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.
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
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
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
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?
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.