Truths in Travel Writing

Never trust a travel writer
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.
– summary

Time for another travel rant. “Calm down dear,” I can hear you say. Fasten your seatbelts for another bumpy ride through the perils of contemporary travel journalism. If you’ve just joined the flight, please dip into “Travelandia,” my first blog, with travel sickness pills to hand.

The messages I’ve had from respected travel journalists broadly support the views I express in “Travelandia” but there’s always another side to the story. Think of this as a continuing debate, a Socratic dialogue of sorts, in which one viewpoint represents the status quo and another aspires to something bolder.

This is also, in a sense, a “Dear Roger” letter. Roger Bray, veteran travel writer, respected former travel editor and past chairman of the British Guild of Travel Writer, takes issue with my views on travel journalism. His well-intentioned opinions can be read in the Comments at the end of this post. Nor are his truths wrong.

What is travel writing?

For me, travel writing is about far more than travel: it’s a way of seeing the world, pretentious though that sounds. I agree with Pilar Guzman, editor in chief of Conde Nast Traveler in the US:  "Travel is a dream state. We spend more time dreaming about the next trip and dreaming about past trips than we do traveling." Travel writing covers a broad spectrum, ranging from opinionated, experiential travel to pool-snoozing platitudes. The best writers can dip between the genres and make the dullest place (or crassest brief) engaging. Roger places himself very firmly in the middle of the road, the right side of pool-snoozing, and that’s fine: many readers want just that, including myself in certain moods.

Are the travel pages a cure for insomnia?

I don’t belittle mainstream travel journalism: I simply believe that, with certain bold exceptions, it is becoming too narrow, too predictable and too consumeristic. Even for the proverbial `average reader’ the pendulum has swung too far from fine writing and thought-provoking travel journalism. On a slow news day, there may be a place for “Ten Best Boutique Beds” or “Ten Best Sunsets to See Before You Die.” If so, there should also be a place for polemicists, humourists, stylists, insiders and literary adventurers to explore freely. To deliver decent work, good writers need freedom.

Never Trust a Travelwriter in Petra
Never Trust a Travelwriter in Petra

What are travel journalists for?

Roger believes that the travel journalist’s role is “to describe what we see through the eyes of once or twice a year holiday travellers, be they in search of sun and sand or local culture - even in obscure places - and to sharpen the description with the experience which enables us to compare and contrast.” At first sight, this sounds fair enough – fair enough in a middlebrow kind of way. But it’s only fair enough for those with limited aspirations as readers and writers. What about the armchair travellers who want to be transported elsewhere? What about readers, educated but not entitled, who long to explore, either in earnest or in their dreams? What about travel inspiration that can transform lives?

What about experiential travellers, open to combining travel with big life changes? What about `adult gappers’ looking for the adventure of a lifetime? What about the transformational power of learning holidays, from art courses to language studies? What about the retired with plenty of time on their hands, and often the funds to match? What about serial cruise travellers who no sooner finish one voyage than they are contemplating the next? Cruise travellers can no longer be dismissed as killing time in `god’s waiting room.’ Cruise converts swiftly realise that cruises are as diverse as they are. The same is true of train buffs, foodies, hikers and fans of Slow Travel, equally prepared to turn a passion into a way of life. Travel embraces all these passions: travel can be where we (and our readers) feel most alive.

Nor is travel synonymous with wealth and privilege. Even Mr and Mrs Average (if they actually exist) may travel more than a couple of times a year, excluding weekend breaks and days out. And they can dream in colour too, daringly non-middlebrow dreams. Mr and Mrs Average deserve inspirational writing too, not robotic regurgitation of copy, turgid `hot lists’ as tedious as hip-replacement lists. All these diverse scenarios are opportunities for travel writers to offer thoughtful tips and inspiration. Why shouldn’t we aim for the highest common denominator on our travel pages?

Do the mainstream travel pages lack the personal touch?

Yes, certainly on a regular basis. As argued in my first piece, the travel pages are often too formulaic, too slick, too lacking in strong, independent voices. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll confine my views to the British press. Where are travel columnists of the calibre of those in other genres, columnists such as Matthew Parris, AA Gill, Allison Pearson and Caitlin Moran?  Love them or loathe them, these writers are always memorable. Roger cites the travel pages as being generous to fine writers but the best-known ones cited are dead, thereby fuelling my case that strong voices tend to be absent from today’s travel pages.

Of course, there are glowing exceptions. Anthony Peregrine, who has found his true home on the travel pages of The Telegraph, is an individual voice. He is a lively writer let off the leash, and it shows: he revels in his freedom to be funny, to flit between themes and to sniff out stories without fear or favour. As Mr Everyman, he represents engaging but accessible travel journalism. Deceptively straightforward and unabashedly middle-of-the-road, this is a bloke readers would down a glass of red with. But he is only one voice. We need others: more court jesters and less self-censorship.   

