True Romance: Redefining Our Literary Relationship with the Ocean

Adventure, escape, solace, the unknown. For centuries writers have captured the water that covers two thirds of the world’s surface in a certain way. And as readers we have revelled in it. But in the age of the climate crisis, is the time for romanticising the ocean long gone?

By: Clare Howdle,   13 minutes

In March 1978, author Amitav Ghosh was caught in a freak storm in Delhi. Hail shattered windows, gales upended vehicles, the sky churned. It was over in minutes, but it made its mark – on the city and on Ghosh. In his famous 2016 work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, he uses the storm and his realisation he could not draw on it for his fiction as a motif for what he sees as one of the most significant cultural problems of our time.

That the tornado which raged around him was too far-fetched for the sort of literary realist tradition we are all used to. And yet it was real. Very real. Floods, typhoons, hurricanes, wild fires have become almost permanent fixtures on the daily news. All of which caused Ghosh to interrogate and arrive at an uncomfortable truth. The way writers and creatives are predominantly capturing the world around us has more to do with aspiration, desire and nostalgia than what is really there – and this disconnect between the world as depicted in literary realism and the actual, real world itself will be observed in decades to come as a peculiar and damaging phenomenon.

In autumn 2021, a group of likeminds gathered in a warehouse in St Ives. Looking out over the thumping waves of Porthmeor Beach, writers, artists and storytellers shared insights, experiences and tales of the ocean as the dawn faded and day bled in across the bay. It looked magical, ethereal, otherworldly. It drew everyone in, gleefully imagining the swirling forces of the deep, the majesty of the pitch and drop, the towering swell. Then author Georgie Codd said something that changed everything. “We all romanticise the ocean and it’s not helping,” she explained, wrapping up her conversation about the ocean and creativity. “It’s getting in the way of us understanding it and in part I think writers are to blame.”

“We all romanticise the ocean and it’s not helping. It’s getting in the way of us understanding it and in part I think writers are to blame.”

Like Ghosh’s tornado experience, Codd’s observation encourages bigger questions. Is there a significant disconnect between the way we view, write about and read the ocean and the reality it exists in? Are writers truly complicit in the rose-tinted hue which prevents us from seeing the truth about our seas?

As campaigning around COP26 in October highlighted, thanks to the wilful destruction of ocean habitats, overfishing and plastic, sewage and chemical pollution, we only have eight years to turn the tide before the destruction is irreversible. Suddenly staring out wistfully over the water writing down quotable lines about the beauty of the ocean feels not only superficial but potentially detrimental to the climate crisis cause. Is every ‘magical’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘otherworldly’ we use to describe the ocean only applying another peachy layer to the lens that is hiding the severity of the problem?

Monsters of the deep

Codd certainly thinks so. Starting with herself. In her narrative non-fiction book We Swim to the Shark (Little, 2020), she attempts to overcome her fear of fish by seeking out and swimming with the biggest fish in the sea. But in the writing of it she fast realised that she was falling victim to the tropes and stereotypes we are all so familiar with when it comes to ocean stories.

“I was writing about the ocean as a place of adventure, and of the whale shark as an apex animal that I wanted readers to be scared of, so I could convey the extent of the fear that I had,” she explains. “It was in the Kraken, Moby Dick, demonising vein, that long tradition of alienising sea creatures with tales of the deep and worlds to conquer or overcome. The more I researched, read and wrote, the more I realised how damaging it was, writing about them in that way. They aren’t aliens, they are residents of this planet, of an ecosystem we’re destroying because we can distance ourselves from it.”

Codd had a reckoning in her own writing and addressed her depiction, and even motivations for writing the book (“Would I do what I did to write the book again today? I don’t think so.”) But it also heightened her awareness of what’s happening all around. “As a culture, we are at risk of creating a cartoon version of the sea that is so reductive, because it’s the world we want to see, not the reality we are too frightened to confront. I have to fight against myself to try not to be complicit in that, which started with We Swim… but continues to this day. It’s really difficult because as a writer I want to present a shiny exciting thing that keeps somebody reading, and I think it’s fair to say with a lot of things that if you attach art to the climate emergency topic it immediately turns off a huge amount of people. Because art is so often reached for as an escape and a balm and these are not soothing things to read about.”

For Ben Smith, author of Doggerland (Fourth Estate, 2019), the issue of cultural disconnect is at the heart of the Anthropocene (the proposed term for the epoch dating from the start of humanity’s significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystem). “Historically, the ocean has been depicted as this wilderness, the great unknown which is appealing for readers, and yet we’ve had an impact on every part of the ocean on a bewildering scale that we don’t want to, or can’t yet, fully comprehend,” he says. “Writing and art are always a reflection of the preoccupations of a particular society. So if society wants pristine, powerful or exotic from its ocean literature, it can be hard for narratives to evolve away from that.”

In Ghosh’s book, he writes about how literature – or more broadly culture – and desire are intrinsically linked too. He cites the gallons of desalinated water that go into creating ‘Austen’esque stately lawns in Abu Dhabi, or how “when we see an advertisement that links a picture of a tropical island to the world paradise, the longings that are kindled in us have a chain of transmission that stretches back to Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rosseau.” Culture, Ghosh explains, generates desire. And desire is aspirational. So there is little call for representing the natural world, the current climate, as it really is. Because who would see that as something to aspire to?

