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.

48 Comments for The Trouble With ‘Smile When You’re Lying’

Kelsey 01.02.08 | 2:43 PM ET

Great piece Rolf.

I think some of the best travel writing is found outside of travel magazines and outside of travel books.  One need not look any farther than this website to see the state of travel writing, at the very minimum, ain’t bad.

Of course, maybe after being empowered by your criticism, I’m just feeling superior to the topic at hand, instead of part of the problem.

Claire Walter 01.02.08 | 3:19 PM ET

I call myself a travel writer, but in truth, I’m a tourism writer. I hope that my cliches aren’t too obvious, my writing isn’t too dull and my stories useful to our readers, who may call themselves travelers, are, in truth, mostly tourists. Such tourists put a premium on affordability, safety and predictability. Consider that more Americans take family road trips, check into “safe” resorts with palm trees, go to places like Orlando, Disneyland, Branson, Hawaii or Las Vegas or go on cruises than travel adventurously and/or independently. There is, of course, the luxury corollary, which includes excessive, expensive deluxe accommodations, front-of-plane comfort and a high level of respectful service that make tourists feel like privileged nobility—but they are often even less adventurous than the bus tour/cruise ship/theme park vacationer.

IMHO, most American tourists want to see neat stuff and come back with pictures, videos and bragging rights without getting sick, hurt, robbed or bankrupt because of the cost of the trip. And that’s where travel/tourism writers can provide practical information, and perhaps also ideas for the next vacation. Most of us, whether tourists or tourism writers, have/make little opportunity or time for deep insights. And even if we did, as the review noted, most (not all, but most) publications would have no interest in running such a piece.

I’ll bet that Chuck Thompson is a crackerjack writer with great wit and lively, if random, tales of various and/or risky unpleasant travel experiences that he managed to remember. Anthony Bourdain did something similar when he morphed from an acerbic chef to the author of “Kitchen Confidential” which told the ugly side of the restaurant biz. Now, Thompson might be doing the same thing about the travel/tourism writing biz.

Claire @

esteban 01.02.08 | 4:32 PM ET

Rolf’s point that “Smile When You’re Lying” never leavens its argument with examples of good contemporary travel writing is true. It seemed that Thompson mainly worked for the likes of American Way - the American Airlines magazine. Is anyone surprised that an in-flight magazine is of poor quality and is co-opted? that is like writing a book to say that all contemporary music is crap because in-flight radio programming favors Celine Dion and innocuous soft rock.

I found the book to be a series of poorly connected and poorly conceived rants. It’s neither memoir nor expose, but a weak attempt at both and a lot of filler to try to glue it together.

And speaking of churning out cliches… can you get more cliche than patpong road thai hooker stories when discussing the “other side” of thailand?

Eliza Amos 01.02.08 | 9:19 PM ET

I haven’t seen the book, but at someone who used to get paid to churn out travel copy, I can relate to the perspective that travel writing is drastically dumbed down by the industry itself. It’s depressing, and I think reflects not bad writing, but poor editorial standards.

Readers of this blog know where to find good travel writing. I’m sorry that Chuck doesn’t.

Elena Tobias 01.03.08 | 12:22 AM ET

It’s curious that the article did not mention that most distinguished and literary of all modern travel writers (not to mention the most intrepid) - Colin Thubron. No one else counts, IMO - not even Theroux. Travel magazine articles are consumer junk - I don’t bother with them. Thubron will be read when others are forgotten.

subramaniam shankar 01.03.08 | 3:19 AM ET

Travel writing is not new.With every conqueror,be he Chenghis Khan,Alexander,the Vikings, of yore and the colonizers of recent history there were writers tagged on.With access to places described ordeous and bafflingly expensive the verification or experiencing of thrills and dangers out of reach.Today is different and when we talk travel we mean an industry and in many countries a significant booster of the economy.So it is natural that the writers don’t scare us with “I still know what you did last summer” stuff.Most readers enjoy if the writing is with anecdotes and acceptable stories of encounters with mishaps and escapes by playing smart.Packaged tours are out of brochures and the experience renders the smart set to make it a book and a collection ends up as referencers.On the whole it is an industry that must thrive and good/bad writing apart it needs more writing and more web based information.Let the industry flourish and let travel get safer and affordable

