Something to Write Home About?

The evolution of the travel writer doesn’t have everyone smiling

By Cailynn Klingbeil

When Mark Twain documented his travels through Europe and the Middle East, he described the excursion as a novelty. “Its likes had not been thought of before,” wrote Twain in the opening chapter of The Innocents Abroad (subtitled The New Pilgrim’s Progress), a travel book that chronicles the 1867 trip.

“Who could read the program of the excursion without longing to make one of the party?” asked Twain, outlining the “excursion to The Holy Land, Egypt, The Crimea, Greece, and intermediate points of interest.” The trip departed from New York by first-class steamer, with the price of passage fixed at $1,250.

In the more than 140 years since Twain boarded that chartered vessel, travel has changed immensely. While in Twain’s time people longed to be one of the party, that didn’t necessarily make it so. Today, journeys to distant lands are no longer a rarity afforded only by a privileged class. Instead, boarding a plane, popping a sleeping pill and waking up in an exotic locale have almost become prerequisite experiences for many North Americans.

My own international travels, including a trip to China for a university course, quickly exposed me to the fact that such travel, especially at my age, was something many others saved their entire lives for. That fact was reiterated last summer, when a bus driver in Cyprus questioned me with almost incredulous awe about where I was coming from and where I was going. “You mean, you can just do that?” he said, referring to my ability to pack my backpack and leave Canada for three months of life on the road.

As long as a traveller has a healthy bank account (or maybe just a comfortableness with debt), the cities in foreign countries that his or her grandparents could barely pronounce, let alone stand in, are within reach. And as travel has evolved, so too have the ways in which it is documented.

“Back when the world wasn’t so known,” writes Frank Bures, “travel writing wasn’t so much about being entertaining, or about letting the writer’s persona run wild. The point was to describe the world rather than to dance upon its stage.” Dancing on a stage is fun though, and that’s reflected in the very popular desire to be a travel writer. After all, who doesn’t want to get paid to vacation? (My graduating class from journalism school included multiple aspiring travel writers, who, two years later, are still aspiring travel writers.)

According to Tim Youngs, a professor and the director of Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Travel Writing Studies (CTWS) in the United Kingdom, the fact that travel has become easier, quicker and more affordable has resulted in a strong perception that both travel and writing about it is less special.

While that is certainly how I feel, Youngs, who has spent the last 25 years studying travel writing, sees things a little differently. “The new ease of travel that comes with modernity hasn’t lost us travel classics,” Youngs says. “It has produced new ones.”

Youngs set up the CTWS at Nottingham Trent to provide a focal point for the work him and a number of colleagues were producing on travel and exploration writing, studying works from the sixteenth to twenty-first century.

“To me, travel writing has a fundamental important and relevance: we all travel in some form or another and our journeys, mundane or exotic, involve interaction with others,” Youngs says.

He does note that literary travel writers often reject the label of travel writer, a reluctance that is perhaps attributed to the fact so many travel journalists, those writing guidebooks and about holiday destinations, readily accept the term travel writer. “It’s curious how many travel writers dislike the label yet still practice the genre,” Youngs says.

The many forms included in the genre of travel writing are reflected in the travel section of any local library. That section now includes the genre’s classics, written by those rare few who went where others could not, as well as guidebooks detailing cities and countries around the globe, countless travelogues, and even a subgenre that reveals the truth behind travel writing (titles include Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism). Classics of the genre are experiencing resurgence, as many new titles reference classics through modern stories that follow the original author’s journey.

Pico Iyer’s Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign, shares shelf space with The Risks of Sunbathing Topless: And Other Funny Stories From the Road. While the former chronicles the author’s exotic explorations to places that include a Bolivian prison and a hidden monastery in Tibet, asking the central question, “How does the foreign instruct the traveler, precisely by discomfiting him?”, the latter’s title, or at least the sunbathing topless part, refers to editor Kate Chynoweth’s shorthand for “unexpected embarrassments and humiliations, the type that only women can really understand.”

The evolution of the travel writing genre has moved beyond shelf space too, spilling onto the Internet in the form of travel blogs. Free sites dedicated to hosting travel blogs include travelblog.org, which has over 200,000 members and growing, and travelpod.com, which shared 77,467 travel experiences from 189 countries just this week.

The popularity of travel blogging has also been encouraged by various companies that offer ‘win this contest and become our travel blogger’ promotions. In January 2009, Tourism Queensland’s ‘Best Job In the World’ search attracted international attention, with 35,000 hopefuls vying to be caretaker of an Australian tropical island. For completing the key duties of snorkeling, feeding fish and blogging, Ben Southall spent six months living in an oceanfront villa and was rewarded with a pay cheque for $110,000.

Since then, travel blog contests include everything from Quark Expeditions’ ‘Blog Your Way to the North Pole’ contest (which I entered and unfortunately lost) to the Calgary Herald’s ‘Next Top Travel Blogger.’

Travel writing has also expanded into its own business, with travel writing workshops (‘Take a Trip to the Windy City and Return Home a Travel Writer’) and travel blog workshops plentiful, offered through correspondence on websites as well as in community colleges.

This evolution of the travel writer, from the documenter who describes lands nearly untouched by the foreigner to blogger who shares the minutest of details of the weekend’s trip to Las Vegas, is worrisome. Add in the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love and some speculate that travel writing, as it once was, is dead. A three-part series that appeared last October in Foreign Policy included Graeme Wood’s piece titled just that, ‘Travel Writing is Dead.’

“We are now at a low tide in the powers of travel writing,” Wood wrote. “Travel has changed, and with it so has travel writing, overwhelmingly for the worse.” He went on to attribute “the simple reason for this catastrophic turn” to the fact that “it is easier than ever to travel, and not at all easier to write well.”

When I recently reached Wood, himself an ardent traveler who has lived, worked and travelled in the Middle East, by phone, I was surprised to find he’s not writing a eulogy for the genre just yet.

“The fact is that there are plenty of places that are still really difficult to get to or that people just don’t go to for one reason or another,” Wood says. “As long as there are good writers who are going to places that are hard to get to, there will be interesting narratives that will be written and that are being written. There’s more good travel writing right now that comes out than I’m capable of consuming, so that’s a reason for optimism if there ever was one.”

Wood does acknowledge he is more depressed about the state of the genre than others, noting that the ease of travel can result in the same ease applied to writing about it.  “If [travel writing] is something you enjoy doing and it’s something that comes easy to you, then you’re not doing it right,” Wood says. “There are a lot of people out there who think that having a vacation and then writing about it is likely to be interesting for other people to read. Of course, we all secretly know that that’s not the case.”

For Mara Sprengel, a 31-year-old from Nottingham who has travelled extensively, studying the genre of travel writing has only broadened her opinion of what the genre encompasses. Sprengel took a travel writing course from Nottingham’s Centre for Travel Writing Studies, where she studied everything from ancient accounts of pilgrimages, to captain’s logs, to imperialist accounts of exploration, to modern day internet blogs.

In the classroom, Sprengel says her peers and her were presented with a range of travel writing and then left to decide for themselves, through discussions, group work and weekly tasks, what was even considered travel writing.

“Travel writing is a vast genre but I think it can encompass as little or as much writing as you want it to,” says Sprengel. “There isn’t a definitive classification of what is considered to be travel writing, and I’m not sure that there ever will, or should be.”

She sees the increasing ease of travel, accompanied by more people wanting to write about their travels, as a good thing. “I’m not sure that an online blog written by a 20-year-old travelling in South East Asia should be considered with less interest than a 300-year-old captain’s log,” says Sprengel. “For me, they both have cultural and historical relevance.”

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