It is a truth universally acknowledged that travel-writing bears only a tenuous relationship with the truth. Lisa Gerard-Sharp ponders the moral matrix which surrounds the murky world of travel writing.
This is my first blog post. It’s a rant. Bear with me. I can do charming as well as critical, passionate as well as preachy. But today it’s a jaded insider’s take on travel journalism and why you should never trust a travel-writer. We writers feel compelled to spin tall tales and top ten lists. Like performing seals, we deliver, mostly leaving our best tricks beyond the aquarium. Our ball-spinning might be a semblance of the truth but it’s rarely the real story, the surreal story you’d like to hear. More often than not, our coverage reflects a sun-dappled world in which seals are never mistreated and cruise ships never sink.
I was born opinionated but my best opinions rarely reach the best readers. Yes, I am an outspoken elitist but not in the Aryan supremacist sense. Thoughtful travel-writing needs championing. We are drowning in bad blogging and paint-by-numbers journalism. Both readers and writers are the losers.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that travel journalism celebrates the art of saying nothing
The mainstream travel pages are overflowing with random top ten lists, hip lists and cool lists, yawn lists and travel porn lists. Holiday packing lists as hip-replacement lists. Where are the individual voices? Safety and superficiality rule. Similar features abound. Bad news barely touches the travel pages. Wit is sacrificed to witlessness. Nuanced opinions are crushed by self-censorship and clunky editing. Heaven forbid that the faintest political or social comment should seep into the piece. Still less should the writer show signs of pondering life beyond the next gastrodome. There is an unchallenged assumption that literary travel-writing is dead. Soon it will be unless we fight to save it.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that travel-writing bears only a tenuous relationship with the truth
In the mainstream travel world, we writers are often constrained or self-censored. We are all complicit in this incestuous blame game. Public relations companies want pretty pictures and pert coverage for their clients. Advertisers want safe advertorial spun as slightly edgier editorial. Publishers serve advertisers rather than readers. Readers are presumed to be pea-brained, with the attention span of a gnat. Writers are guns for hire even if there are rarely any bullets in the gun. Editors lack the courage to let a trusted writer think outside the box. And the box is always a “boutique bolthole”, the latest, loveliest bijou bed in Belgrade or Bermuda.
Behind the two-way bedroom mirror lurks a posse of public relations people. Don’t worry: they’re mostly charming, light of mane and brain, and called Georgie, Cassie or Clemmie. But these breezy blondes still want us to name-check their cutting-edge hotel – the one with snide staff and light switches as sharp as their suits. We oblige: we need a bed. Souls have been sold for far less.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most travel-writers are poorer than their readers
The Champagne lifestyle may mask real poverty, not just poverty of the imagination. Off-the-road lifestyles are more McDonalds than Michelin-starred, more flat-pack than flat bed, more Virgin trains than Virgin Upper Class. The dodgy travel matrix presumes a copy-for-favours model that smacks of the Sicilian Mafia. Even without horse heads in boutique beds, most writers decide to dabble in the dark arts to survive. Only rigorously independent niche publications stand above the fray. Elsewhere, the tenor of much travel-writing is permeated by transactions, whether subtle or blatant. This is the price we pay for embracing a profession widely seen as a lifestyle choice.
Talking about money is vulgar but writing without money is criminal and increasingly common. One of my favourite travel publishers recently decided to outsource all its writing to Poland. Expert travel-writers made way for moonlighting Polish plumbers. That’s a cheap jibe: they’re far more likely to be professors of philology masquerading as jobbing journalists. The real Polish plumbers are all living it up in London. The point is not that the writers are Polish but that they are cheap, and cheap matters. Cheap means unprofessional, under-researched and poorly written. What’s more, a world in which plumbers are paid far better than travel-writers reveals a lack of respect for literary endeavour.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that many travel-writers can’t write
It’s saying the unsayable but publication proves nothing. If travel-writing is often dismissed as second-rate journalism it is because it attracts so many second-rate writers. Just as there are few true “destination hotels”, so there are few true travel-writers. It’s a democracy of the dumbest. Dysfunctional dilettantes dabble, often for free. Hobbyists happily reinvent themselves as travel-writers but are too busy Tweeting to deliver. Silver Travellers soldier on, in search of a second income and a second wind. Bloggers with more social media sense than writing skills launch themselves into the Blogosphere. A bubbly blogging personality is bolstered by superlatives and swagger, not by talent. Cruise-writers cruise on into oblivion, bound for the “death by chocolate” buffet. Even for talented writers, the paucity of challenging commissions means that we often sell ourselves short.
We shouldn’t expect sympathy for turning a passion into a profession. We are immensely privileged. Travel defines us. We are searchers and show-offs in equal measure. Badly-paid but spuriously glamorous, travel provides us with an open road and open seas. Even narrow gauge Swiss railways broaden the mind. Travel means the freedom to rub shoulders with a Milanese fashion designer one day and the Mafia the next. They might actually be one and the same but that’s the magic of the mix.
It’s as surreal a life as we choose. It can be dystopian or dazzling, from Belgian battlefields it’s on to the Cannes Film Festival, Nazi concentration camps, Papal Rome and Disneyland at sea. We can travel out of our league and trump tales of hurricanes and pirate attacks. More profoundly, one harrowing travel encounter can change the course of our lives. More mundanely, we pass off fine dining as research and dismiss dancing with a witchdoctor as part and parcel of a weekend in a South African Township.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that we’re all guilty
So where does that leave us? Bad writers rarely recognise the moral dilemmas within the travel matrix. Even good writers happily accept a boutique bed in return for compromised copy. I’m not holier than thou. I, too, often snooze in hand-spun linen sheets and feel guiltily spoilt. I sleep in those sheets to tell you how soft they are. Someone needs to. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
But do I tell you about the famous ballet-dancer I found pirouetting by the pool? Probably not. Do I tell you that, beyond the chef’s smoke-and-mirrors show, the Michelin-starred molecular ice cream tastes like normal ice cream? Do I tell you about the anti-banking riot viewed from my bedroom window? Do I tell you about the Russian spy poisoned by polonium in the bar? No. It’s about playing the game in as pedestrian a manner as possible. No further tricks are required of a performing seal. Welcome to my seductive, slimy, sea-lion world. It may be murky but it’s still my world.
This is a travel rant, teasing out issues of truth in travel, and focusing on the centrality of storytelling and strong voices in contemporary travel journalism. It’s polemical, following on from Travelandia, my first blog.