Are Travel Writers the New Poets (Though Not in a Good, Lyrical Way)?

Travel Stories: Tom Swick on writers and readers in an increasingly fragmented world

10.24.11 | 2:43 PM ET


Last year I gave a reading in New York City and, talking to people afterwards, I was struck by how many were also travel writers, or at least survivors of a travel writing course. It was refreshing to be around literate travelers. At home in Florida I usually address seniors, who like to ask me about cruise lines.

But reflecting later, I thought it unfortunate that the audience had not included more people with no professional interest—a few accountants, for instance, out for a good time. I wondered if travel writers had become like poets, who have long been accused of writing for each other.

It’s odd, when you think about it, because both groups take on big, universal subjects: the world and life. Who isn’t interested in those two things? (Though, admittedly, many Americans exhibit astonishing apathy toward the first.)

The rap against poets is that they have forsaken their audience in an effort to dazzle their peers. Travel writers, for our part, can go overboard on small epiphanies and life-altering moments that may have little resonance for someone resigned to a two-week vacation. At the same time, what if Elizabeth Gilbert had focused more on India and less on herself? In a country where a mere quarter of the population possesses a passport, there is a thin, unnerving line between self-indulgence and bestsellerdom.

Both titles—poet and travel writer—suggest an element of luxury (time in the first case, mobility in the second) that tends to produce envy in people outside the club, and an unspoken challenge: This better be good (i.e., not a waste of my hard-earned leisure). While those of us in the business make no such demands; a colleague’s work is always of interest because it gives us something to measure ours against.

And the best travel writers, like the best poets, are generally unknown outside their small circle. Names like Colin Thubron, Sara Wheeler, even Pico Iyer, win you no points at the neighborhood cookout.

Poetry and travel writing also share an often irresistible appeal to wannabe writers. A poem is short (unlike a novel), and a travel story is simply (in the popular view) an account of one’s vacation. As a result, both genres are riddled with unreadable writing.

But travel writing is by far the broader designation, sheltering classics (“Out of Africa,” “In Patagonia”) as well as guidebooks under its roof. (No poems ever come with hotel recommendations.) And it is the consumer division of travel writing that enjoys the largest presence, as a stroll through almost any bookstore, a scan of any magazine stand, a glance at any newspaper travel section will indicate. This has had the paradoxical effect of bringing to travel writing a vast number of readers who are not really readers; they’re people looking to go somewhere. Tell most people you’re a travel writer and you’ll be greeted with exclamations of envy. Ask them to name a travel book they’ve recently read and, almost inevitably, you’ll be met with silence.

In the mausoleum of periodicals there is a small section for those in the travel game that catered to readers: Holiday (the great travel magazine of the mid-20th Century); Trips (published in 1988 by Banana Republic and then discontinued after the first issue); Grand Tour (the quarterly created by Jason Wilson, now editor of and series editor of “The Best American Travel Writing”); Wanderlust (from the early days of Salon). Granta is still with us, though it no longer publishes travel writers regularly, as it did in the 80s when travel writing was so hot even clothing companies promoted it (and Rolling Stone ran the essays of Jan Morris).

Much of the problem for travel publications (even online ones) resides in the internet. The diary-like nature of travel writing makes it ideally suited to blogs. You can almost picture Robert Byron posting installments of The Road to Oxiana on his website, while it’s much harder to imagine T.S. Eliot doing the same with “The Waste Land.”

In an age of mass tourism and instant communication it’s no surprise that everyone is writing about their trips. The irony, and the agony, for many travel writers is that, after a lifetime of being dismissed as amateurs (traveling far from home and writing what we don’t know), we are now being supplanted by the cult of amateurism.

So it’s no wonder that, like poets, we rally around each other. But we are not the only ones. In an increasingly fragmented world, ours is an increasingly common fate. At a book fair a few years ago, Richard Rodriguez complained of getting only Hispanics at his reading, while women waited outside - he could see them through the occasionally opened door - for the lesbian author who was to go on next. “Why couldn’t I have,” Rodriguez asked reasonably, “some of the lesbians?”

This is the cry of every writer today. Though it seems a little out of place in travel, which by nature is wide-ranging, all-embracing, anti-hermetic, conversant with multitudes.

If only we could get them as readers.

A version of this essay first appeared in The Weekly Standard.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

14 Comments for Are Travel Writers the New Poets (Though Not in a Good, Lyrical Way)?

Darrin 10.24.11 | 3:59 PM ET

It’s interesting you have likened travel writers to poets.  After going to several travel writing readings over the past few years and seeing that pretty much everyone in the audience was a travel writer or editor (not even their significant others would show up, with few exceptions), I have often thought of travel writers as being in the same predicament as jazz musicians.  Except at a jazz concert, the bands’ girlfriends or boyfriends will usually attend.

When someone who has never read narrative travel writing asks me what a piece of narrative travel writing is, I say that in the most basic sense, the author is telling a story driven by the people in it, like a novel would, but the story is true.  The story has a strong sense of place, like many novels do.  In that sense, I try to show that narrative travel writing has many things in common with writing that is more familiar, like novels, and if a reader enjoys getting wrapped up in a story, then she might like reading a travel story.

Davis 10.25.11 | 5:48 PM ET

Please, don’t compare us to poets.  Not modern poets, anyway.  Even travel-blogging is a dicey category to fine yourself in, if you have any ambitions to literary travel writing.  A week or so ago I posted on my blog an item, “Paul Theroux doesn’t like travel blogs”, containing what I thought some of his well-taken criticisms.

