The Trouble With ‘Smile When You’re Lying’
Travel Books: Chuck Thompson's "Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer" slams modern travel writing as mediocre, if not dishonest. Why this is the case is a question he -- like many critics -- can't seem to answer, observes Rolf Potts.
01.02.08 | 12:10 PM ET
In 1995, writer Sallie Tisdale wrote a Harper’s essay entitled Never Let the Locals See Your Map, which asserted that modern travel writers had “betrayed their mandate” to readers by inventing dubious adventures and writing with an attitude of smug superiority. “True travel writing,” she wrote, “the lyrical account of an adventure marked by curiosity and courage rather than by showmanship, scarcely exists.”
Travel journalist Chuck Thompson references Tisdale’s essay at the beginning of his new book Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, which purports to skewer the travel writing industry from the inside. While Tisdale took issue with the self-importance of modern travel writing, Thompson takes aim at the chirpy positivity of commercial travel journalism, which he posits, makes most all travel articles sound alike. “The biggest reason travel writing is dull,” Thompson writes, “is that most of it is devoid of anything approaching an authentic point of view. On those rare occasions when travel writers are allowed to express an actual opinion, it must be a completely harmless one that’s also shared by the travel industry at large.”
Since Thompson has, by his own estimation, written, edited or photographed roughly 2,000 travel stories in the past decade, he would seem to be in the perfect position to analyze why travel magazines so frequently publish such mediocre work. “I wanted to write about travel the way I experienced it,” he states early in the book, “not the way the travel business wants readers, wants you, to imagine it is. The presumption that readers have the intellectual curiosity of a squirrel monkey and the moral range of an Amish yam farmer has worn thin. This book is a small effort to correct the travel industry’s bias against candor and honesty.”
From there, Thompson does indeed write candidly and honestly about his travel experiences in places like Thailand, Alaska, Latin America, and the Caribbean—as well as his stint as editor of the short-lived magazine Travelocity. In its better chapters, “Smile When You’re Lying” thus reads like an engaging (and often hilarious) travel memoir. At other points it comes off like a hyperbolic and unfocused blog entry, with occasional moments of insight buried amid strange digressions about the glories of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, or how Eric Clapton’s music is overrated.
What is oddly missing amid the personal yarn spinning and opinionating, however, is a compelling, well-rounded analysis of why so much modern travel writing is so bad. And, in this way, Thompson’s book unintentionally reveals how most broadly stated travel-writing criticism ultimately ends up as a weird vessel for venting personal obsessions on the part of the critic.
Before I continue, I should probably point out that I, in writing this essay, am no exception. My own obsession—with travel-writing criticism, in this case—traces back to 2001, when a scholar named Nicholas Howe disparaged my own travel writing in an article for The New Republic. Reviewing The Best American Travel Writing 2000, Howe used my story Storming ‘The Beach’ (along with two other adventure-slanted essays from the anthology), as a distasteful example of “testosterone travel”—“today’s versions of the adventure stories that ran thirty or fifty years ago in barbershop or cigar-store magazines.” Since “Storming ‘The Beach’” was an ironic tale about overcrowded destinations—its gonzo “adventure” self-consciously contrived—I was irritated that Howe had misrepresented my story to bolster his thesis. Even more irritating was the thesis itself: the notion that “travel writing as a genre seems to have run its course.”
Essays that use such broad strokes to disparage travel writing appear with regular frequency in the critical milieu, as I discovered two years later, when author Edward Marriott boldly identified “the moment when travel writing could go no further” in an essay for Prospect magazine in the U.K. “With many younger writers of travel turning to history, biography or fiction,” he asserted, “the genre has never felt so redundant.” Marriott’s sweeping conclusions were particularly telling, since the apocalyptic “moment” in question just so happened to coincide with the publication of his own travel book, The Lost Tribe—which he considered inferior to his just-released novel, The Plague Race. In declaring travel writing “redundant,” Marriott was thus creating a convenient pretext to shill his new novel in the pages of a popular intellectual journal.
Nicholas Howe and Sallie Tisdale weren’t quite so obvious in framing their travel-writing post-mortems, but personal motivations are easy to identify within their criticism. Howe’s ongoing chagrin that contemporary travel writers were emphasizing personal adventures over sense of place, for example, was no doubt tied to the fact that he was (according to his New Republic bio) “at work on a book about senses of place in the contemporary world.” Tisdale’s Harper’s screed was not hitched to a personal book project, but it was disproportionately focused on the rhetorical distinction between “tourists” and “travelers” (the words appear over 50 times in her essay). In the process Tisdale made a great point about the inherent arrogance behind the traveler/tourist dichotomy—but she could have made the same observation without cherry-picking Paul Fussell and Redmond O’Hanlon quotes to slam travel writing in general. Her sweeping statements about the genre (“the modern reader has the misfortune of living in a time when…good travel writers are few and far between”) were, in effect, what sold a humbler essay about the irritating idiosyncrasies of travel-snobbery.
In a similar way, Chuck Thompson’s presumed tell-all about the travel-writing industry is ultimately a pretext to anthologize a handful of otherwise unrelated personal travel tales and opine randomly about what he considers bad travel writing. Some of Thompson’s travel tales are wonderfully entertaining (in particular the stories from Thailand and Japan), but few of them reveal all that much about the disingenuousness of travel journalism. The most compelling exposé of commercial travel writing doesn’t come until halfway through the book, when Thompson recounts his attempt to create a “travel magazine for people who don’t like travel magazines” as founding editor-in-chief of Travelocity.
