Some time ago I participated in a talk featuring writers of Commonwealth backgrounds (plus me, an American) discussing what makes for good reading while traveling. Inevitably the question turned on travel writing and, basically, whether it was dead.
As this conversation took place a while back, making this entry a reminiscence rather than a report, I’ll keep people’s names out of it. A (rather foxy) Melbourne-based academic and maven of Australian travel writing led the discussion. The other speakers were an Irish writer, broadcaster, OBE and lecturer at a prominent university in New York; an award-winning Irish poet who has written about traveling by sea; and a well-known English journalist, author and biographer of politicians from Asia.
Toward the end of the talk, which wound its way through themes of pilgrimage, contemplation and identity, the other panelists agreed that travel writing was a dying skill: one undermined by low-quality bloggers, and a sense that “it’s all been done” – that there is no more an undiscovered country.
The problem with this view is that it reflects a UK-centric idea that equates travel writing with the British empire. Someone on the panel, I forget who, actually said this: the end of the British empire meant the end of good travel writing.
Literati like to think of themselves as smart and independent types, and individually I found the panelists terrific company. But put too many Commonwealth folks together (or any group of people with a similar background), and you end up with groupthink.
Travel writing as we know it may have been invented with the empire, or in Victorian times with the Grand Tours undertaken by the British elite through Europe. Perhaps a certain kind of it is lost. But then so are all kinds of writing: who today writes like Dickens or Austen?
(Another suggestion of groupthink among my colleagues: no one mentioned the very obvious but inconveniently American Paul Theroux.)
I like to read some of this dead English stuff. When I was a James Bond-fixated teenager, I devoured Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities. Later I admired Eric Newby, the epitome of the British upper class wanderer. George Orwell! the master of the down and out. The still-with-us Jan Morris is a treasure. There are many others.
But the British intelligentsia (including fellow travelers from Ireland and Australia – and I am grossly extrapolating from a handful of people) has now convinced itself that: 1. Without their empire, travel writing is gone; 2. The internet has been a Bad Thing for travel writing; and 3. There’s no place left that’s interesting to talk about anyway.
The good news is that the British intelligentsia is spectacularly wrong. The British Empire is dead but travel writing is alive. It is taking place not amid newly discovered worlds but in worlds that are in the process of incredible change.
Take Peter Hessler’s Country Driving. Hessler is an American who lived in China for many years, initially as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chengdu, chronicled in his wonderful River Town.
In Country Driving, he wrote about how he bought a car and got a local driver’s license, and then set out across the nation. He road-tripped along the furthest reaches of the Great Wall, and then used his drives to explain the transformation in much of the country from agricultural village life to factories and cities.
It is a superb example of travel writing, not to discover lost worlds but to illuminate our own, crazy, interconnected, mutating one.
So much of the world is going through dizzying transformations that there is a real need for good travel writing. It is a useful means of explaining trends in an idiom we can all grasp, because otherwise these phenomena are being left to statisticians, academics and businesspeople.
As for the charge that lazy blog posts are replacing good book-form products, well, I think there continue to be plenty of books getting published. The challenge is sorting the quality from the rest. The same goes for blogs. See my travel reports this year from Myanmar, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam!