Backpacker Novels: A Conversation

Speaker's Corner: Rolf Potts and Kristin Van Tassel discuss travel fiction and their essay, Sons of "The Beach"

11.11.10 | 11:17 AM ET


Backpacker novels like The Beach and Are You Experienced? aim to capture something of life on the road for travelers of a certain age and time. But how well do they reflect reality? And what do they say about how we travel? Rolf Potts and Kristin Van Tassel, who wrote the essay Sons of “The Beach” exploring the question, talk about the books.

Rolf Potts: After writing a number of articles about the movie adaptation of Alex Garland’s “The Beach” for Salon.com in 1999, I noticed a mini-trend in British pop-novels about young travelers backpacking in Asia. You had William Sutcliffe’s “Are You Experienced?,” Simon Lewis’s “Go,” Emily Barr’s “Backpack,” John Harris’s “The Backpacker,” and Katy Gardner’s “Losing Gemma” in the span of just a few years. I was vagabonding across Asia at the time, so I would buy and read these novels whenever I came across them. 

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that these books, while kind of pulpy and sensationalistic, pointed toward a tipping point in the way people were traveling. They seemed to imply that traveling the world had become an undeniable mass-culture phenomenon, and the rituals of travel were becoming indistinguishable from the rituals of home. Is that how you see it, Kristin?

Kristin Van Tassel: Yeah, I think you’re right. “The Beach” revolves around a community of Western backpackers veering into self-destruction on an unnamed Thai island. But it wasn’t until I taught it that the consumerist fantasies of the novel—for example, the ridiculous notion of what “paradise” should look like and who belonged there—suddenly seemed a lot more interesting and significant than the moral degeneration on the island. The characters were so obsessed with creating a “pure” vision of Thailand that they neglected to include any Thais—and their conflicts paralleled the kind of social-status rivalries a Westerner might find back home. In trying so hard to escape mass culture, these characters had become an extension of mass culture.

Potts: Travel has been on a collision course with mass culture since at least the dawn of the steamship and the railroad engine. Any technology that makes travel easier is going to connect aspects of the travel experience to the kind of experiences you might find back home. It’s also going to enable a new, less exclusive class of travelers to hit the road. The insider/outsider traveler hierarchies you see in books like “The Beach” and “Are You Experienced?” are no doubt similar to the conflicts you saw when middle-class tourists started clogging the old aristocratic Grand Tour routes in mid-19th century Europe. Mark Twain touched on this dynamic in The Innocents Abroad.

But at least for a time, travel in Asia remained a very difficult and isolated experience for Western travelers. People often mention the “Hippie Trail” of the 1960s and 1970s when trying to evoke a purer age of Asia travel—but there’s ample evidence that the young European and American wanderers of that era served as shock troops of mass culture in that part of the world. For all the disdain heaped upon the pizza-n-burger menus of today’s Asian guesthouses, for instance, the anomaly of Western food in Eastern settings may well trace its origin to the likes of Siggi’s Restaurant in Kabul, which was serving schnitzel and potato salad for homesick hippie palates in the early 1970s. 

Less than 30 years later, cheap airfares, the end of the Cold War, the ubiquity of guidebooks, and the rise of the internet had made travel in Asia a lot easier. The more travelers hit the road, the more they brought mass culture with them. This wasn’t always a bad thing—nor was it a one-way thing—as Pico Iyer’s book Video Night in Kathmandu attests.  But it led to the kind of angst and conflict that permeates backpacker novels like “The Beach.”

Van Tassel: Around the same time these backpacker novels were being written, anthropologists were describing Western independent travelers who were mostly interested in the appearance of subcultural authenticity. For instance, Christina Anderskov observed that backpackers showcase their status through the clothes they wear, the stories they tell, and the way they spend money. It’s all very similar to the status rituals of home—with conspicuous thrift replacing conspicuous consumption, and grungy native clothing replacing the latest runway fashions.

