Why Fiction is Suddenly Swimming with Mermaids

Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut novel The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is an enchanting tale about a merchant, a prostitute, and mythical creatures set in Georgian London. Her novel is among a new trend of mermaid novels, so we asked Gowar to examine why readers are suddenly hearing the siren call of these half-human protagonists.

One summer when I was eight or nine, my parents took me to a castle in Antibes, the Chateau Grimaldi. It sat high above the sea, sheer walls giving way to sheer cliffs. I leant over the battlements staring down at the roiling sea, and felt a vertiginous longing; a terrible fear of the muscular, pulverising waves below combined with an intense desire to leap into them. I understood that this was not the kind of thought I should have, but it revisited me every time I was by the sea (brown crags off the east coast of England, usually, on drizzly days with rattling pebbles rolling underfoot). I became interested in mermaids not as candy-colored waifs, but as agents of vastness, power, destruction.

I was excited by the idea of girls who could withstand the chill and the salt and the stone-crushing belligerence of the ocean; that the longing and terror I felt came not from the water but from the women within it.

This year has seen an extraordinary glut of mermaid novels by women writers, no two the same. We, the Splash generation, shared our bathtubs with red-haired Ariel dolls: Mermaids were presented to us early, and perhaps we spent our growing years disassembling them, and remodeling them as more faithful reflections of femaleness as we found it.

When we write about mermaids, we write about women: As we peel back the veneer of prettiness, dig through the strata of storytelling, we find a thousand shards of ourselves to reject or reclaim. Mermaids, being between states, have many states, which is sometimes dangerous— as Louise O’Neill points out in The Surface Breaks, her blistering take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, a woman out of place must be put back in it— but also presents a freedom to question convention, and to be frank about feelings we might otherwise suppress. To write about mermaids is also to write about escape.

“What would be the point of a mermaid who looked like any other girl?” asks Pearl, a professional mermaid performer with a screen-printed tail and a collection of wigs “the color of childhood” in Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming. Not for her punters a “sinister, shifting fish-girl”: They want escapism. The mundane tricks of the trade—the effort, the discomfort—are, like all beauty regimes, hidden away. “No amount of sequins or pink hair will help you” if you haven’t the strength to swim in a heavy tail, or to maintain the air in your lungs until you reach a discreet breathing tube. The Surface Breaks makes horrifyingly explicit the suffering a mermaid on land must undergo. Her hard-won legs “end in two open wounds, stringy flesh falling off exposed bone”; she starves herself to please first the Sea King, then her human paramour. Encountering a beautiful fat woman, she is shocked: “I did not know that such a body was even allowed to exist.”

Illusion, obfuscation, artifice are every mermaid’s stock-in-trade. Researching my own novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, I was struck by the cognitive dissonance of eighteenth-century collectors. Their “mermaid” specimens—grotesque mummified creatures, often made from monkeys’ torsos stitched to salmon tails—looked nothing like those in their imagination, and yet one served as evidence that the other might just exist. The high-class brothel where Hancock’s mermaid is displayed is decked in gorgeous pearls and corals—so are the prostitutes—and it’s a collective triumph of will to ignore the fact that the specimen at the centre of this masquerade is repellent. In the “amphibious” society of 1780s London, country girls hope to transform themselves into duchesses, and merchants to make their fortune in novelties. When my main character, Angelica Neal, swims naked in a fountain singing a sea-shanty, she is a purveyor of erotic wish-fulfillment, no more presenting a real mermaid than she is her real self.

These contemporary novels share a suspicion of mermaids’ fabled beauty, which rarely exists for their own benefit. The great deceit of the mermaid myth—and the woman myth—is that they owe their power to mere sexual allure: Whether the mermaid is real or fake, her looks are a skimming over of her physical or psychic strength.

Even Heinrich Heine’s Lorelei, from his 1824 poem, is “the fairest of maidens,” although it’s her voice that’s dangerous. The boatman lured to his death is not inflamed by passion but “seized with a savage woe.” It isn’t sex that hooks you; it’s sadness.