Ben 01.03.08 | 5:39 AM ET

Most travel writing is banal and incurious because most people are banal and incurious.

eero iloniemi 01.03.08 | 8:08 AM ET

As I’m not an industry insider I don’t understand what the griping is about. Why would a tourist-traveller want in-depth coverage of places he is staying in for a week? The cliches are what got him interested, so of course he wants to sip whisky and by tartan in Scotland, not discuss its post-indutrial economy.
As for those few who spend months back-packing in China or living in Sao Paolo’s slums, aren’t they intereted more in what that place does to them than what that place is.
Descriptive, imperative, cliche ridden travel writing is supremely functional and objective. If the sun drenched Carribean wasn’t sunny, you can tell the difference. But who is to analyse whether the child selling you a rug in some little village in Kurdistan was eploiting or being exploited?

Hal 01.03.08 | 9:50 AM ET

As an English professor and amateur travel writer who occasionally surveys travel writing around the net, I must agree with the thesis of this article.  I would add that this article’s points apply equally well to much trendy scholarship.  In both cases, what has been lost is the spirit of disinterested enquiry and depth of soul that are characteristic of any classic writing.  Moreover, most writers today in any field are out of touch with classic models of good prose, which is vital to conveying both the facts about a place, and the writer’s personal impressions of it.  Everyone needs retraining in the rich travel writing tradition of English literature.

Hunter Slaton 01.03.08 | 9:55 AM ET

Great article, Rolf.  I loved your book Vagabonding, by the way; read it a few years back.  I agree with Kelsey, the first commenter: There is plenty of good travel writing out there; it just isn’t usually in the major travel mags.  Tim Cahill, Geoff Dyer, Pico Iyer ... there is plenty of good stuff being written about the world and traveling around in it; anyone who says otherwise, or that “travel writing has run its course” (what an utterly ridiculous statement) has self-imposed blinders on.

Sophia Dembling 01.03.08 | 10:14 AM ET

The economics of travel writing for magazines and newspapers make sophisticated stories very difficult to produce and place. If the field paid better I might be able to take the time to writebetter but as it is, I often have to take fast-paced subsidized trips and crank out as many stories as I can from each. I’ve stopped fretting over the shallowness of much of my travel writing and simply aim for entertaining and truthful. (I do try to avoid the cliches, though, if at all possible.) It’s a living.
When I first started travel writing, I promised myself that I would quit if I ever referred to a place as a “destination.” I did, but I didn’t…

Michael Anderson 01.03.08 | 11:24 AM ET

Chuck Thomspn does not “reference” Sallie Tisdale; to “reference” is to supply authority for data. A piece protesting dishonesty ought not be dishonest with the language!

Image Tools 01.03.08 | 11:50 AM ET

Design more magazine covers @ [url=] [/url] (photo tricks)

Jason Wilson 01.03.08 | 11:51 AM ET

Wow, what a hard-won revelation Chuck Thompson has come to: Travel publishing—hold on to your hats—can be shallow and dishonest! And the writing often sucks too! Now all my illusions are forever shattered. I’ll never again believe it when a travel writer tells me an inn is “quaint”. Sigh.

But let’s give Chuck a break! How could he possibly have known that the editorial content of an airline magazine could be so cliched and bourgeoisie. I guess all I’m left with is Skymall now.

Rolf is totally right—poor Chuck’s pretend lost illusions are simply a gimmick to string together a bunch of unrelated tales together.

So basically, Thompson has jumped from one lame medium—travel magazines—into another lame medium—travel book publishing, which demands ridiculous gimmicks like this to sell books.

