The Worst Guidebook Writer Ever?
Travel Books: Lonely Planet author Robert Reid reviews Thomas Kohnstamm's "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" and weighs in on the controversy surrounding it
04.18.08 | 11:21 AM ET
During my five years on staff at Lonely Planet as an editor and publishing manager, I edited books, approved authors’ writing samples, commissioned multiauthor titles, managed the “shoestring” series and won a foosball tournament in the London office. But only after I was let go as part of a reorganization and became a freelance author for the company —updating titles like Trans-Siberian Railway and Central America—did I really begin to understand how guidebooks are made.
When I heard about the so-called LP exposé of Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? I had to pause. Mass hysteria had hit the blogs. CNN, BBC and LP message boards were buzzing with news that the LP writer had confessed to writing about Colombia without ever visiting it. Kohnstamm’s initial claim that he updated the Colombia book by talking with a “chick” at the consulate turned out to be disingenuous; as he told World Hum, he was only asked to do a desk update of non-destination sections like history, which don’t require visiting the country. (Usually a Lonely Planet author covering destination chapters, such as one on Bogotá, write these front sections, but occasionally LP offers them to particularly skilled writers on the premise that they can be researched out of country.)
The frenzy this week reminds me of that surrounding Chuck Thompson’s hilarious and widely misunderstood book Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, which is my favorite book on travel writing. When it was published last year, it was met with cries of “Judas” from fellow travel writers who never got past the back-cover blurb. Kohnstamm’s book, which hits booksellers next week, may be sensationalized and reckless, but I wondered if it weren’t finally time that someone went a little Pompidou on the profession—and, for better or worse, exposed some of the inner tubes and shafts and cables of how guidebooks get made.
Well, I just finished reading it, and unfortunately, this is not that book. The 288-page, somewhat entertaining sex/drug/booze-fueled romp across Brazil is far less of a window into the broad world of guidebook-making than one into the desires and demons of Thomas Kohnstamm. It’s a personal travelogue in which LP’s “shiny blue business cards” (and a packet of 50 ecstasy pills) serve as currency. Some of the day-to-day realities that frustrate him, however, are familiar to me from my LP travel days (morning ennui, evening exhaustion, all-day confusion, frustrations over futile tasks like getting the opening hours of a grocery store that no one will need).
But outside these few moments, it’s tempting to compare the book to the backpacker novel The Beach by Alex Garland. Though Kohnstamm tries to distance himself from Garland’s narrator and that easy trap of “spending your time with a roving band of people like yourself,” he never does. His roving band is made up of drug dealers, prostitutes, druggy tourists, scheming hotel owners, Danish heavy-metal enthusiasts.
Kohnstamm at one point calls himself the “worst guidebook writer ever,” and seems fond of finding scapegoats for his own destructions. He rails against a silent editor at LP, but—apparently—only emails her once; and he makes four or five unfortunate sweeping statements that he thinks justify some of his ill-fated decisions. By the time he begins milking the gig for free rooms, booze and meals, he puts the blame on The System, never mind that he apparently didn’t read the conditions of his contract (a 100-plus page brief that outlines the scope of the job) until he arrived in Brazil. “I guess the subsequent loss of complete objectivity is the price Lonely Planet pays for not giving writers enough money to do comprehensive research,” he proclaims, and then offers that “a successful guidebook writer must ... play the game correctly behind the scenes. There is not enough time and not enough cash to do otherwise.”
A few LP writers have taken free rooms with a wink, but most don’t go down that road. I don’t. I’ve written 15 books and counting for the company—I leave for Vladivostok in June to update the Russia book—and have never taken a free room, meal or guide service. About the only thing I’ve accepted is a coffee or two during an interview. Even when I broke away from my freelance authoring role with LP last year and created a free online guide to Vietnam, I paid for it all on my own (a proud swashbuckling tale in money-losing). Lonely Planet has a policy of accepting no “freebies” on the road, which I support, but the key question Kohnstamm’s book asks is whether taking freebies is really that bad.