In The Surface Breaks there is another race of mermaid, the Rusalkas: “the jilted, the victims, the orphans, and the abused,” drowning and devouring men as retribution for their crimes. They are embodiments of every dreadful wrong women swallow, and therefore shunned by their gorgeous cousins until late in the book when their rage becomes a positive force.

This is the deepest escape of all. Sylvia Plath’s poem, also Lorelei, is a seduction to death or oblivion: Her mermaids “sing/ Of a world more full and clear /Than can be”—the ache of the sea’s vastness is a sensation that must be dulled and suppressed and forgotten: the void is sharp as a diamond, painful in its purity; it is indifferent to us, and we are drawn to it because we long to be lost.

Near the beginning of Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, its main character Lucy is “scared of [the ocean’s] wild ambivalence, so powerful and amorphous, like the depression itself. It didn’t give a fuck about me.” Running from life’s disappointments (a break-up; pulled PhD funding; fading youth), Lucy is torn between feeling nothing, and losing herself in feeling. The death sirens offer seems, “the greatest love…to die intoxicated by love and lust,” and as it turns out Theo, the merman she meets on the beach, is a creature of sexual fantasy not so different from his traditional female counterparts.

On land, he is physically dependent on Lucy. Hiding from the rest of the world, his eye cannot wander; he offers her mindblowing sex and a relationship that is in effect her personal sandbox in which to work out how deeply she wishes to touch the void, and how devotedly she can bear to love and be loved. Men treat women this way all the time, but some mer-magic is required to subvert the roles.

A mermaid is a prism, which scatters a million visions of womanhood to pick and close from. When we write about mermaids, we have options. How many layers of artifice are there between ourselves and our feelings? What bonds would we like to slip, if we could?

We can choose vengefulness, sexual autonomy, beauty, delicacy, pounding grief. The gorgeous swirling-haired mermaid of fairytale is available to us, but so is the siren calling the exhausted to oblivion. There are many ways to be, and many ways to escape.

Cybil, September 05, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog
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The Ultimate Romance Pen Name Generator

Sure, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but would it endear you to a romance author? We love romance novelists (and, oftentimes, their noms de plume), so we thought it might be a fun game to suggest what your romance author name could be!

To play along, match your name’s initials to the chart below. You never know. Maybe this will inspire you to become the next Colleen Hoover. We’re looking at you, Flauvia le Fay!

By Cybil, February 12, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog

20 Top-Rated Books for Every Kind of Getaway

Planning for your next vacation? Some immersive reading can be a fun way to prepare. Whether you’re globe-trotting or staying close to home, we created several bookish itineraries to help complement your call to adventure.

For this roundup, we took a look at both fiction and nonfiction titles with a setting or plot that closely matched the several types of getaways listed below. From there, we narrowed our list to include only books with a 3.7 star rating or above. This is why some travel classics like On the Road were not featured.

If You’re Hitting the Road…

One Plus One Amy & Roger's Epic Detour Take Me With You Paper Towns

If You’re at the Beach…

The Prince of Tides The Light Between Oceans To the Lighthouse Summer People

If You’re Backpacking…

Into the Wild A Walk in the Woods The Alchemist Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

If You’re Experiencing Another Culture…

Seven Years in Tibet A Year in Provence Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica Under the Tuscan Sun

If You’re Planning an Epic Staycation

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy NOS4A2 American Gods The Lord of the Rings
What books would you recommend for these types of getaways? Let us know in the comments!
By Marie, May 14, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog

 

Infographic: Anatomy of a Prize Winner

Ah, the nuts and bolts of a prizewinning book. Who writes these victorious books? Are they men or women? Whose stories are being told? Who is reading them? And what books are the best of the bunch if you want a great read?

At Goodreads, we have long been interested in the subject of professional opinion versus user-generated opinion, so this year we thought it was high time to revisit the anatomy of a prizewinning book.