Here are some ideas for the follow-up:

• I bet you didn’t know this…there’s some really silly recipes in food magazines. And hard too!
• Let me tell you a secret: a lot of the scantily-clad women in Maxim don’t read much literary fiction.
• Airlines magazines…not as deep as you might think!
• Buying a house in Tuscany with my book advance—a tricky real estate proposition.

Susan Moynihan 01.03.08 | 2:35 PM ET

Talk about marketing—Chuck found a great hook for his book (“what The Devil Wears Prada did for fashion mags, I’ll do for travel mags”) but then it falls apart. Bemoaning the lack of exquisite travel writing in mainstream, service-oriented travel mags is like complaining about the lack of Pulitzer-prize winners in Cosmopolitan. I work for a travel-centric magazine, focused on weddings and honeymoons. Not particularly exotic, but important in a practical sense, because 99% of my readers are traveling within the next year, and they want advice and suggestions that will work for their lives. Our job is to provide them with just that, and to keep our personal biases out of it. (I may not be a fan of all-inclusive resorts myself, but I’m not about to judge a reader who loves them—or insult the travel writer who spends time searching out ones he thinks my demographic will enjoy.) When I want award-winning travel writing, I’ll curl up with a 5,000-word feature in the New Yorker’s travel issue; when I need to find a cheap hotel in Rome, it’s Budget Travel in 200 words or less. And I won’t waste my time bemoaning the differences between the two.

Sheila at Family Travel 01.03.08 | 3:50 PM ET

I’d love to writearty, offbeat travel pieces, but I have two problems:

1) No one wants to pay (much) for them and I pay my bills by writing/blogging, and

2) I’ve actually learned over the years, to my ego’s discomfiture, that I’m all about practicality and useful info. It’s a bummer that I’m not Pico Iyer or Thomas Swick, but ya gotta “dance with them what brung you” and that isn’t my style.

Still, just ‘cause I can’t write’em doesn’t mean I don’t love to read ‘em, and anyone who says that fresh, wonderful travel writing isn’t out there is spending too much time looking at swill on the magazine racks.

Heck, I got the RSS feed for three blogs just from the comments on this thread, because I liked the writer’s insights and style.

Yeah, Rolf, you’re right; the “insider’s view” of travel mags is that most do the same places over and over, and they’re in love with round-ups and lists.  “My Secret Tuscany” and “10 Great Hotels in Paris” are bestsellers, again and again.

So most of us churn out those round-ups, then send our “cool stuff” to places like Perceptive Travel and World Hum.

Nicholas Gill 01.03.08 | 7:36 PM ET

If I didn’t take the crap assignment of a top ten list or guidebook update on occasion, I might not ever have the chance to taste Nyona cuisine or fall in love or find a place to return to and wander aimlessly. This is where the real writing, the good stuff comes from.

Kelsey 01.03.08 | 9:58 PM ET

Some people writeinstruction manuals to crock pots.  Some people writeaward-winning novels.  One is useful.  One is entertaining.  Both are needed.

ruth carlson 01.03.08 | 11:09 PM ET

Because editors don;t want fun, personal tales-they want stories that sell ads

Tim L. 01.04.08 | 9:20 AM ET

Jason, who knows a thing or two about good travel writing, says it best in the comments above. Different mags for different needs. The big glossy mainstream ones are for people who like to look at pretty pictures and either get practical advice or dream about places they’ll never get around to visiting. For good narrative writing, you usually need to turn to books or to the Web. Magazines are set up to sell ads. The content is just the means to do so.

Steve 01.04.08 | 10:28 AM ET

There’s lots of great travel writing out there, however, very little of it is in magazines, and what is in magazines certainly isn’t in “travel” magazines. PJ O’Rourke, years back realized this and wrote Holidays In Hell, interesting because he wasn’t writing about undiscovered beaches or quaint B&Bs;. Bill Bryson writes wonderful travel stuff by focusing on his own crankiness. Sebastian Junger and Jon Anderson writegreat travel stuff by putting their lives in danger to do journalism.  Travel writing has to be in depth about place, or humorous about people, to be good. Why would anyone ever consult a “travel writer” for that? It’s easy enough to find writers who consider their travels without worrying about someone else’s vacation, thank god.

