about that experience, rather than concentrating on the exploration of the northern seas that has traditionally preoccupied collections of this sort. In practice that’s meant letting go of a number of things I wanted to use, but it’s also helped give the collection a shape and cohesiveness it might not otherwise have had.

All of which brings me to the point of this post. The book’s now largely done, but I’ve still got space for a few more pieces, so I thought I might call upon all of you out there for suggestions. Is there anything you can think of that absolutely, definitely should be in a book of this sort? Or do you have ideas for things I might have overlooked? Because if you do I’d love to hear them.

A few caveats. I’m not looking for unpublished work or submissions. And while it doesn’t have to be Australian I’m very keen for a couple more pieces by Australians. Likewise, given the fact most of the pieces I’ve got so far are by men, I’m very interested in suggestions about work by women which might be suitable. And in the interests of preserving my sanity I’ve also limited the collection to writing in English, so no Jules Verne or Bachelard.

And please don’t assume I’m only after prose. Although the collection is predominantly prose it contains poetry, so suggestions for poems (especially Australian poems!) about the ocean are very welcome. Likewise I’m relaxed about whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, though since this is a book aimed at the general reader I’m not after academic writing, or monographs (which has, much to my regret, precluded a couple of idols of mine like Greg Dening I was hoping to include). What matters is that it feels urgent, and necessary, and – though obviously this isn’t something any of you are able to gauge – that it fit with what’s already in place.

I’ll look forward to your ideas.

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28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nicholas Birns #

    John Blight of course, though this is probbly obvious.

    Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into The Wreck” famously.

    January 29, 2010
  2. Sam #

    I would recommend a newish voice – Jessica Au.

    Below are two links I could find, although she has more ocean-themed stories out there.

    Click to access nautilus.pdf

    January 29, 2010
  3. Thanks to our friend, Ms Reeling and Writhing, I found this post a couple of days ago:

    I really like it.

    I’ve always liked that short story of Liam Davison’s where they’re on a bay, and there’s a party, and there’s a boat (yacht?) sinking and the party goers investigate it. I’ll have to go look up the title now, for is escapes me, and it will send me mad!

    Sounds like a great anthology you’ve got cooking there.

    January 29, 2010
  4. Oh, James, James, you know not what you do. You can refine your aims and motivations till you’re blue in the face, you can write a long introduction in which you painstakingly explain what your criteria were, you can say you were looking for content rather than big names — doesn’t matter what you do, there will always be at least one solipsistic reviewer who regards your choices as a vicious and violent assault on his or her own personal values, preoccupations and/or tastes. Also, they will not actually read the introduction or indeed the poems and stories. Just the contents page.

    A suggestion (though you’ve probably thought of it already): the only poem about the ocean by an Australian woman that I can think of off the top of my head is Judith Wright’s ‘The Surfer’. Judging by the differences between the way men read ‘Breath’ and the way women read it, far more blokes have a mystical approach to swimming and surfing. Then again, women have been viciously excluded from the surfing subculture (at least in Australia) for so many decades that it’s no wonder you can’t find much writing by them about it.

    A thought: I take it you know Rob Drewe’s beach anthology from a few years back? (Was it called The Book of the Beach?) I think that was only Australian writing, and ‘beach’ rather than ‘ocean’, but it is out there. Penguin may have even done that one as well.

    A question: are you going to publish extracts from novels or longer stories? (NB: if you are, then you’ll get canned for that as well.) If so then I will be able to come up with more women writers — Henry Handel Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, A.S. Byatt, Kate Chopin …