In the U.K., travel writing is unapologetically based on free press trips, and many guidebook publishers encourage authors to hunt out free hotels and flights to justify the low pay. As Kohnstamm points out, LP’s policy is sloppily stated. It reads: “Lonely Planet writers ... do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage of any sort” (my italics). He interprets this as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and promises us that he would “never write something untrue about a place, simply because they gave me a free room or a pasta.”
I met Kohnstamm at an LP author workshop a couple years ago—a paid trip to discuss issues such as those mentioned here—and found him an interesting, bright guy. Considering his travel and writing experience, and knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, if I were still commissioning LP books, I would have had no hesitation assigning him work on an LP guide. And having read his memoir, I’m not completely certain his revelations about his work on the Brazil guidebook compromised all his coverage. (In fact, Lonely Planet officials have said in recent days they haven’t found any errors in the three books Kohnstamm contributed “on-the-ground research” to that are still in print, adding, “We’re confident that the vast majority of our information is sound and accurate.”)
Lonely Planet’s pay for writers has been at the center of the debate this week. Kohnstamm complains bitterly about low pay in the book. My experience is that pay varies book to book, something he fails to note (but probably should know as he worked on five more LP books after this one). On an expensive-to-research Russia book a few years ago, I barely broke even after four months’ work. (I mentioned it to my editor, and LP paid me a supplemental fee of a few thousand dollars.) On others, including backwater updates for multicountry guides, I’ve earned much more for much less work.
Many readers won’t be on Kohnstamm’s side by the time he wraps up his trip, puffing on a joint on a beach with foreigners and getting a policeman’s pistol jammed into his mouth. The morning after, he’s suddenly longing for a cleaner life (“with a full refrigerator, a clean shower, a nice girlfriend, a dog”), but you don’t quite believe him. And shouldn’t. Back in New York, he snorts coke on an eight-day blitzkrieg to finish the book’s write-up (on time, no less). As his friend says, “You’ve found a way to justify the fact that you’re an irresponsible douche bag.”
Many guidebook authors are furious about the book. Some worry it smears us all as dope-trading schemers looking for free rooms. But it doesn’t bother me much. I’d admire his honesty, if not his approach, if he didn’t let himself off the hook so easily (a sober notion, I guess). With such lofty pokes at LP, it feels like Barry Bonds blaming the game of baseball for his taking steroids (allegedly). Without these swipes, we’d have something more like a Duchamp urinal for the guidebook world’s wall—not something to look at so much, but a conversation-starter for serious issues like freebies, the effect of guidebooks on the places they cover, and whether or not to peddle ecstasy for a motorbike.
For me, guidebook writing, which I believe to be the most important of all travel-writing genres, is something like that Woody Allen joke, “The food here’s awful, and in such small portions!” Travel writing is poorly paid, under-appreciated and I love it unconditionally. In my version of life on the road, I’d probably mention these things, and note a few compromises I’ve had to make (only one day in Odorheiu Secuiesc). But mostly I’d hand the stage over to the unreal, hilarious, heart-breaking cast of characters met along the way and the bulk of the experiences that never make it into guidebooks: drunken telephone workers in Mexico boasting over beers that “the USA isn’t free—you can’t drink and drive”; the ousted prime minister of Bulgaria talking with me about bad pop music at Sofia’s Dunkin’ Donuts; Yakut Marxists force-feeding me warm horse milk and cold horse meat on an outer Russian plain; a goofball Romanian pharmacist instantly making me care about ancient aphrodisiac “mummy dust” by proclaiming “for you this is amazing, for me ... itisnormal!!!”; walking through a Bulgarian Roma (gypsy) neighborhood everyone warned me against visiting and being invited into house after house with apologies (“I’d make coffee, but we have no water”); and a teary-eyed Burmese man in his 60s telling me after a conversation over tea that “I will remember you for eternity.”
Some day this job’s going to end. When it does, I won’t complain about the journey.