Famous travel writers I don’t like

Fellow blogger Steve mentioned in his post today that we’re not controversial enough on this blog. How true, I thought, and then wondered what on earth a person can say in modern times that would make them controversial. And I kicked myself, because twice today I had decided not to express some very peevish thoughts I’d had about well-known travel writers. Maybe not controversial in the way you were thinking, Steve, but I’ve listened, so here goes.

As I was trawling the Internet this morning, trying to find some interesting travel tidbits to write about, it seemed that the everyone’s recycling old news: Ask the Pilot is talking about the real environmental impact of airplane emissions; World Hum has an interesting blip of a blog post about semi-colon use in the New York subway (how I love the unloved semi-colon!); and on the same site Rolf Potts has posted a well-written falacy trying to subjugate readers of Eat, Pray, Love, and has completely lost my respect. Why couldn’t he just say it’s not a very good book, rather than trying to pretend its appeal is for emotionally desperate women? Emotional porn, he says, is for women what adventure porn of the Outside magazine type became for men. He calls Eat, Pray, Love “travel porn for women.” Come on, Rolf. It’s a sappy, sometimes sloppily written book that appeals to people because most people lack literary taste. Lots of bad books are very popular. Whether or not women are more attracted to emotion-laden literature is completely beside the point. At best, Potts’s post smacks of patriarchal pretentiousness.

And then there’s the hullabaloo over Paul Theroux’s new book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, due out in September, where he revisits the journeys made in The Great Railway Bazaar.

I haven’t been able to take anything Paul Theroux says seriously ever since I read Sir Vidia’s Shadow, his memoir about his decades-long friendship with V.S. Naipaul. This guy, I told myself two chapters in, is a complete ass. What’s more — as became increasingly evident later in the book — he understands absolutely nothing about women. And if you’re a traveler of any kind, setting yourself up as an authority on observations of the world, you have got to understand women. Because women make up the heartbeat of every culture: they raise the children, invent the food, spread the spirituality, and define communities. If you’re a self-absorbed asshole intent on having sex whenever possible, you just don’t get it.

In addition, Theroux has an extremely limited view of what makes good travel writing. In his introduction to Best American Travel Writing 2001, he says, “Travel writing at its best relates a journey of discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back.” No, Paul, that is what turns guys like you on. “Any serious traveler can attest that horror journeys are the most memorable, the most valuable, the most instructive, and the most pleasurable to write because invariably the horror is recollected in tranquility.” So why is it that innumerable published horror journeys have never been able to even bump their heads against travel writing of the quality put out by, say, Colin Thubron? This view of travel is absurd. The most memorable journeys are the ones that change you or your outlook, which often has zilch to do with putting yourself in mortal danger. This idiocy is what has prompted otherwise good writers like Jeffrey Taylor to think they have to risk life and limb to write a decent book. So I am not looking forward to Paul Theroux’s new self-indulgent tome.

Call me a curmudgeon. I keep trying to like John McPhee, the New Yorker magazine writer who books never go out of print, but just find his work boring. Last summer I read his The Crofter and the Laird, about living for a year on a Hebridean island in Scotland, and could think of ten other books I’ve read about the Hebrides that were far better. But since they weren’t written by John McPhee, they’re out of print. Bill Bryson can sometimes win me over, but In a Sunburned Country was a travesty. The only good bits were made up of the wholesale (and frequently footnoted) lifting from a much more interesting and dramatic book of the founding of Australia called The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes.

Like any other genre, travel writing is prone to incestuousness. Publishers are afraid of new voices; they know the old ones will sell. People who are already published get published again and again. People who have an “in” (like poor Max, the subject of Steve’s post) get published whether they can write or not. Publishing is an industry, and industries like to play it safe. The real adventure is in admitting that readers have different tastes, and in finding the voices that will speak to them.

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