    January 29, 2010
  5. Rebecca Giggs #

    JB; there is so much I could direct you to, but to limit citations to a handful – my favourite writing about the ocean (and indeed, possibly my all time favourite book fullstop) is James Hamilton-Paterson’s ‘Seven Tenths – The Sea and its Thresholds’ (London: Hutchinson, 1992). From there you will find many other source-materials. Specific to Australian writing on the sea, Delia Falconer’s short-story ‘Carlton-by-the-Sea’ in ‘The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers and Selected Stories’ (Sydney, New South Wales: Pan Macmillan, 2005) is lyrically lush and brings the sea into the city – “‘In the sea age, before Melbourne dried flat and brown…thirst was a myth. Giant sea monsters tumbled and had no fear of heaviness. Large shellfish glided on the ocean floor: their soft feet did not hesitate. Their forms are pressed into the streets – they buckle tram tracks; they cling to the eaves of houses; they jam doors’. P.213.”. The opening section to Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2002) is worth looking up too. Although most of that book concentrates on roads, from memory it commences with a sea-scene after a hurricane. Rod Giblett writes about Australian wetlands, although it’s more academic work – Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology, Postmodern Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996) – has some very interesting passages and also cites a lot of Australian creative material. There was a collection called ‘A Sea Change’ ed Adam Shoemaker that was commissioned by the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival in 2000 which contains sea writing by well, the usual suspects (Chloe Hooper, Sue Woolfe, oh hang on, yes you’d know about that because I see your name here too). And by now you will have read Booth, Dening, The Picador Book of the Beach, Falkiner on writers landscapes in Aust. etc. too? Longer list avail. on request! If I could offer one request as a reader, I’d be really excited to see some good ecological writing on the ocean – not just nostalgia and childhood and romance, but writing that explores the sea as a site for anxiety with respect to climate change. I look forward to getting my hands on the final anthology.

    January 29, 2010
  6. Rebecca Giggs #

    Oh anndd; another amazing set of writing on the sea is contained within the journals of Sturt and Oxley and Leichhardt and Mitchell etc., from the period in which they are searching for the inland sea. They never find it of course, but as they’re walking (dragging a whaleboat), they write about the fantasy of finding it, what it might look like, how they can smell salt on the air.
    The synecdochic anecdote : after dedicating his life to irrigation and hydrology, C.Y O’Connor shot himself in the surf at a South Fremantle beach…

    January 29, 2010
  7. Rushing now, but just wanted to say thanks to all of you for all your generous suggestions, some of which I’ve already covered, some of which (like John Blight and Jessica Au) I haven’t. And please, if people have more, let me know.

    Rebecca – the Hamilton-Paterson is indeed amazing, though so much of this stuff is. I could, I suspect, just alternate chapters of Seven-Tenths and Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and it’d be the perfect book (a bit of Moby Dick wouldn’t hurt as well). Sadly that’s not an option.

    Kerryn – the gender question is a difficult one here, simply because the field is so dominated by men’s voices. So while I’m trying to stop it being too blokey it’s likely to end up being a bit that way whatever happens. In respect of surfing you may be interested in Fiona Capp’s rather wonderful book, An Oceanic Feeling, which is very interesting about the culture of surfing and what it’s like to be a woman amidst it.

    More later.

    January 29, 2010
  8. I’ve always liked PASSAGE TO JUNEAU by Jonathan Raban, subtitled “A sea and its meanings”. Raban sails the Inland Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska following the voyages of George Vancouver. Great stuff.

    Others: George Turner’s “The Sea and Summer”, though I can’t remember how much about the sea there actually is in that book; “The Sea” by Judith Beveridge (poetry, 2004); and E.J. Brady’s “The Ways of Many Waters” (this last available from Sydney Uni’s SETIS site).

    January 29, 2010
  9. The George Turner is an interesting suggestion, partly because I’ve been trying to resolve how I feel about SF in this context, a question prompted by Ballard’s The Drowned World and Stephen Baxter’s description of London being inundated in Flood.

    Will check out the Beveridge.

    January 29, 2010
  10. And yes, the Raban is wonderful, as is his Book of the Sea from the early 1990s (a resource I’ve found very helpful, though there actually hasn’t ended up being a lot of crossover).

    January 29, 2010
  11. Barbara #

    Have you got tim Winton’s “Breath” – it’s wonderfully oceanic (even though he is a bloke).
    Several years ago I came across a beautiful poem by Nan McDonald (on the old Sarsaparilla blog, I think) that’s called “Glaucus”. Excerpt: “On great white-silver clouds in blue deeps sailing / And darker blue and brighter white, in thunder / The glittering seas sweep is, still mountains high…” There might be a copy in Austlit. Let me know if you can’t find it and I’ll have a go at tracking it down.
    Back to the blokes, there are a couple of nice ocean poems in Shane McCauley’s book “Deep Sea Diver” (the two I’m thinking of are the title poem and “Diving at night to a Coral Reef”).