“Writing and art are always a reflection of the preoccupations of a particular society so if society wants pristine, powerful or exotic from its ocean literature it can be hard for narratives to evolve away from that.”

Have some character

He goes on to assert that, “The question which confronts writers today is to do with their own practice and how it makes them complicit in the concealment of the problem.” Being complicit is not a problem Smith wrestles with. His novel, set on a deteriorating windfarm in the North Sea, is a realisation of his own climate crisis compass and his fascination with the Anthropocene both shaping his portrayal of the ocean on the page.

“Good literature doesn’t just mirror society’s preoccupations, but rather has a role to play in challenging those preoccupations and offering new perspectives,” he continues. “With Doggerland, I wanted the ocean to be a character in the sense of being an active agent in the story, not just some benign force but an elemental part of who we are and what shapes us, humanity being ordered by this feedback loop of the ocean.” For him it wasn’t about looking to the ocean as a backdrop, or a metaphor for his characters’ internal conflict. “I needed the elements to be intrinsic for them,” he explains, “defining their actions, their decisions, their perceptions so that more broadly it became a mechanism for reminding us of our past but also making us think about our future.”

In Every Seventh Wave (Salt, 2021), author Tom Vowler places a similar emphasis on the intrinsic connection between the ocean and humanity; “nature as a part of us, not apart from us”. His novel sees the ocean as central to the story, a thrumming bass that drives the action, that his characters turn to, that shapes the course of their lives.

“I was very interested in not having the sea as merely a decoration, or dormant, or something whimsical that characters gazed out at ethereally and lost themselves in,” he says. “I wanted to connect my characters with the sea so that it wasn’t antithetical to them, it wasn’t something distinctive or different or detached, removing the otherness but still respecting it as an elemental force, by acknowledging it is part of who we are.”

Vowler’s sea is both giver and taker, bringing people together but also simultaneously undermining the house where the protagonist is trying to rebuild his life, the elements eroding the cliff it stands on. “I became really interested in how throughout history the sea has been this provider of things for humans – whether that be fuel, or food, or travel – but also a remover, taking land, ships, people,” he continues. “The nature of the ocean and its part in our evolution became a linchpin for exploring our relationship with nature and one that made me realise the sea had to be a central character in the book.”

Time for change

In their novels, both authors present a temporal magnitude to the landscape that brings awe and intrigue in equal measure. Exploring how long water has existed, how the land has evolved under its power, how water has moved, changed form, shaped the planet all become important tools in closing the gap between people and place. In the eponymously named Doggerland, extracts chart the course of the site of the windfarm, the land beneath the waves and its evolution over millennia. In Every Seventh Wave, Vowler considers the infinite nature of water and how its molecular structure ensures it will always find its way to the sea.

Adding this depth and perspective to the ocean, over time and in connection with humanity, asks us as readers to engage, to consider, to be curious. And that in itself, Vowler thinks, is part of the battle. “I’m very keen to explore how humans have used the sea or interacted with it over time. You have to be really careful that you’re not giving your readers too much of a moral whipping with it, but at the same time it’s really important to write stories that have strong ideas around place in them, encouraging engagement on a deeper level.”

Smith agrees. “Writing about the ocean doesn’t have to hinge on aspiration and desire,” he says. “It can be about using place in a way that invites curiosity. That’s an interesting space for a writer to explore and one which readers seem increasingly keen on.”

“The more we as writers can stop the distinction and disconnection of character from the places we inhabit, the better, because that can only bring about a deeper respect for place and the impact we have upon it.”

The popularity of nature writing in recent years certainly seems to bolster Smith’s argument. Is this a sign of the times? A new appetite for writing that doesn’t other the landscape but instead pulls it into view, in all its stark, real beauty?

For Vowler, writing Every Seventh Wave was a direct response to the decline of treatment of place in fiction (something he correlates with the trappings of modernity and consumerism), and simultaneously as part of the growing counter movement to bring it back. “Readers are hungrier for writing about place and seeing the work that’s coming through which speaks to that is exciting,” he says. “The more we as writers can stop the distinction and disconnection of character from the places we inhabit, the better, because that can only bring about a deeper respect for place and the impact we have upon it.”

Genre trap

Of course, not everyone has an appetite for the centralisation of nature and the truly realistic depiction of the world around us now. The rise of ‘Cli Fi’ as a genre and the attempt to pigeonhole novels that situate their stories in a world affected by climate change (which Smith argues in his own exploration of the topic is in fact any novel set in the modern day and not genre novels at all), could itself be seen as a testament to the inability of the industry to break beyond the bounds of our disconnected interpretations of nature as other to us. It’s a view that Smith has encountered multiple times and one that seems to regularly come with the territory for novels like his. “As a lot of people writing novels that depict the impact of climate change will point out, it’s not science fiction, it shouldn’t be seen as such. It is absolutely about realism. If you’re writing a detailed description of the beach these days it would be disingenuous not to include the plastic. That’s the world today and it needs to be captured.”

