Foreign Policy Tackles the State of Modern Travel Writing

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  10.06.10 | 1:16 PM ET

The magazine lines up three perspectives. First up, Bookslut‘s Jessa Crispin emphasizes the greatness of the travel classics, in contrast to today’s offerings. Here’s Crispin:

There’s a reason why you still find so many dusty paperbacks of In Patagonia stuffed in the back pockets of travelers in Argentina. Chatwin’s book is not simply the story of one man’s journey—it reveals the timeless nature of the land and its people by rooting his adventures in the odd and surprising history of the place. But somewhere down the line, that sort of thing went out of fashion. Both travel and writing have changed dramatically in the past 50 years, with the result that it’s been ages since we’ve seen a work that lasts beyond the remaindering season.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro cites recent works Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City” and Rory Stewart’s “The Places in Between”—both on our list of the 100 most celebrated travel books of all timein his rebuttal, arguing that travel writing, with its frequent focus on the lives of distant “others,” is more relevant than ever:

The signal geopolitical event of our time—9/11—was enabled by globalization’s emblematic technologies (the Internet, jetliners) and carried out by a small group of individuals raised in “remote” cultures. Increasingly, it’s an obvious truth that choices made by peoples and nations everywhere may transform the planet’s societies in cataclysmic ways. And so the traditional domain of travel writers—the texture of everyday life; cultures, belief systems, and personal climes—has suddenly become interesting to a whole new audience.

Graeme Wood, meanwhile, sees a lot to dislike in today’s travel writing—but also reason for hope. He starts out arguing for a “catastrophic turn” in travel writing, picking on “Eat, Pray, Love” as symbolic of that turn. He writes, it’s “a whole memoir premised on the notion that even the most decadent, boring, and conventional kinds of travel somehow heal the soul and can turn a suburban ninny into a Herodotus or a Basho.” Ouch. But then Wood eases up, saying that this “doesn’t mean the generation of widely roaming travel writers is finished. Many know that a plane ticket is no guarantee of wisdom and that what one sees on arrival is both more and less than the full story.”

I find this last approach most compelling. Sure, there’s a lot of bad travel writing out there, and it’s never been easier to publish or to find, but there are also plenty of thoughtful, talented traveling writers committed to telling great stories about the world they move through.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

6 Comments for Foreign Policy Tackles the State of Modern Travel Writing

Colleen Friesen 10.06.10 | 2:24 PM ET

I agree that there is a lot of less-than-stellar travel writing out there. I don’t think Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing falls into that category. She was/is an amazing journalist first and foremost and that attention shows up in her previous work, as well as this recent big hit.
Ms. Gilbert aside, there is the problem with the glam of travel writing. Everybody with a twitter account and a camera has decided that what they have for breakfast (as long as it’s in a foreign locale) is somehow travel writing. Uh…no.
Despite the mess of “pristine-wilderness-style” advetorial writing out there, I still believe Schapiro’s more positive spin on the relevancy of good travel writing.
More than ever we need to understand the “other”. It is imperative we all learn empathy and understanding. We must learn to ‘walk a mile’ in everyone else’s shoes. And we can do this through some of the very excellent travel writing that can be found. Like everything else, we need to be diligent in seeking those voices. Look for them. They’re out there and they can help us discover ourselves in each other. .

Eva Holland 10.06.10 | 3:00 PM ET

Agreed, Colleen, re: Elizabeth Gilbert. “Eat, Pray, Love” didn’t change my life, but I’ve been a fan of Gilbert’s work for a long time.

Kevin P 10.06.10 | 6:46 PM ET

itís ďa whole memoir premised on the notion that even the most decadent, boring, and conventional kinds of travel somehow heal the soul and can turn a suburban ninny into a Herodotus or a Basho.Ē

Ha!  That is a great summary.

Rachel Trager 10.06.10 | 8:18 PM ET

As more and more people travel, travel writing is no longer an art for those with luxurious lives.  It seems like everyone who travels blogs about their experiences and that many people take the time to read these blogs because they want real information for their own travels.  People no longer have to vicariously experience others’ travels.

Pink Pangea (, an online community for international women travelers, provides a space for all women to travel write and share their experiences about foreign men, nightlife, dress, safety, and more.  Pink Pangea travel writers aim to enable other women to empower others to experience secure and fulfilling travels throughout the globe.  I think travel writing should, at its core, do this for readers.

Mike Goldstein 10.07.10 | 4:33 PM ET

Rachel - Some travel writing can empower readers, but I don’t think that’s what travel writing should do necessarily. Some great travel writing is about recording an endangered culture, some is about exposing injustices, some is about making the reader laugh, some is about where to stay for a good experience in Paris, and some is about empowering the reader.

My personal preference is that travel writing convey a sense of place at a certain period of time. For that reason I love reading Eric Hansen and Alastair Humphreys whereas I less enjoy those whose writing is more personal or historical (or even empowering). I didn’t like Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, for example, though it was clearly valuable for others.

My favorite travel book is A Stranger in the Forest by Hansen. I’d be surprised if any of the above criticism were extended to his writing.

Romy 10.10.10 | 11:58 AM ET

I too am a fan of Eric Hansen and I like Bill Bryson.  Recently I traveled to Hawaii and found the Trailblazer Travel Book series extremely well written, straighforward and interwoven with some good laughs.

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