Thompson vividly illustrates the inherent contradictions in such a task (such as trying to put together a glossy magazine-cover that is simultaneously appealing, inoffensive and representative of how people really travel), but his most concise critique of the travel genre comes in the form of a loosely organized rant. “A big problem with travel writers not named Theroux,” he posits, “is that they’re all essentially required to share the same opinion about everything. As a result, their copy tends to be defined by how many clever variations they can conceive while riffing on the same themes. How ‘exquisite’ this hotel is. How ‘romantic’ that mountainside vista is. How ‘convenient’ or ‘perfect’ a given destination is for burned-out workers in need of a ‘quick getaway.’”
While this in itself is a bit of an overstatement (there is plenty of insightful travel journalism out there to offset the generic pap), Thompson proceeds with an accurate roundup of the elements that conspire to create bad travel writing: throw-away words like “hip,” “happening,” “sun-drenched,” “undiscovered,” and “magical”; imperative language that urges the reader to “do” this, “eat” that, “go” here; stories that depict tourism workers (taxi drivers, hotel clerks, bartenders) as “local color”; the fake narrative “raisons d’etre writers invent to justify their travels”; the untraveled writers and editors who assemble authoritative-sounding travel “roundups” from Internet research; the conflicts of interest that arise when writers fund their travels with industry-subsidized “comps”; publications running what is essentially the same story over and over again, never questioning stereotype assumptions about certain parts of the world.
Thompson pins much of the blame for sub-par travel writing on the commercial atmosphere in which travel magazines operate. “Almost all magazines exist for a single purpose—to move product,” he writes. “As conditioned purveyors of the sell-sell-sell mentality, magazine editors routinely dismiss story ideas if something new to sell can’t be attached to them. This limp editorial practice prevents thousands of good stories each year from seeing print and reinforces the contemporary magazine’s standing as a cleverly concealed catalog. It doesn’t matter if they’re peddling lipstick, financial services, movies, or hotel rooms. Cosmopolitan sells L’Oreal and Entertainment Weekly sells Sony Pictures the same way Delta Sky sells Delta Airlines.”
In saying this, Thompson is on the cusp of true insight—but instead of pondering why so many readers let travel magazines get away with running thinly veiled advertisements as copy, the rest of his book strays off into a piecemeal collection of travel tips and discursive personal stories about Eastern Europe and the Philippines. Hence, Thompson misses out on the biggest factor that makes modern travel writing what it is: its audience.
Indeed, the trouble with modern travel writing is not simply the result of lazy writers, compromised editors and dastardly corporations: It is the cold demographic spawn of magazine consumers, who—in greater numbers than not—happily buy into the illusion of “on-time departures, courteous flunkies, sugar-white beaches, fascinating cities, charming locals, first-class hotels, golden days, purple nights, and ‘an exotic blend of the ancient and the modern.’” If readers snapped up magazines to read insightful 8,000-word essays on Eritrea with the same enthusiasm they devour inane 500-word sidebars on “Honolulu’s Hippest Hotels,” the state of modern travel writing would probably be a whole lot healthier. Unfortunately—as any experienced travel editor will attest—they don’t.
Since Thompson once served as a features editor at Maxim (which became wildly successful by condensing most of its format into inane 500-word sidebars), it’s surprising that he never examines this angle. After all, Maxim fills its pages with sex-position roundups and gravity-defying cleavage photos because the average male reader prefers such content to reasoned essays on masculinity. Similarly, glossy travel magazines print articles entitled “Sizzling St. Lucia” alongside photos of pristine-looking lagoons because—if magazine sales statistics say anything—travel readers don’t want complicated realities: they want Platonic ideals. Just like the hoary Greek philosopher preferred to envision an unchanging world of ideas to a turbulent world of physical imperfection, most modern magazine readers prefer an unreal notion of Travel-ness to stark portrayals of crowded beaches and lost luggage. This same impulse compels women’s magazines to tout seamless beauty, home-and-garden magazines to portray houses nobody could ever live in, and automotive magazines to perch oiled bikini-babes on the hoods of hot rods.
Glossy magazines aren’t the only venues that create a fictional matrix to lure audiences: Critical essays and book-length exposés tend to sell themselves on overstatement, as well as the exaggerated sense that the reader is getting privileged information. “Smile When You’re Lying” never leavens its argument with examples of good contemporary travel writing (Peter Hessler’s articles about China, or Pico Iyer‘s essays on placelessness), because Thompson knows that—without the unwavering promise of revelatory dirt on the genre—readers are less likely to sit through his own travel tales as they await a payoff.
If the bulk of modern travel writing comes off sounding phony and tepid, this might say less about the people who create it than the assumptions and desires of the age in which we now live. In a 1926 book entitled “Travel and Travellers in the Middle Ages,” British scholar Arthur P. Newton asserted that the fabricated marvels of the 14th century travel scribe John de Mandeville were themselves a product of contemporary assumptions and desires: “Marvels such as [his] were the common stock in trade of popular medieval writers on geography, and ridiculous though they may be, they should not entirely be neglected in attempting to realize something of the attitude of mind of travelers of the time, half-critical and half credulous, but not wholly different from that of a later age.”
Mandeville’s 14th century tales of horny cannibals and headless tribesmen appealed to common fantasies about a world that was then largely undiscovered; 21st century tales of pristine beaches and unjaded locals appeal to common fantasies about a world that is now all too well discovered. So long as such fantasies exist, there will always be writers and publishers that cash in on them—just as there will always be critics who pillory popular travel writing without considering the consumer-driven economics of the newsstand.
After all, the consumer-driven task of the critic is to make readers feel superior about the topic at hand—not indict them as part of the problem.