    January 29, 2010
  12. Pip Newling #

    Hey James, have a look at a debut novel by Australian writer Kirsty Eager – Raw Blue. It is billed as young adult and hasn’t got much press coverage but she writes of Sydney’s northern beaches – main character a 19 year old female surfer having to reconcile issues of Aussie masculinity with her own pursuit of surfing. It is terrific writing – about the ocean and men particularly – and you might be able to pull out a chapter towards the end of the book.

    January 29, 2010
  13. Lucy Sussex #

    One of the interesting things about compiling MY sea anthology (the forthcoming SALTWATER IN THE INK: VOICES FROM THE AUSTRALIAN SEAS) was how my nineteenth century travellers struggled to find the words to describe it. They drew upon hymnals, Latin texts etc but there is always a sense that they knew very well what they were describing was ineffable. Lucy Sussex

    January 29, 2010
    • It’s funny, isn’t it? Our idea of the ocean and wilderness in general is inextricably tangled up with the Romantics, but despite that there is a sense that both are places where language runs out, and you start grasping for superlatives, or lapsing into silence, rather as Lopez does in that wonderful scene of bowing to the bay at the end of Arctic Dreams.

      January 31, 2010
  14. What a pity I never got around to publishing all my oceanic writing!
    No seriously, I am looking forward to this book having just written my thesis on the oceanic. BUt I am an artist, rather than a writer. A swimmer rather than a poetess.

    It completely delighted me that Philip Gross just won the TS Eliot prize or poetry with his beautiful volume “The Water table.” Although he speaks of estuarine water, his poems speak so beautifully of water and oceans, of bodies of water.

    Thank you for the very nice compliment, Karen. (above)

    January 29, 2010
  15. ‘Facing the Pacific at Night’, by Kevin Hart. One of my favourite poems.

    January 29, 2010
  16. Further on the sf/sea front, you might want to have a look at: THE DEEP RANGE by Arthur C. Clarke (a novel about whale-farming); THE GODWHALE by T.J. Bass (whose eponymous protagonist is a cyborg leviathan); THE JONAH KIT by Ian Watson (the imprinting of human consciousness into whales); and OCEANIC by Greg Egan (short story).

    Actually this seems to be more about whales than the sea of oceans per se. But, then, sf writers have always been interested in dolphins or whales as our nearest alien intelligence.

    January 30, 2010
  17. Rachel Carson is perhaps too obvious to mention, but anything from any of her three acclaimed books about the sea would be a great fit.
    I especially like her poetic account in The Sea Around Us of how the ocean was born, created by centuries of rain in our planet’s deep past.
    Or – unless this was originally in French, I’m not sure – Jacques Cousteau on ‘the rapture of the deep’ (nitrogen narcosis) in The Silent World. And there’s always the old man of the sea himself, Herman Melville!

    January 30, 2010
  18. how about that incredible journey by boat towards the end of Carpentaria ? That’s rather oceanic.
    Sounds like it will be a great collection.

    January 30, 2010
  19. Chuck Norris #

    Storm Boy?

    January 31, 2010
  20. Jack Robertson #

    Possibly not quite literal enough to be of use, but Delia Falconer writes about water with unforgettable lyricism and unsettling…um, sensibility, mystery, I dunno, something. I’m struggling a bit to remember titles – pardon my gaps and bad memory, there’s only a few links online quickly accessible – but aside from the innate fluidity of her style a short story like The Water Poets might sneak in? Even more unhelpfully, probably…the first DF thing I ever read, which I think won her a short story award, perhaps way back in the early nineties, sticks in my mind as being..well, oceanic. Can’t say how literally so that was either; I just remember some lines were pure ‘ocean’, all looping, dreamy, fertile, slick, wet, salty…my memory of it could be too vague and/or incongruous to be of any use; could be you’re way ahead of me re: DF, anyway (and much better read). But I do hope you’ve found space for her work/a piece that fits the theme. Even writing about the arid mid-West she brings to mind the topic at hand, somehow.