Claire Walter 01.04.08 | 5:07 PM ET

With all due respect, Steve, for MOST readers, the works of every exceptional writer you mentioned are armchair travel. I wish I could writea fraction as well as any of them (and be as successful at the craft), but as Tim L and others have noted, that’s not where most magazines’ collective editorial heads are.

Caron Dann 01.05.08 | 12:20 AM ET

As a newspaper travel writer, I can tell you why print media travel writing is so bad: newspapers, despite earning large fees from advertising in travel sections, will not spend money sending staff on trips. Therefore, they have to accept “junkets” - that is, travel paid for by travel industry companies such as airlines and hotel chains. If you start slamming these major chains, you won’t get any more trips. If you have a bad experience, it’s better just not to print anything. Sad but true. Also, because journalists are no longer receiving regular grading increases, free trips are used as rewards/substitutes for more money in the newsroom for journalists who have little or no experience/interest in travel writing. They just want the free trip and the story itself comes second.
Freelancers cannot afford to go on independent trips and then writeabout them because the rates a newspaper pays would hardly cover taxi expenses. A big story in the travel section of a leading Australian newspaper, with pictures, will earn about $500, if you’re lucky.
Travel writing is not on the way out - people have been saying that for decades: Evelyn Waugh said it in 1946 in When the Going Was Good.
I recently graduated with a PhD in travel writing about Thailand. The best new travel writing is in books, of course. Look for it in fiction as well as non-fiction. If you’re interested in Thailand, forget The Beach - instead try Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Picador, 2005).

TambourineMan 01.05.08 | 2:18 AM ET

A $15 cover price for more pissing and moaning, and as Rolf says, no “well-rounded analysis of why so much modern travel writing is so bad.”? I’ll hold out for Chuck’s book to hit ebay (Buy It Now for 50 cents! Free shipping included!), which should be any minute now.

Mike or Jim-
I searched for Swick’s essay on the travel writing sucks subject. Couldn’t find it. Only his travel writing tips series. Help.

pam 01.05.08 | 2:02 PM ET

I read this book, I was very entertained by it, though also aggravated by yet another gonzo guy being ironic and unaffected by the sex trade.

Commercial travel writing is plenty bad and I’ve written some of it. Editor’s guidelines tell me to make the place seem appealing without being disingenuous in 120 words, so that’s what I do. I gotta eat.

But yes, there’s loads of good writing out there and lots of it’s on the web, happening independently of publishers. It’s hard work to find it in all the nonsense, but it’s being created by individuals who aren’t being paid much more than a few nickels from Google Adsense.

And yes, what many of you said. Pico Iyer, Tim Cahill, etc…

Sheila at Family Travel 01.05.08 | 5:09 PM ET

Swick’s essay on bad travel writing was in the “Columbia Journalism Review.”


Amy Alkon 01.06.08 | 6:36 AM ET

I’m a syndicated columnist in over 100 papers, and a rather major newspaper asked me to do 2,000 words on Paris, a city I’ve been visiting with great regularity for 20 years—and then informed me that they’d be paying $200 for the piece…although they could pay extra for photos, wowee. For $200, as somebody who isn’t a quick-writing hack, I could make more money picking lettuce.

Caron Dann 01.06.08 | 8:00 AM ET

Going on from what Amy said, I was recently asked by an editor of a newspaper in one of Australia’s major publishing groups if they could re-print a freelance article of mine… but they had no budget. I asked for a mere $100. They said, no, they had no money. So I said no, too, explaining I was a professional writer and had to be paid something for my work.

Caron Dann 01.06.08 | 8:01 AM ET

By the way, I worked out we could be paid much more an hour working in a fish and chip shop.

Tim Patterson 01.07.08 | 10:14 AM ET

Solid piece Rolf - thoughtful and well-written, as always.