We learned that male authors win more often than female authors, and novels centered on a woman’s journey don’t win major literary prizes as often as stories about men or featuring multiple protagonists. Men tend to win more and write about men’s stories more. In fact, an in-depth analysis of book data on Goodreads found that only 18 percent of 95 prizewinning books from 2000 to 2017 featured a woman as the standalone main character.

Together with the analytics team, engineers, and designers, we looked at a random sample size of 40,000 active members on the site (20,000 men and 20,000 women) and examined 95 prizewinning books from 2000 to 2017. These books won the following prizes: PEN/Faulkner AwardsPulitzer PrizesNational Book AwardsThe Man Booker Prizes, and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Awards.

The results support a very interesting 2015 study by author and researcher Nicola Griffith. It’s also been two years since Griffith’s post, so we looked to see if there were any new trends in the data.

In 2016 and 2017 the ten works included in our research mainly followed the same pattern as the one Griffith saw, with more male authors winning, and more books with a lead male protagonist winning. Even this week, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fictionwas awarded to Andrew Sean Greer for Less: A Novel, which according to our site is an enjoyable read, but still a book by a man about a man. Interestingly, there was one book in the past two years that bucked the trend entirely, The Underground Railroad, which featured a female protagonist and was written by a male author (Colson Whitehead).

So, please enjoy this infographic! We’ll let you debate all the glorious questions that come forth. Why do stories about men get more conventional endorsement? Interesting counterpoint: The Pacific Standard points out that among best-selling authors, men and women are represented equally. What surprises you? What doesn’t?

Happy reading!
Elizabeth

P.S. For more fun reading data, check out our earlier infographic Sex and Reading!

 

By Elizabeth, April 19, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog

16 of the Hottest Romance Books of Summer

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the bookstore. This season’s crop of highly anticipated books has something for every reader with love and lust on the mind.

Are you ready for it? Here are the buzziest romances of the season.

All Your Perfects Dr. Strangebeard Between You & Me Dirty Sexy Player
Stygian The Governess Game Matchmaking for Beginners Even Money
The Kiss Quotient The Naked Truth Losing the Field Julien
Tight Quarters Cooper's Charm Blind Kiss Getting Schooled
By Hayley, June 19, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog

The 24 All-Time Favorite Book Club Picks on Goodreads

book club picks

A successful book club pick must accomplish many things. For starters, it has to be a great read that the busy people in your club will make time to devour. It must also prompt a compelling and passionate conversation. It’s no wonder that picking your book club’s next book can feel like so much pressure. But don’t worry, we’ve done all of the research for you.

In fact, after we looked at the current most popular book club picks on the site, we got even more curious. We wanted to know which books are the all-time most popular book club picks on the Goodreads? We dug into our data to find this list of classics for your next meeting of bookworms, from the most popular pick, The Book Thief, to Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, there’s a book here to please even the most demanding readers.

The Book ThiefThe Hunger GamesAll the Light We Cannot SeeThe HelpThe Fault in Our StarsThe Night CircusThe Girl on the TrainGone GirlThe Light Between OceansThe Handmaid's TaleThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksReady Player OneRoomThe MartianTo Kill a MockingbirdMe Before YouDivergentThe Great GatsbyA Man Called OveUnbrokenOrphan TrainMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar ChildrenThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Cybil, May 24, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog

 

June Is National AUDIOBOOK MONTH!

Maybe you already love audiobooks; been hooked ever since you got The Lord of the Rings on 13 audio cassette tapes for your birthday in 1987.

Or maybe you’ve just started to notice how many people seem to be listening to audiobooks these days. It may never reach the popularity of good old print (ink or digital), but the number of people that are discovering the convenience and appeal of having a book read to you while you drive/mow the yard/jog/wash the dishes/etc. is growing all the time.

If you’ve been curious but hesitant, there is no time like National Audiobook Month to try out audiobooks for yourself.

To help get you started, below is a list of the best audiobook recommendations for newbies from goodreads.com.

Audiobooks

Interested? Don’t forget to stop by the library to check them out on CD or to download the e-audio version to listen to on your phone or tablet.