What is travel writing?

In a recent post, when bullocking Rolf Potts for calling Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love ’emotional porn’ (and unforgivably belittling women in the process), I called the book “sappy and sometimes sloppily written.” It’s been a long time since I read it, so, being a constant self-editor and fact-checker, I had to go read it again to make sure I wasn’t just making that up.

It hardly held my attention the first time and much less so the second time, but what prompts me to raise the topic again is the much more important fact that Eat Pray Love isn’t travel writing. You could call it that, in the skimpiest sense of the word, since it involves the author spending time in a country other than her own, but to my mind that’s a pretty sloppy definition of travel writing itself. Eat Pray Love belongs in the genre reserved for spiritual journeys, such as The Celestine Prophecy or Conversations with God (though, to her credit, Gilbert’s book is far better than either of those). The spiritual aspect, rather than the emotional upheavals, is what has garnered Gilbert such a following in America, a country at the same time spiritually starved and defined by hard-edged, unloving and tight-fisted religion.

Literary taste is a very personal thing, with travel no less than with other genres. Travel writing, to me, is defined quite simply as writing with a strong sense of place. Much of adventure or self-discovery writing simply doesn’t fit the bill because there is very little of the ‘place’ in them. Same goes for Eat Pray Love. The only aspect of travel writing it fills is the fascinating characters she meets in each place and the great dialogue throughout the book.

Much of what is categorized as travel writing these days almost leaves the character of place out. Collections of essays that include stories of “look at me getting drunk or finding my soul or kayaking a random river away from home” leave me cold. And bored. Novels and memoirs of growing up in a place often have a much stronger travel (i.e., sense of place) aspect than many travel books.

If I want to recommend a book about my home state of Montana, I don’t pick from the travel genre. I push for Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky, every time, which not only captures the Montana spirit but is also sheer art in its writing. For Newfoundland, I’d go for Wayne Johnston’s novels and his memoir Baltimore’s Mansion.

If you want to dip yourself into America’s National Parks, you really can’t do better than Nevada Barr’s series of mystery novels with park ranger character Anna Pigeon (Nevada Barr is an actual park ranger). Who pretends to be interested in Russia without trying to dig out its soul in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy? (In Russia, one could contend, the ‘place’ is bleak enough that the soul, evoked so strongly in its classic novels, is the only landscape.) And few travels writers can dig into Israel the way Amos Oz does both in his novels and his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness.

People don’t read Eat Pray Love to discover what Italy, India, and Indonesia are like. So why does the travel writing community keep criticizing it for not being up to their standards?

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