Has Travel Writing Become Nothing More Than A Self-Help Genre?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


OK, I’m a dude, and I’ll admit that I just watched Eat, Pray, Love. In my own defense, I received an email from a friend that prompted me to do this, so it wasn’t under my own free will that I entered the theater (or maybe it was). Now, to avoid kicking a dead horse regarding this movie, it did serve me a purpose. Stay with me everyone.

Within my friend’s email was a Foreign Policy article, titled “Travel Writing is Dead.” The subheading read: Eat, Pray, Love was just the nail in the coffin. I’m still not sure what he was trying to tell me by sending me this — I like to think he meant well by it. The article came off a little hard, but brought up a point I’ve been swirling around in the recesses of my mind for quite a while. This particular post isn’t about how brutal the genre is and that it is an exercise of the past. I just couldn’t ever bring myself to write that, but let’s just say that I began an inner dialog surrounding what this modern version of travel writing has become.

I can’t agree with the article when it says travel writers are some kind of prophet “reporting realities abroad that don’t register at home.” I also don’t necessarily agree with the statement that “when the travel writer is not prophesying our futures, he is recording pasts we never knew.” In regards to both of these, I can see a travel writer as a humanitarian telling stories of their travel through a minimally distorted, less agenda driven lens. We, the general traveling population of “we,” tend to seek those situations to which we can shed our cloak of individual culture and broaden our understanding of the world.

Eat, Pray, Love is an example of travel writing operating underneath a whole other definition. I would say it is something along the lines of: traveling to seek one’s understanding of oneself within different contexts. The article itself describes the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon as “is a whole memoir premised on the notion that even the most decadent, boring, and conventional kinds of travel somehow heal the soul.” It goes without saying, this is a far more narrow-minded, self serving goal, which has infiltrated the genre so much, it has almost become the norm.

I say this with technology in mind. We’ve all heard about how small the world is, but picture your last hostel lobby. Was it a group of travelers rekindling their adventures of the day or was it filled with a cacophony of the droning taps of computer keys? In this age, I’m willing to say it was the latter. With the onset of blogs — and this isn’t a new concept — this gives rise to any traveler with wi-fi becoming a published travel writer. This, paired with the increasing ease of travel, people are on the go far more rapidly than ever before, and becoming travel writers by default. Consequently, the quality of travel writing and the depth of insight to a place has virtually vanished. Gone are the days of Chatwin-esque writings, whose pages are crinkled from time, and spines deteriorated from an endless readership. Australia has become The Outback Steakhouse and travel writing has become a shallow, narcissistic endeavor.

We are fully engaged in the Eat, Pray, Love age of travel writing. Perhaps it isn’t all that bad, though. More people are getting out there, which means more talented people are getting out there. That leads me to believe — glass half full — that within this de-evolved age of travel writing, there will still be those works that strike at the heart of what the genre is all about. As a fellow traveler and travel writer, we should seek these works out, and strive to create them ourselves. Other wise, the art of the travel writer will be finding shelf space in the self-help section of bookstores, and what a shame that would be.

[photo by elycefeliz/Flickr]

  • Ken

    Best travel writers in history: Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke.

    Gilbert pales. Fully agree with your post. Let's change the trend.

  • jon

    Thanks for the comment. And I actually feel that you've taken the first step of surpassing the superficial modern travel writer by inquiring — so that's awesome. I guess what I was trying to say in the post is that the people travel with a 'wine and cheese prejudice' in mind and they need to shed their dreamy notions of destinations and travel to seek the true place. In other words, Julia Roberts (we'll use her since she's simply the actress, not the author, eh?) went to Italy to seek out (among others things that would take much more space to discuss) wine and pizza, and that's the kind of learning about the place she underwent. I'm not saying that's bad, but one expell these images, should develop a yearning true sense of place, history, etc., and develop some insight that transcends wine and cheese surface, as well as this me me me "I'm a travel writer to heal me." In the end, I actually sat through the movie and enjoyed it… which is more than I can say about 27 Dresses.

    Hope this helps! Enjoy your travels!

  • i think this article is really interesting especially since i am just starting out as a travel writer myself (hopefully i will be one of the talented ones you mentioned) in the last paragraph you say : "….there will still be those works that strike at the heart of what the genre is all about."

    not to be annoying (just interested because i really enjoyed reading this) what is it that you think the genre is all about?

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