Foreign Policy Tackles the State of Modern Travel Writing
Travel Blog • Eva Holland • 10.06.10 | 1:16 PM ET
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 time—in 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.