Ben B. 01.10.08 | 2:23 PM ET

Nice work, Rolf. Bad travel writing is such a big and easy target that anyone who wants to make a name for themselves in cultural criticism can hit it - largely by repeating the same criticisms as those who have gone before them.

In addition to the instructions to seek good travel writing in books or the Web, I’d add that all newspaper sections are not created equal. I think the Washington Post section does allow for voice and creativity, though it’s not perfect.

I have basically turned travel writing from a (very poorly paid) profession into a self-supporting hobby. Unlike guys like you, Cahill, Theroux, Iyer, Bryson, etc, I never did make it to the very big leagues, where the money allows you to be artsy.

And that’s at the core of this discussion.  Is good travel writing now closer to art then journalism? Is good travel writing so detached from popular sentiment that it is not financially viable (except for the Bryson-style stars?).  The fact that you find so much good travel writing on the Web suggests that it is, I think.

So unless we start getting NEA grants (unlikely), I think the future of literary travel writing is cloudy, except for a few at the top of the game.  More power to you.

RJB 01.10.08 | 9:30 PM ET

I like traveling but I can’t afford to stay in 5 star accommodation (don’t want to, actually), but also don’t want to spend 7 days on a Siberian riverbank with an entire village full of violent alcoholics, like Colin Thubron.  I have NEVER come across a travel writer in any newspaper, magazine or published book who effectively, usefully and recognizably describes my kind of travel experience (backpacker up to, say 3 star, depending on finances).  Instead, I read (re-read) people like Jan Morris, Chatwin, Thubron, Dalrymple, Iyer etc purely for the literary satisfaction they give me.  None of them know the first thing, however, about relating to the needs, desires and fears of Joe Schmoe travellers like me (of whom there are zillions).

reay mackay 01.10.08 | 10:40 PM ET

what about Jonathan Raban??

Coasting and Badlands - gteat stuff!

Claire Walter 01.11.08 | 1:13 AM ET

Writers have little trouble describing super-luxe travel can be described in terms of opulence, fine service, exquisite decor, gourmet meals, vintage wines, sublime this, extraordinary that, magnificent something else. Rough, barebones travel is quirky, picturesque (even if uncomfortable), exotic, weird and wild, and lends itself to irreverent prose. Alas, travel’s mid-level that most of us can afford isn’t terribly interesting. Holiday Inns, Best Westerns, Hiltons and the like provide neither soaring nor gritty experiences. It often appears in the service (“Where to Go”) sidebars that many readers sneer at and others look for, but it doesn’t lend itself to great prose.

Claire @

Marilyn Terrell 01.11.08 | 11:14 AM ET

Thanks Rolf for this perceptive review.  As you mentioned last week in your blog, the North American Travel Journalists Association just announced their 2007 winners, and their selections prove that not all travel writing is shlock:

(Congratulations World Hum on your honorable mention for Best Online Travel Magazine, although you should’ve had first place!)

gregory 01.12.08 | 9:56 AM ET

after forty years of lots of travel, i cannot distiguish the travel industry from the pollution industry

try to find bali, or kathmandhu, or anyplace that was once beautiful…. you cannot

and, in a totally non-rascist way, i understand now what aboriginal peoples everywhere have know for hundreds of years, white people ruin everything they touch

includes me

what to do?

Thomas 01.14.08 | 12:26 AM ET

It is ridiculous to discuss the mediocre quality of travel writing and not to mention the shackles of political correctness. Travel writers cannot be honest because pc does not allow it.

sheila carfenders 01.16.08 | 1:06 PM ET

maybe consider instead of reading *travel* books, choose something in which the people speak for themselves, such as the nonfiction book titled, “hello my big big honey!” love letters to bangkok bar girls and their revealing interviews.  there are free excerpts online somewhere, and the book gives you insight into west-meets-east (but not only just *travel* but something more important:  a *result* of traveling).  plus the title makes a great greeting:  “hello my big big honey!”