Credit where credit’s due on the travel pages

The Telegraph’s travel section currently offers the most eclectic, in-depth writing across the board. It doesn’t have a monopoly on the best writers but it presents the widest, richest range. The Guardian is particularly good at celebrating unsung destinations and positing an alternative view, especially in its online edition. It cultivates individual voices in a distinctive vein. Beyond the travel pages, The Times’ columnists are so sparkling that it’s hard for the travel section to outshine these stars. While not a pure travel journalist, AA Gill pens wittier travel pieces than his more pedestrian peers. His recent piece on Colorado’s `drugs’ tourism’ in The Sunday Times Magazine is a case in point. He is, of course, a dazzling writer but also represents the lucky journalist `off the leash,’ writing in the magazine section, and with the freedom and space to run with a story. Gill has earned his stripes but his is still a rare voice, one of the few trusted to pronounce on politics and society within a truthful, well-argued travel piece.

Are travel writers always truthful?

Don’t expect a straight answer from me: I’m wriggling already. Can I refer you back to my Travelandia post, M’Lud.  Here’s a view I prepared earlier: we writers are often self-censored or constrained in the mainstream travel world. We are not ambassadors sent abroad to lie for our publication. We are sent abroad to tell the truth and we tell it to the best of our ability. But somehow it can turn into a partial truth or a compromised truth.

We are not bought or bribed, or not to any significant degree, but do feel free to test our boundaries with tempting offers. (Sadly, nothing matches the villa I was offered as a bribe while toiling in the dodgy depths of Italian television. Readers, I left with my principles but no princely villa). The truth is more mundane than that: hosted trips confer favours and presume obligations, and many travel writers are happy to oblige. The hotel next-door may be vastly superior but unless you stayed there, you wouldn’t know. That said, if your hotel doesn’t deliver, honourable writers will still feature a better candidate. In short, we have morals: a) always b) nearly always c) sometimes d) those of an alley cat.

Two out of three travel cats are truthful
Two out of three travel cats are truthful

Some of my peers profess the highest moral standards and I salute them. Roger says: “In more than half a lifetime of reporting news of the travel industry and writing destination features I have never knowingly bent the truth.” The same is true of honourable editors: Jane Knight, Travel Editor of The Times, says that she expects her writers to report the bad as well as the good. That’s how it should be.

Do even top travel writers practise self-censorship?

The travel writing road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is writers, not editors, who censure most. Sometimes our best stories evaporate in our desire to please and play the game. Roger claims that he has never compromised on the truth in his pursuit of “accessible and enjoyable journalism.” He is lucky not to be aware of the perceived straitjacket (imposed or self-imposed) on many of us.

Self-censorship is a slippery slope and more pervasive than blatant dishonesty. It means not reporting the whole truth, or being economical with the truth. It embraces everything from padding the truth with platitudes to lying by omission. Self-censorship means second-guessing the editor and twisting the story accordingly. It’s about knowing what degree of honesty one can get away with in a precise publication. Not all truths are palatable. Ultimately, it’s about opting for the predictable story over the pertinent one should the former be simpler or deemed more acceptable. Many see this as the classic compromises inherent in journalism, and this is true. But it is also a dance with the devil, a form of shadow-boxing with our fears. Sometimes the most compelling story is a casualty of excessive caution, compromise and self-censorship.

“Leave it to the foreign correspondents to go into depth”

I take issue with Roger’s remark that we should “leave it to the foreign correspondents (as) travel-writers are never there long enough.” Many of us are insiders in that we live and breathe the country so have every right to make an informed case on the deeper destination, woven into the broader story. At best, our take provides an illuminating insider-outsider perspective. We probably know our destinations better than do most foreign correspondents. Many travel writers have lived - and continue to live - in  “their” destinations. Not all are necessarily talented writers but that’s another story, best told over the camp fire when we're slightly merry.

Can travel journalism touch on deeper themes? 

Of course. No travel writer would dream of covering the complexities of the Calais migrant story within a classic travel piece. References to this contentious issue could only be justified by an exceptional story. But, without being propagandist, talented writers can, and should, feel able to filter social and political issues into their travel writing - if the story demands it and if some sense of objectivity is maintained. Fine writers relish thinking outside the box while bright readers want more than pool-snoozing journalism. Intelligent readers wish to fully engage with the destination and, for the duration of the story, we writers become the trusted interpreters.  Don’t dismiss guidebooks, which often take the reader on wilder, deeper journeys. I’ve penned guidebook features on the Mafia, woven in tales of Italian political corruption, and covered `Mafia-free’ holidays in travel stories for prestigious glossies. That said, it feels increasingly difficult to find such freedom on our travel pages.  