I discovered travel writing in the ‘80s, and found Fermor, Chatwin, Byron, Newby, Thesiger and all that amazing bunch and thought I had found paradise and went off to find for myself this wonderful world of adventure they were describing. 

Fortunately, their work was easy to find, as there were no blogs in those days to fog up the picture and only the best was getting published in book form.

I also notice that almost all the travel writers I enjoyed were English and had excellent English educations that they brought to bear on their writings, either in content, expression or both.  If today’s writers are as well educated, they deign disguise the fact, perhaps in keeping with their more modern sensibilities.

thrill seeker 10.26.11 | 7:59 PM ET

Anyone can be a writer these days. Which can be good. but mostly very bad.

Robert Reid 10.27.11 | 8:40 AM ET

Great article. (And Richard Rodriguez’s quote is hilarious.) It’s just sad that this will probably only be read by those of us in the ‘travel bubble.’

Kim 10.27.11 | 7:56 PM ET

Thoughtful essay. Quite right on all accounts. This line made me snort, “At home in Florida I usually address seniors, who like to ask me about cruise lines.” Thanks for writing.

Michael 10.30.11 | 4:08 AM ET

Well observed and, at times, fairly provocative - although everyone will think, of course, that the “riddled with unreadable writing” bit only refers to other bloggers (his or her “fiercest rivals”, presumably).

I would like to make only one point: Writers writing for each other is hardly a new phenomenon, far older than 20th century poets. I also think that it was not so much that these poets forsook their audiences in order to dazzle their peers but that their audiences had run away from their increasingly solipsistic musings and that the only people who were still willing to wade through all this drivel were their fellow modernists, hoping that their favours would eventually be returned. Simply because any readership, no matter how impure their motives, is better than no readership at all.

Any bloggers around who can sympathize with this notion?
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Tom Swick 10.30.11 | 10:28 PM ET

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. With regard to Darrin’s: I often tell travel writing students to think of a travel story as a kind of short story, with a beginning, a middle and an end; dialogue; characters; perhaps even an epiphany. The only difference being that the main character is a place, not a person.

Like Davis, I discovered travel writing through the Brits, picking up a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good shortly after getting out college. From there I moved on to Lawrence Durrell, Gerald Brenan, Norman Douglas and Freya Stark before discovering the grand master, Patrick Leigh Fermor, in the British Institute in Warsaw. I interviewed Colin Thubron once and asked him how it was that England had produced so many great travel writers and he noted that most of them were products of public schools, which were, he said, perfect training grounds: You’re taken from home and placed in an environment where everything is new and strange (and uncomfortable and forbidding) and you have to fend for yourself.

As for the audience for the piece, it did appear first in a non-travel magazine, so perhaps it got a few disinterested readers.

Davis 10.31.11 | 11:07 AM ET

The fate of poetry was sealed by Mrs. Kroc’s $100 million bequest to the Poetry Foundation.  For ages to come, there will be no need for poets to write for anyone other than the poetry establishment.

Literature today suffers from the numberless workshops and fellowships and subventions available to writers. In the first half of the last century, when writers had to attract readers to buy their books, we were awash with great authors.  Today, despite the bounty of humanities endowments, we have had a half-century of occasionally amusing midgets.  Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald were recognized and appreciated in their own time: have we any like them today?  They supported themselves by writing things that people were willing to pay to read.  Let us hope that there will be never be any grant money for travel writing and we be spared the fate of poets.

John 11.09.11 | 11:52 AM ET

Only if there is a high level sense of the travel experiments in the public mind, then the travel writer can deliver his message (poet).

tokyoaaron 11.24.11 | 4:52 PM ET

Is it possible that writing, which once the domain of specialists, is becoming the new form of literary appreciation? Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was a lit student and then a MA Creative Writing grad, my academic studies where heavily oriented towards critical theory. Interesting stuff, but certainly not for everyone: and often not for people whose first love of literature was the beauty of the language and imagery, for example.

Could the readers who are drawn to literature as an art form, rather than as a social construct to be studied in context, be heading into creative writing programs rather than English departments? It might help explain why, as I understand it, the number of creative writing programs, and the enrollment in such programs, is growing while readership in general seems to be in decline.

David 12.05.11 | 5:20 PM ET

for most people like me, we read all this articles about traveling and picture the story thanks to the facility of the writer to tell the story. To us it is easy for me to say they are like poets.  Specially when we see tv show like Anthony Bourdain.

Graefyl 12.07.11 | 7:49 PM ET

I retired last year and recently have begun to travel a little - mainly on shoestring, but I do like to write and so thought a blog would be an interesting idea. Not much experience on how to go about things like search engines - but then, in a way, who cares. I just want to enjoy myself and give others a bit of a challenge to go out and look for somewhere that most people don’t know about.

The writing about it is coming along and of course, there’s a lot to learn.

I think writing about what you enjoy is a key to any authorship and it kinda grows the more you do it.

Amanda 12.20.11 | 7:57 AM ET

I would hardly call travel writers the new poets.  Some of the contributions we get to Guest Travel Blogs are badly written and not at all poetic.

Graefyl 12.20.11 | 8:19 AM ET

“I would hardly call travel writers the new poets.”
I agree with that Amanda. Try writing a travel blog as a poem on a regular basis. Aaargh!

In a way I’d say it’s a kind of journalism. The author is basically reporting on the journey they made. individual style and personality should be retained (in other words, pleeeease don’t try to be like the BBC).

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