What’s To Become of Travel Writing?

William Dalrymple cuts loose on the subject of travel writing in the Guardian

There I was wondering what on earth I could write about for my 200th POST, when my Blackberry blinked and buzzed and delivered up this article from last Friday’s [September 4, 2009] Guardian newspaper.Ā  William Dalrymple’s thoughts on travel literature deserve a reading because he is one of the greats of travel writing himself. But what he wrote in the Guardian also deserves a lot of discussion.

Here are some of the statements in his piece.

It wasn’t just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that the big bookshops had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the front to little annexes at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, most of the great travel writers were either dead or dying.

Oh, please. Of course the travel writers of a former age are dying, but new writers constantly appear to take their place. And as for mediocre travel writing, from Victorian times through the 1940’s just about everyone who graduated college in England traveled and wrote about it. Early bloggers?

He does acknowledge some fine newer writers, but does not believe they are in the same league as Eric Newby, William Thesiger, and Norman Lewis, who passed away in the last few years. I also lament the loss of these writers, and know that my own personal favorite, Patrick Leigh Fermor is in his nineties and feeble, but that does not mean travel writing is dead.

First he sympathizes with the academic view that travel writers from the West have patronized the East.

But the attitudes of today’s travel writers are hardly those of the Brideshead generation, and as Colin Thubron has pointed out, it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and empathising with another culture necessarily “as an act of domination”.

Then he says it isn’t so.

Also, travellers tend by their very natures to be rebels and outcasts and misfits: far from being an act of cultural imperialism, setting out alone and vulnerable on the road is often an expression of rejection of home and an embrace of the other.

Is this true? or a sweeping generalization?

…is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe?

Ahh, all writers of any genre better hang it up, then because Wikipedia and Google can do it for us.

Dalrymple has lived in India for some time (gone native, as they would have said during the Raj) and so, surprise, surprise, he finds a batch of writers with ties to India to be among the best travel writers today. AND, more surprise, he thinks that settling in to live in one foreign culture for an extended period will yield the best writing.

He ends on a much more upbeat note with a quote from William Thubron

A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that are rarely reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.

This article contains fascinating details from Dalrymple’s life in India and recollections of some of the late travel writers.Ā  I look forward to reading his new book, to be published next month, and would not even mind if the Bloomsbury publisher sent me an ARC [Advanced Review Copy] (hint!), but I have very mixed feelings about the contradictory and self-serving arguments used in this article. (And according to the comment section in the Guardian, one of the new writers he praised is his niece. Is that playing fair?)

[This article stimulated many comments and a rousing conversation about the health of travel writing.Ā  Travel writing, by the way, is a form that is still alive as I write this note nine years later!]

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

21 thoughts on “What’s To Become of Travel Writing?

  1. I haven’t ready Dalrymple or some of the older travel writers. But sometimes, one gets the feeling of more writers, but lesser places to write about. But definitely – nothing to resent about in that, given the greater options and literary styles offered to the reader!

    I dont know about travellers being misfits. One doesn’t have to rebel against what is to seek understanding of things they haven’t seen yet. His definition seems to apply to what is turning out to be a cliched definition of a traveller – the guy spends weeeks or months in a new place, or “goes native”. šŸ™‚ Travelling can simply be for the pleasure of change – and that to me seems valid enough reason to travel!

  2. many good and thoughtful points here. I think Frugal Kiwi has the right of it about the future of travel writing — it’s a time of transition for all sorts of publishing, which of course means transitions for writers as well. I share her hope for a bright future

    to take on your question about writers who stand up with those you’ve named — yes, I think there are a number of them. Joel Carillet comes immediately to my mind, also — in very different styles, all of them, and not always found in travel sections — Tony Horwitz, Tim Severin, Gretel Erlich, Scott Russell Sanders, Monica Bhide, Tim Robinson. I also think that a lot of great travel writing is done in song, but that’s a whole other part of the compass.
    .-= Kerry Dexter´s last blog ..work of autumn: music =-.

  3. As a perpetual traveler for over 11 years and visiting 85 countries I would agree with this statement below completely.

    Also, travellers tend by their very natures to be rebels and outcasts and misfits: far from being an act of cultural imperialism, setting out alone and vulnerable on the road is often an expression of rejection of home and an embrace of the other.

    Not sure, 200 Blog post is this a lot?

    1. Setting out is a rejection of home, huh? I can buy “embrace of the other” but I have trouble with that first part.

      Well, about 200 posts… most of the tens of thousands blogs that are started each day are abandoned very quickly, as far as I can tell. Pro Blogger did a column back in 2006 in which he analyzed the top 100 blogs on technocrati and found their average life span was over 33 months. So longevity is something to be celebrated in blogdom, and 200 posts is just a baby step on the way.

  4. Interesting dialogue going on here, Vera. I certainly hope travel writing isn’t dead. I just finished my first travel guide. I’m hoping to write more. Would hate to think all opportunity is gone. So I won’t.