    More prosaically, Malcolm Knox has done some top stuff on surfing recently – even better, I reckon, that Winton. But somehow I doubt you’ve had any probs finding blokey, chin-strokey, (mmm…hokey!?) prose about wax worship to consider…!

    Good luck with it, James, it sounds wonderful.

    January 31, 2010
  21. Jack Robertson #

    OK, so having read the thread properly I feel like my (usual) twit. ‘Pologies to you (and Rebecca Griggs) for the redundancy. Too-earnest DF fan, s’all.

    January 31, 2010
  22. Jack Robertson #

    ‘Giggs’, pardon me. And now I’ll slink off back to Hicksville…

    January 31, 2010
  23. Ahh, Jack, if typing before you think was a crime I’d be a lifer. But good call on Delia’s story and her work in general. And thanks again to everybody who’s made suggestions. Probably unsurprisingly, many of them are things I’ve already thought of (something which is actually reassuring in a way) but a number aren’t, and I’ll be checking them out. Sorry if it sounds like I’m being coy about which is which, but since I’m still in the process of doing permissions I don’t want to preempt a piece I don’t have locked down yet by saying it’s in or out. One exception might be Cousteau, who I read, then excluded on the grounds it was in French, but David’s comment sent me back to it and I’m delighted to discover it was actually written in English. So thank you.

    And if I could just say I think the best moment in all this has been reading Rebecca’s suggestion about the Shoemaker collection and my story in it. Hilariously I’d completely forgotten that story existed, which doesn’t say much for my skills as an anthologist: overlooking someone else’s writing on the subject is one thing, overlooking your own is another altogether, I think. (FWIW I don’t think I’ll use it).

    So thank you everyone, and please, keep the suggestions coming.

    ps Jack – sorry I haven’t replied to your comment on my Avatar post. I wanted to say something sensible but it’s been such a nightmarish week (small baby, 3yo and loads of work do not mix well) I haven’t had a chance. But thanks – it was appreciated.

    January 31, 2010
  24. Barbara #

    This is a northern waters one … One of the most impressive books about the ocean that I’ve read in recent years is The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. Apart from the dramatic story of the creation and duration of the storm, and the human element, I loved the “science” (for wont of a better word) of the making of waves, and the way Junger filled in the gaps in the factual story from imagination.

    January 31, 2010
  25. Jack Robertson #

    James, thanks for the graciousness. Never mind my Avatar post, just my usual grandiloquent waffling over-reach. I seem to have caught a rare literary disease in the last few years which requires me to write ‘epistemological’ at least once a day somewhere online.

    Looking forward to your next Avatar instalments, if/as domestic obligations permit. (Yikes, I have only the three year old, and that’s pram enough in my hall – AKA, convenient male excuse for procrastination). I’ve always enjoyed immensely what you have to write on the big shifts underway, invisible under our very noses. And your blogroll link to the great Kevin Kelly is a kind of secret sign; a discrete shingle heralding your prescient purchase of the local franchise rights, even!

    January 31, 2010
  26. James, there’s a remarkable book called ‘the Outlaw Sea’ by William Langewiesche which covers shipping in our time, which might sound as interesting as a stack of containers but is truly fascinating, almost required reading. But then of course there’s Stephen Crane’s story ‘the open boat’ which I heard again recently on the book reading and must be one of the most vivid descriptions of shipwreck…

    February 1, 2010
  27. Verity #

    You may well crush the keyboard with your forehead when I suggest this, as the poet is male, and translated from Spanish, but Pablo Neruda is the most astounding writer of the ocean. ‘Ode To The Sea’ (a little obvious), ‘Rapa Nui’ (Easter Island), ‘The Ships’. Evie Wyld’s ‘After the Fire’ holds a few great visits to the ocean, too.

    February 2, 2010

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