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. 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. 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. Travel writing, by the way, is a form that is still alive as I write this note nine years later!]