In Other Words

Travel Writing Ain’t What It Used to Be

If you like your adventure stories devoid of any eating, prayer, or love, try the classics.

"Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans: all I knew of the South Slavs," Rebecca West writes in her classic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an account of her travel through the former Yugoslavia between the two world wars. "And since there proceeds steadily from [the southeastern corner of Europe] a stream of events which are a source of danger to me, which indeed for four years threatened my safety and during that time deprived me for ever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny…. [The Balkan Peninsula] was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey which might explain to me how I shall die, and why."

I’m wondering what Avi Davis thought as she set of to document Romania in her piece, "The Undead Travel," originally printed in the Believer and now collected in The Best American Travel Writing 2010 anthology. Probably, "Hm, Romania. That’s the one with the vampires, yes?" She eats the tripe soup because it was "recommended by my guidebook." She reduces a complicated, bloody, mythologically and historically rich nation (and because closed off under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, still mysterious) to stories of Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It’s unfair to compare an amateur travel writer with the great Rebecca West, an article written for a magazine with a 600-page seminal tome, but it is fair to say that something is missing from contemporary travel writing. We are way past the golden age of Graham Greene riding a donkey through the Mexican jungle, W. Somerset Maugham sailing the South Seas (and spying on Russia for the British government), Patrick Leigh Fermor walking across all of postwar Europe, not to mention Bruce Chatwin, West, Julio Cortázar, and many others. It has only been 50 years, but the distance seems uncrossable.

There’s a reason why you still find so many dusty paperbacks of In Patagonia stuffed in the back pockets of travelers in Argentina. Chatwin’s book is not simply the story of one man’s journey — it reveals the timeless nature of the land and its people by rooting his adventures in the odd and surprising history of the place. But somewhere down the line, that sort of thing went out of fashion. Both travel and writing have changed dramatically in the past 50 years, with the result that it’s been ages since we’ve seen a work that lasts beyond the remaindering season.

It’s not just the tech that has changed things, the Wi-Fi cafes in tiny villages, the jet travel to anywhere in the world, the iPhone apps that make translation the act of pressing a button, the online airline bookings that can get you out of any horrible travel situation in a few minutes. Nor is it that the most remote regions of the world, from Siberia to Antarctica to North Korea have been trammeled by travel writers looking for a unique angle to justify their existence. What we want to read has also changed. As travel got easier, faster, and more accessible, the spread of service journalism began. An army of budding travel writers was set loose on the world with the mission to cultivate restaurant recommendations, hotel listings, the 10 most beautiful beaches, all in 35 words or fewer. With that sort of apprenticeship, it’s no wonder the genre has been taken over by the reductive.

Long-form travel writing has always been mostly about the writer. It’s a first-person account of an expedition into uncharted territories. Authors went off to search for truth and beauty and pleasure, and came back with grand stories about human nature, the weirdness of exile, and the spirit of the place. (They also returned with memorable and useful life skills, like Sir Richard Francis Burton’s advice on the best way to learn a foreign language: Lie in the arms of a beautiful married woman and she will teach you all the proper vocabulary to navigate society — and when her husband discovers you, you will learn all the coarse street language you will ever need.)

But the first-person narrative has changed dramatically over the last 50 years with the rise of the memoir, and outer territories have been abandoned for inner ones. If everyone can hop on a plane to Patagonia, what distinguishes your story from mine? Well, me, of course. So we have shelf after shelf of books of men and women walking across Spain, going to the islands, riding horseback across Mongolia, and coming back with stories about what they learned about themselves.

I recently read two travel pieces by Jessica Olien. In the first, "How Elizabeth Gilbert Ruined Bali" printed on the Gawker-owned website, she bemoaned all of the middle-age women in Bali, looking for love and healing, writing their own versions of Eat, Pray, Love. A week later, this same woman had a piece in Salon, called "My Ironic ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Romance" saying she met the man of her dreams. In Bali.

Compare this with Maugham, whose short story "Rain," based on a missionary couple the author met while journeying to the South Seas in 1917, anticipates much of the post-colonial calamities of the post-World War II world, and says much about the motivations and consequences for people — and nations — suffering from white-knight syndrome. With little agenda of his own, Maugham simply quietly observed, letting the clash of the old world and the new, rich and the poor, play out in front of him at the bridge table.

Greene was another Brit interested in colonialism and its slow crumble. Some of his best-known and best-written books — The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter — are powerful accounts of the consequences of meddling. He fed his novels by traveling extensively, through Mexico, into Africa, to leper colonies, to Southeast Asia. His travel writing from these places emits a world weariness that feels startlingly modern. Life is more transient now than it ever was before, with migration and travel being commonplace. It has changed our culture and our lives and our nations, and Greene experienced it all for us decades ago.

In his book about his 1937 trip through Mexico, The Lawless Roads, Greene writes, "The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers
." Much of Greene’s writing dealt with the agony of travel and the fatigue that comes from waking up in the morning unsure where in the world you might be. Yet the pull of wanderlust always takes him back on the road, with a selective amnesia about how previous travels have gone — a startlingly modern paradox that Greene shares with everyone from Mexican migrant workers to British party kids.

In guest editor Bill Buford’s introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2010, he writes that the travel writer’s axiom is "I saw, you didn’t." That’s also the axiom of the journalist, which is what much of travel writing has become. The journalist pares down and simplifies, whereas the writer expands and creates worlds. Many entries in the anthology follow the standard travel journalism formula: a few facts picked up on Wikipedia plus a handful of meaty descriptions of landscape, one funny anecdote about cultural differences, topped off with one harrowing travel moment. (And then there’s always that one guy who thinks he’s Hemingway. In this book, it’s Colby Buzzell in his essay "Down and Out in Fresno and San Francisco." He smokes crack in the Tenderloin to really get into the heads of the addicts around him.) You might have a vicarious experience, but the insight starts and stops at, "Isn’t this neat?"

Do we still need the travel writer? In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote that "sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time." You get the feeling that most travel writers these days are just passing through, missions and checklists in hand. Travel is about more than sunny beaches, fruit drinks served by the sexually attractive. It’s more than being a fuzzy version of Hemingway. It’s about how the world works. The ease of the transitory has hidden the necessity of the eternal. There are still uncharted depths, boys. But a guidebook is not going to help you get there.

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