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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In Other Words

Travel Writing Is Dead

Eat, Pray, Love was just the nail in the coffin. An ardent traveler looks at an entire genre gone narcissistic and brainless.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, high priest of American letters and patron saint of homebodies everywhere, reserved his harshest words for the voyager. Travel, he famously wrote, "is a fool's paradise," a sickness that afflicts those who don't realize that wisdom is inward. Instead of broadening the mind, travel narrows it.

If Emerson is correct, my mind must be so narrow by now that I could fit my head through a standard-size letter slot. I have measured out my adult life in passport pages, acquiring stamps from most countries that exist and several that do not. I have written about dozens of them, and each time I produce what one might call "travel writing," I can hear Ralph Waldo sneering that I'd be better off saving my plane fare.

Travel, of course, has its uses. The travel writer at his best is a sort of prophet, reporting realities abroad that don't register at home until sometimes much later. Travel writing is a way of seeing the world through the eyes of one who has the time and luxury to look at it directly, rather than through the distortions of propagandists and wishful thinkers. In 1974, when Paul Theroux traveled through Iran on the journey that produced The Great Railway Bazaar, he found the country loaded with howling religious crazies -- a truer prerevolutionary portrait, he later pointed out, than the one offered by the patronizing scolds on the payroll of the Shah, who disputed his account and claimed Tehran was a reliable U.S. friend with an inexhaustible appetite for Western military hardware. And when the travel writer is not prophesying our futures, he is recording pasts we never knew. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote with 40 years' hindsight about a trip across Europe as a teen, underestimated the Nazi menace when he was bumping steins with the SS in the Hofbräuhaus. But his depiction of the frail monarchies of Eastern Europe, on the verge of being crushed into dust by the twin juggernauts of Nazism and communism, is the best we will ever have.

But we are now at a low tide in the powers of travel writing. Travel has changed, and with it so has travel writing, overwhelmingly for the worse. An epidemic of Internet-age frivolity is doing its best to prove the Sage of Concord right: Call it Emerson's revenge. Where travelers once brought back invaluable stolen glances at places that the rest of us could only guess about, the new breed combines the worst of the traveler and the worst of the homebody. The writer goes overseas but brings back news about a tedious inner crisis, leaving undisturbed any insights about the places visited. Eat, Pray, Love -- to take only the easiest target as an example -- is a whole memoir premised on the notion that even the most decadent, boring, and conventional kinds of travel somehow heal the soul and can turn a suburban ninny into a Herodotus or a Basho.

The simplest reason for this catastrophic turn is that it is easier than ever to travel, and not at all easier to write well. In 1955, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote that travel is "an unavoidable drawback" of acquainting oneself with the world: "There are hours of inaction ... and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose.... The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when they have been separated from this dross." The good news for travelers is that these inconveniences are disappearing. The bad news for readers is that those inconveniences are the very stuff that concentrates the mind and transmutes narcissism into something approaching insight.

With travel so easy, the ability to prophesy in a valuable way on the strength of a quick impression looks more and more to be a dying art, like guessing weights at a carnival. When V.S. Naipaul, a deft practitioner of this art on several continents, visited Iran soon after its 1979 revolution, the society was even more closed than it is today, and stolen moments among the mullahs were rare and precious. The effect of his writing is astonishing, even if you object to his scorn for Islam. Unlike contemporary writers, who cast away pearls of time and experience in order to spend more time with themselves, Naipaul treats them with the value they deserve. Few of his scenes last more than a page or two, and yet the details -- a guide's haughtiness, a mullah's laugh, a snippet of government radio -- accrete to reveal the roots of revolution and the likelihood that its principles would be rapidly betrayed. These small elements fit neatly together, with not a whiff of triviality, and the net effect is like looking through a high-powered microscope and enjoying an exquisite but fleeting view.

Nowadays, reports of Qom and other previously arcane hideaways are more numerous, and yet our views far less exquisite. Naipaul had set out to travel among "converted peoples"; we could argue about the sense in which Iranians are "converted" in any meaningful way, but what matters is that the goal -- a deep engagement with Islam -- was profound enough to sustain 300 pages of meditation, humor, and observation. And when Theroux traveled during the 1970s and 80s, he focused intensely on how the human and physical geography of the Earth changed underfoot. The focus was the place, and the insight came from the focus.

Contrast this with Road Fever, the high-speed travelogue of Tim Cahill, about his crossing of the globe longitudinally, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, in a month. What Cahill describes is certainly an adventure, and amusing in the extreme. But it is a book whose purpose in going places is to leave them, and whose ability to comment wisely on the politics of a place is limited by the author's need to get in and out without wrecking his vehicle or being waylaid. Cahill published his book in 1991, an inflection point in the political history of Latin America, when the Sandinista era was ending in Nicaragua, political violence was waning in Guatemala, and Colombia was reaching one of several gory moments in its perennial drug wars. From his book we learn little about any of these, and it is difficult to imagine that sort of indifference -- in favor of careful attention to corporate sponsors and spare automotive parts -- in any serious writer of an earlier era.

Of course, the great pitfall of all travel writing is the confusion of one's own experience for the experience of all. Edward Said criticized Naipaul along Emersonian lines, writing that "What he sees he sees because it happens before him and, more important, because it confirms what, except for an occasional eye-catching detail, he already knows." Theroux's 2004 Africa travelogue, Dark Star Safari, takes as one of its primary claims that immigration is impoverishing Africa by draining the continent of its human capital. He points to the elite, educated Malawian youngsters who have fled to jobs in London, Las Vegas, and Omaha, and the medical school graduates in Zimbabwe who want nothing more than to work somewhere where they are paid in a currency that is not so devalued that it is also used as gauze. Certainly an exodus is afoot. But the issue is not simple. I was in Harare the same year Theroux passed through, and bookstores were selling out of medical and engineering textbooks. For every Zimbabwean who escaped to practice in London, how many were poring over these texts, aspiring to leave but having to stay home? The effects of immigration are multiple and complex, and beyond the analysis of anyone who bases his opinions merely on what he sees. These are faults that even careful attention cannot correct because they are inherent to travel writing, and correctable only when one stops writing travel books and for once stays put.

This, I think, is a flaw in the genre. But it is not fatal, and it doesn't mean the generation of widely roaming travel writers is finished. Many know that a plane ticket is no guarantee of wisdom and that what one sees on arrival is both more and less than the full story. I eagerly await the next book by Jeffrey Tayler (chronicler of Siberia and Africa) or Alice Albinia (the Indus river valley), and will wager with confidence that lovers of the old greats will recognize worthy heirs in them. But writing about the world is passing into an era in which the cutting observation of a Grand Tour traveler (like Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad) or footloose Orientalist (Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana, or Nicolas Bouvier in L'usage du monde) looks more and more pallid compared with the richness of one who has stayed put in one city and slow-cooked his fare: William Dalrymple in Delhi, say, or Peter Hessler in China, both of whom stayed so long in their chosen places that their writing no longer counts as travel. The sun is setting on the Age of Innocents, and not a moment too soon.

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