Caron Dann 01.16.08 | 6:35 PM ET

Hello My Big Big Honey! is interesting from a certain perspective, though it provides only a limited view of “the results of travel”. The high proportion of books, non-fiction and fiction, about the Bangkok bar scene can lead to an unbalanced view of Bangkok as wholly seedy and centred on the sex industry. Of course, the sex industry is only a small part of Bangkok and only a small number of Thai women are bar girls and live a completely different type of life to most Thai women. As Robert and Nanthapa Cooper in Culture Shock! (2005) point out that if estimates are correct that between one and five per cent of Thai women are prostitutes, then at least 95 per cent are not. Some excellent books about travelling in Thailand are Dream of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand, by Canadian Karen Connelly (2001)and Meeting Faith: An Inward Journey, by American Faith Adiele. To find out about Thai popular culture, read Very Thai by long-time expatriate Bangkok resident Philip Cornwel-Smith. Going back to the Bangkok bar scene, the original English novel about a Thai prostitute, which has inspired many other books both fiction and non-fiction, is A Woman of Bangkok, by Jack Reynolds (1956). Pico Iyer and Bob Geldof have also written accounts of the Bangkok bar scene - Geldof’s is particularly harrowing. Thai Girl (2004), by Andrew Hicks, who lives in Thailand, is also interesting because it depicts a relationship between a working-class Thai girl who is NOT a prostitute, and an English tourist. Hicks has a website, One of Thailand’s greatest writers in English is Pira Canning Sudham. His 750-page novel Shadowed Country (2004)is a fantastic read.

TambourineMan 01.16.08 | 10:02 PM ET

Thomas wrote: “Travel writers cannot be honest because pc does not allow it.”

We have a winner.

muztagh 01.17.08 | 11:12 PM ET

thanks we sure appreciate your kind comments.

Tim Patterson 01.19.08 | 1:48 PM ET

Just read through all the comments - and man - what a tremendous and important discussion. 

It seems like half the people I look to as role models in the travel writing world are chiming in.  Jason Wilson’s comment, in particular, was devastating. 

I look forward to reading all of Chuck’s book. There are no copies in Patagonia yet.  Reading excerpts and interviews though, it seems that Chuck is making an important point without much subtlety. 

Look, we know travel writing. 

We know it inside and out, and we already know its dirty secrets.  Of course Jason Wilson and Rolf Potts are going to say that Chuck doesn’t writeanything original - Jason and Rolf think about travel writing all the time, and so does everyone who reads this far down on the comment list. 

We are not Chuck’s audience!  Most people, most Americans, don’t think about travel writing at all, and when they do, they are drawn to a pretty picture, and they think Pico Iyer is a cute Japanese pop idol.

If Chuck’s book can wake three people up to the fact that good travel writing is not in mainstream magazines, well, then he will have done all of us an important service.

And I think it’s important to remember that. 


John M. Edwards 01.21.08 | 7:49 PM ET

Hey Rolf! Great review. I tip my glass to your elegant turns of phrase. I haven’t read Thompson’s “sensationalist” book yet, but I imagine it to be the moral equivalent of Anthony Bourdain’s amusing copout Kitchen Confidential, where as “insider” he plays the bon-temp roué, and finks on the fact that restaurants throw out their expiring food into our “specials,” and that new brides, perforce inebriated with love for their new husbands, may occasionally (not often, I hope) be found in flagrante being bagged by daredevil waiters out in the trattoria courtyard. But I like best-selling smut, and grow giddy amidst the buzz, even if Thompson’s entertainment disparages the entire field in which I work. I’m ordering a copy from tomorrow.

frank goddard 01.22.08 | 8:52 PM ET

I must be a travel writer. I have a business card (that I recently created and printed at home) that says so.  And I have a website, and as of recently, a blog about travel.

Truth is I am recently retired and as a lifelong tourist/traveler who has read Cahill, et al, I have convinced myself I, too, can be a travel writer. The discussion above, that I just stumbled upon, has been better for me than a college class on Travel Writing 101.

What have I learned?