    Perhaps a grumpy old man is just trying to stir up publicity for his own book. Seems like he might have been successful, no?

    Congratulations on your 200th post!
    .-= Jackie Dishner´s last blog ..What’s so great about grief? =-.

  5. pen4hire – Very interesting piece, thank you. I’m not sure if this is already mentioned but I disagree with Mr. Dalrymple. Unfortunately the only book of his I’ve read was “In Xanadu” (which I enjoyed) so I cannot speak to his prowess as an overall writer. To his point of a lack of good travel writers I believe he is missing the reality of our times. As you said in your article if we are to abandon travel writers due to the availability of info on the net then we should abandon writing as an art and profession all together. In fact what the internet has changed is the volume of writers which may have diminished the overall pool’s quality. That being said I think the era of a long standing travel writer publishing book after book is over. What we are seeing now is the average traveler writing about his or her experience. Instead of repeated success by one person you are finding a variety of pieces from an even larger variety of people and places. Gone are the times you could write about the iconic events and places on our globe. Writers need to find quirkier, lesser traveled roads to write about. Essentially there are more writers with less to write about. What that has produced is a highly competitive environment which is more likely to produce a great work rather than a great volume of works. As a life long wanderer I’d rather see this variety that helps create something for everyone as opposed to the same tired authors giving us an identical viewpoint of the world. I would ask Mr. Dalrymple what the problem is with more of the world traveling and writing about it? To refer to writers who are 50, 60, 70 years or more refers to a time where only the privileged few (of a certain economic sector) had ability or option to travel and then take the time to compose work based on that experience.

    I feel sad for him.

    1. Very nice answer. However, I question that there are more writers with less to write about. The first part of that proposition is true only if you count as writers the contributors to magazines and websites that now exist largely on reader-contributed material . As for less to write about, as long as their are human beings–quirky, unpredictable, amazing and exotic as they are–there will be things going on that are worth writing about. I’m sure you meant that in the sense of “unexplored lands”, but I thought that Dalrymple’s article covered that rather well by quoting others who pointed out the areas of the world that are still lesser known to Westerners. And I imagine some Texans might be gol-durned exotic to a great number of Middle Eastern and Asian people.

  6. Congrats on the 200th post!

    I can’t say that I’ve read any of the authors you mentioned, however I did appreciate the way you put this post together.

    As long as Paul Theroux is still kicking around, I’m happy. šŸ™‚

  7. Weird–I would have thought that travel writing sort of got a rebirth after the publication and success of Eat, Pray Love. Sort of like how food writing is currently in vogue. I think travel writing has shifted, from a “what to do and where to do it” genre and more to story telling and experiencing of a place.
    .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..31 Very Random Life Tips =-.

  8. He seems to be really old or just wishes he were born in a simpler time, when only intrepid explorers could go out and see the world—and write about it. Of course it’s hogwash that travel writing is not as good now; there’s just way more of it now. But pick up any Travelers’ Tales anthology or read PerceptiveTravel.com or WorldHum.com and you’ll find plenty of amazingly talented writers doing great work. Like a grumpy old man saying rock & roll died in the 1970s, it seems like he is pining for the days when everything was being done for the first time.

    1. Just a quick note to thank you all for joining the conversation. I’m playing devil’s advocate now–can you name a travel writer of today who matches up to Norman Lewis or Bruce Chatwin or Patrick Leigh Fermor?
      And secondly, I’m just curious about this–have you read any of Dalrymple’s books?

  9. We agree with Ruth that the article oozes nostalgia for the good old days. From our perspective, there has never been more good travel writing than there is today. We continually meet new writers with great insights on places and travel. Congrats on your 200th post!

  10. Vera, 200 is a good number – congrats of this post!
    I think there’s a LOT of good travel writing today, and it will always be around. Aside from being practical and informative, it can give us a vicarious thrill.
    And so what, the internet? Something like Wikipedia is no substitute for something that evokes passion and first-hand experience, now is it?

  11. it would be interesting to get the Travel 100’s thoughts on his points, and yours.

    loads of ideas going on here. seems to me his whole article, while a good read, is filled with sweeping generalizations both in his main points and in his examples. naturally, I do not agree with all of them — the one about positing India as a place to look for spiritual source that’s antidote to western capitalism is one that, though I understand why he used in where he did, strikes me as — shortsighted is maybe the most economical word to use.

    I’d agree with you, too, that there is good travel writing going on today, and it’s not dying away. Not all of it is found in travel sections of books and web sites. and there is still a point to it, of course.

    I can see this has the potential to be an interesting discussion. great subject for your 200th post.
    .-= Kerry Dexter´s last blog ..creative practice: travel and change =-.

  12. hey vera – congrats on your 200th post! šŸ™‚

    i think that he’s probably trying to stir up controversy just to get readership more active. who knows. that said, there are so many great travel writers now – you just have to find them. my favorite travel writer, joel carillet, is just incredible.
    .-= jessiev´s last blog ..Little Passports: Japan =-.

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