The same issues turn up in the backpacker novels we studied. Their plot conflicts have more to do with social standing among the travel community members than any genuine encounter or connection with local people. In fact, the travelers’ social interactions are pretty much like what they’d engage in back home—which is not surprising, given their similar educational and class backgrounds. The experiences of these backpackers are insular, not cross-cultural. Travel becomes a setting in which to enjoy the indulgences of home without any of the responsibilities.

Potts: Ten years ago, this notion was unsettling enough to give rise to this sub-genre of fiction; nowadays I think there is less resistance to the inevitable link between travel life and home life. Travelers can tweet from Angkor Wat almost as easily as they can from a hometown Starbucks, and I’ve met folks who use social media to meet Indians in Delhi the same way they meet people back home. 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just that travel becomes less pinned to the place you’re visiting and more intertwined with the place you left behind. Though it’s doubtful this was a conscious recognition on the part of the authors, books like “The Beach”—and the other five novels we studied—saw this coming.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”

Kristin Van Tassel teaches writing and American literature at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Her essays and articles on place, ecology, motherhood, and travel have appeared in Alternet, Counterpunch, Mamazine and Transitions Abroad. Her poetry has appeared in Relief and Mamazine.


3 Comments for Backpacker Novels: A Conversation

Dave 11.22.10 | 11:34 AM ET

We all agree that some going-away-and-coming-back is not “travel”.  A businessman who flies somewhere for a meeting and then flies home when he is done has not “traveled” as we mean it, even if his meeting was in Xanadu.  And most of us would agree that someone who goes on a cruise ship has not “traveled”, even if there was a stop at Cozumel.  We also do not typically think of someone who has gone overseas on military assignment as having “traveled”, however gritty their experience may have been.  Tedious as the argument may be about travel and tourism, there is some kernel of real distinction there, though these new travelers have somehow managed to make tourism seem more honest and authentic than we might have anticipated.

Let me suggest that we ought extend this definition-by-exclusion to take the position that the wanderings of this insular, adolescent backpacking community, who are not there wherever they are, is not a new species of travel, but does not count as travel at all, and on those rare occasions when we speak of it do so as an indulgence in Schadenfreude, as when we watch reality television or the Jerry Springer Show, congratulating ourselves that we are not as one of these.

I know this is not how commercial blogs work, and there is little likelihood of this wholesome self-denying ordinance being adopted, but I wanted to say it anyway.

club villamar 11.29.10 | 3:08 AM ET

I used to think I could escape it all by backpacking, and it used to be really authentic in the 80s and 90s, and now most backpackers are the tourists they claim to despise, and most of the world is sold out.

Someone, somewhere, used to have a unique identity having to do with their love of vampires, and now their whole mystique and passion is ruined by the huge popularity of vampire novels.

Hippies used to be hippies, but now loads of people dress like hippies, but it doesn’t usually mean anything anymore. And everyone is super cynical about hippies.

Cities I love have stupid blockbusters made about them, cultures I love get an exposé done on them, and everything good recedes into the mist.

Pretty soon something else I love is going to be picked up by popular culture, therefore forever ruining my view of it, adding legions of corny fakeness for me to pick through to get to the real stuff, until I get so disillusioned with it all I give up on it all together.
Pretty soon something really cool and unique is going to get picked up by popular culture, thereby ruining it.
Why does everything always get sold out??
Why can few things unique exist in the world without people mauling them…
Have I been reading too much Chuck Palahniuk? I’m serious though…

Dave 12.01.10 | 6:52 PM ET

Club, I understand what you are complaining about.  In my case, many of the things I have enjoyed are now illegal.  But for the the rest, the fools cannot be kept out as God apparently loves them, having created so many.  But they are superficial and have short attention and by being serious and working hard, you can penetrate where they cannot follow.  Eventually, they will get tired and go elsewhere and not bother you anymore. 

Flatter them and be kindly;  ask questions and say they have done well.  The best of them will value your approval.

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