But we want beauty and escape, the reader massive cries. We want to romanticise the ocean. We don’t want microplastics in our wrack lines. Well the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “If you are writing realist fiction, it should be realist,” Smith continues, “but that doesn’t have to hinge on climate change issues explicitly. It can’t, in fact because there is still a residual and inherent challenge with causality that fiction cannot seem to reckon with. Fiction which tackles climate change doesn’t have to mean any more than simply foregrounding setting as more of an active agent, that shakes people in certain ways and has an impact on their lives.”

And then he throws out a gamechanger:  “Perhaps what we’re talking about is a return to romantic with a capital R, in the sense of the sublime. Perhaps that’s how we should be considering and capturing our relationship with the ocean now.”

Romance and narrative

Wait what? Romance is the lens through which we want to view the ocean? Well in a way… Romanticism was an arts and literature movement in the 18th and 19th centuries centred on imagination, emotion and freedom. It was characterised by the power of the individual, the glorification of nature, and was a direct response to the Industrial Revolution and components of modernity. Romantics emphasised intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing focus on emotions such as fear, horror, terror and awe, especially those experienced in confronting the beauty of nature.

Interesting, isn’t it? Because right now it does kind of feel like we need to experience intense emotion in relation to the beauty of nature more than ever before. Like we need to recognise the freedom and power of the individual to make choices and affect change, to shun modernity and seek heart and possibility in the glory of the natural world. So maybe Smith is right? Could the way out of the disconnection conundrum be about not breaking our romance with the ocean, but instead capitalising it in terms relevant to the 21st century? And can masterful storytellers with a captivating command of place help us do it?

The power of stories

Conservation biologist and visual storyteller Kaushiik Subramaniam believes stories hold the power, explaining that he thinks it’s about taking an all hands on deck approach to tackling the climate crisis. “Sir David Attenborough got it right when he said the climate emergency is as much a communications challenge as it is a scientific one,” he says. “It’s a delicate balance of evoking emotions in people and getting a call to action, but also telling them the truth that’s needed. And perhaps our writers and creatives are the best placed to be able to strike that balance. We need the most talented of storytellers among us to show the reality as much as the picture we have built up in our head of the ocean, that one cannot exist, will not ever exist again, without an acceptance of the other.”

But will people listen? What all of this boils down to is whether fiction is the place to incite change and encourage action. Can literature really do that? “We have to believe it can. It’s going to take a holistic approach to getting information across and getting people to make changes. People don’t want to be told what to do. I hate being told what to do. It has to be their choice – to find out more, to be curious, to be angry, to care. All we can do is put the information out there in however many different ways we can and try to impact as many people as possible in that way, using different approaches,” he says. “It’s in the imaginative worlds we dream up, in the news stories we read, in the photographs we take and where we choose to aim our lens. As a marine photographer and storyteller as well as a scientist, I have a choice to make: do I capture the pristine beautiful shot of the ocean and the wildlife in it, or do I pan out wider, include the ghostly plastic bag floating just out of shot to tell the story of the impact we’re having on the ocean around us? I know which camp I’m in.”

So with capital R Romance at its most real, has daydreaming about sunny shores, azure waters and crystal clear waves had its day? No more adventures, incredible creatures, or longing gazes? “We still need to find the beauty and the magic of the ocean,” Kaush laughs. “It’s an incredible landscape that will always be a draw for storytellers just as it should be. It’s a place of wonder, to marvel at and to revel in. But we need to do all that it in a way which encourages active engagement rather than passive voyeurism, that helps us see the world as it is, and our impact upon it so we are left with questions about what we as individuals can do to be the change the world needs.”

Back in the warehouse on Porthmeor beach, Codd is telling a story about a snail found in the hydrothermal vents on the Indian Ocean floor. As she describes the way the snail’s foot is amoured with iron-mineralised deposits and the rarity of this creature that was only recently discovered, the audience listens on in wonder, (a little terror) and awe. And in that moment, it all fits into place. How these discussions, these stories, whether they are of freak storms obliterating coastlines, eroding cliffs eating the land from beneath our feet, plastic pebbles glinting along the shoreline in their millions, salt water silently offering up the remnants of our lives, or a little snail in the darkest part of the ocean that has only just been found and may not exist for much longer, can be both magical and horrifying; beautiful and bleak. These stories characterise our relationship with the ocean as one of awe, frustration, longing, revelation, hope and deep, deep, connection with what’s truly real. Happening all around us. Right now. They can inspire us to think, to care, to change.

Sounds like true Romance to me.


Ocean Romance Reading List

The Great Derangement, by Amitav Ghosh (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

We Swim to the Shark, by Georgie Codd (Little, 2019)

Doggerland by Ben Smith (Harper Collins, 2020)

Every Seventh Wave by Tom Vowler, (Salt, 2021)

Buy Kaushiik Subramaniam’s prints and find out more about his work:


Image Credits

Nick Pumphrey, @

Brian Sumner (via Unsplash)

Clare Howdle

Kaushiik Subramaniam, IG: @kaushman /

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