1. There is extreme travel and there is the family trip to Disneyland. But I don’t need someone to judge which destination is worthy of a “travel” story that I would like to read or write. It’s a big sandbox.

2. There is guidebook writing and there is fine literature. I assume there is room for both. Personally, I need both but unfortunately I don’t want to writethe former and as a writer I will never reach the higher levels of the latter.

So obviously my chance of commercial success in this business is nil - but thank goodness I have low goals.

And after surveying the “waters” my writing might be limited to yet another wannabe writer’s travel blog. I think I have just been scared off the playground.

As to rest of you: please keep writing good quality stuff, yes, even the guidebooks and yes, even about the lowly domestic destinations.

Robert Reid 02.18.08 | 1:11 PM ET

As a regular travel writer for Lonely Planet and the freelance world, I find Chuck Thompson’s book—which attacks LP at one point—one of the most refreshing travel books I’ve read in years. Rolf has some good points, as always, but I disagree fully with the idea that Chuck doesn’t show the answer of a troubled genre: part of it lies in our interpretation of ‘travel.’

Chuck’s book is far less negative than it seems in sound bytes, or than even Rolf suggests. In showing bad travel writing (overused phrases, interviews with easy subjects like cab drivers), he does a lot in showing how to do it well—and he makes fun of himself along the way too.

For Chuck, and I fully agree, ‘travel’ continues to broaden its scope, in which tales of out-of-the-ordinary things not normally considered ‘travel’—scoring dope in Juneau, interviewing about (rather than visiting) the Caribbean to come up with an opinion of a destination…—qualify as ‘travel’ much as a recount of 10 Hidden Beaches in Hawaii.

For the bulk of travelers—let’s admit it—a trip is about meeting expectations, not surprises or adventures. You go to New York to see Central Park or East Village bars not to watch stickball on backstreets of the Bronx, you go to Moscow to see St Basil’s and Red Square not to visit communist refineries. I’ve long equated a Rolling Stones concert in the 2000s as a trip to Venice. Hype and iconic status overwhelm: very few go to find new or surprising things (hey, the Stones played ‘Neighbors’!) but to CONFIRM their expectations (eg canal rides, ‘Satisfaction’).

I’m guessing the bulk of people commenting here have only read his book title, and this review—but not the book. Maybe you should. No one has bothered to uncover the wires and tubes and connectors behind this industry like this before. We spend so much time following it, reading it, it doesn’t hurt to get a unique insider’s perspective like this. I’d call it overdue.

Tim 07.05.08 | 8:28 AM ET

This is such a frustrating thread - if every time the words ‘travel writing’ appeared they were prefixed by ‘American’ you might be somewhere close to a worthwhile discussion, but for some reason even American travel writers, who by definition ought to be aware of the world outside the USA, fail to notice that there’s plenty of good travel writing out there. Yes, the American media are totally focussed on consumerism, now tell us something we didn’t know.

Ximena 09.08.08 | 7:37 PM ET

Hi from Chile,
I work for the travel industry, and always have thought that my job is important not just to tell people to come to Chile to visit Patagonia or Easter Island or something like that, but the idea they have when they want to come and visit some of our highlights.
To work with a dream of somebody gives you the responsibility to bring them what they are looking for. But NOT lie.  Travel, means to dream of something.  So it is your duty not to change or destroy the reality, just because you want to sell a package in San Pedro de Atacama.

If you don’t like Patagonia, for example, as a travel writer you can not say Patagonia is awful.  I think and this is a very personal opinion, that a travel writer also has his or her own point of view of a certain place and it is ok to have it.  However, you can not consider your opinion as the “law”.  The world is full of paradises, but you have to find them.  And, if you are a travel writer, you have the right to say that not all places are paradises, however it will be the customer who should decide, according the information that the travel writer gives you, if a certain place is or not a paradise.
Hope everybody can find one paradise unless in this world,

vintage 11.13.08 | 12:22 AM ET

I worked out we could be paid much more an hour working in a fish and chip shop.

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