Free the Travelwriting One
Free the Travelwriting One

Does some travel journalism have to be so soulless?

Veteran travel writer Jan Morris believes otherwise: “I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. I believe in its imaginative qualities and its potential as art and literature.” I agree wholeheartedly. But if she were a young travel-writer today, would she be indulged and feted on the travel pages? I doubt it. The same is true of travel writers long gone to the duty-free lounge in the sky. Writers such as Bruce Chatwin and Eric Newby would probably be considered too weird, too radical, too self-indulgent, too discursive for today’s duller, more mainstream times.

Travel is more than a pastime or pleasuredome: it's a way of dreaming about the world. Travel writing is a prism on that world, a spectrum of shiny surfaces reflecting different rays of light, different truths. My travel truths may be as misleading as yours so the bald facts should never be allowed to get in the way of the best story. Within travel writing, vivid storytelling is as vital as truth-telling. We lose our storytellers at our peril. Long after we’ve forgotten those Ten Best Sunsets, we’ll remember Bruce Chatwin’s weird and wonderful Songlines. Who really cares whether these magical travel tales were true or re-imagined?

© copyright Lisa Gerard-Sharp, words and pictures

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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  1. roger bray24/08/15

    I find it hard to disagree with much of Lisa's latest post. We are, if you'll forgive the cliche, singing largely from the same hymn sheet. Nothing in my original observations was intended to disparage the magical and aspirational. I meant that we should write mostly for the majority - not that we should ignore the minority. Where Lisa and I differ, I suspect, is that I find some of the writing she would like to see more of as self indulgent. I have a mental black museum of daft pieces, among which one of my favourites was headed "Unknown Rio". If that places me in the middle of the road, so be it, but I've never seen myself that way. My own aim as a travel writer has always been to inspire through observation of the compelling and offbeat, the things you discover when you're least expecting them. But even the minority wants sound advice along with inspiration. The most elegantly written pieces on skiing, hiking and cruising are pretty useless unless the author has sufficient experience to compare terrain or shipboard quality. I did not claim I had never self censored. Every journalist does that to some extent, not least to match the political colour of his or her outlet. Sometimes it's unavoidable. It's unfair to wreck a small business for a minor failing which might be put right before the reader books, for example. Think of the excellent hotels which have been unfairly attacked on TripAdvisor. Best just leave them out. When I said we should leave local affairs to foreign correspondents I didn't mean we should never make passing references, only that most of us, despite wide reading, are not adequately qualified to make in depth observations on matters which rate many column inches in the foreign news and comment pages. What we can do, however, is dispel the prejudices and preconceptions of readers. Where I do part company with Lisa - and perhaps the estimable Jan Morris - is over the use of fiction. The merest suspicion of it makes me hurl the paper or book across the room. Call me an old pedant but I think making up interviews or anecdotes to suit the spirit of the piece is unnecessary, lazy and, worse, is a step towards the edge of a slope much more treacherous than that on which our chosen profession is now teetering. Oh - and by the way, all the fine writers certainly aren't dead. Lisa is clearly alive and kicking.

  2. Lisa Gerard-Sharp26/08/15

    Thanks, Roger. As you say, some of our views are more similar than they seem. I enjoy some contemporary travel writing. I’m more about redefining the boundaries than revolutionising the genre. It’s about gently redressing the balance in favour of personal voices and storytelling. Even if I’m keener on pushing the boat out, it’s not into Magic Realist waters full of glowering hobgoblins. Magic Realism is like Molecular Cuisine, best left in the hands of the experts. If you can’t cook, stay out of the magical kitchen. Fine for the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez but some of his followers can rightly be consigned to your “black museum of daft pieces.” It’s a fine line between self-indulgence and stylish writing: I’d rather risk pretentiousness than be prosaic. But I also care about it being a brilliant story. If that’s self-indulgence, then I’m self-indulgent. Essentially, I agree with the appeal of travel journalism concerned with “observation of the compelling and the offbeat,” wherever you find it. That also takes any story beyond middle-of-the-road writing. And humour plays its part: where there’s wit, there’s probably also a great tale, or a half-baked tale that becomes great in the telling. To clarify the point about weaving in fact and fiction, I’m with you on the unacceptability of fabricating quotes in classic travel features: that’s just lazy journalism, as you say. Liberties are only permissible if it’s clear from the outset that this is not a factual piece but a fanciful rollercoaster of a ride through a masterly mind, evoking a landscape that’s part true and part reinvented. And then we’re skating into the realms of fiction, or at least colonising Bruce Chatwin territory. In any case, this scenario would only pertain to a long essay or proper travel literature. So, now we agree, that only leaves the rest of the writing world to sort out. Next up: the Travel Pseud of the Year Award. I know: I'm a contender...

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