Lonely Planet writer trashes the travel writing genre

Obviously, we can’t let this week pass without commenting on the furor (or whatever it is) over Thomas Kohnstamm’s admissions of plagiarism (or whatever it was), illicit sex, and general titillating tongue-in-cheek humbuginess in his upcoming book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the issue, but if you haven’t here’s a wildly simplified summation: during interviews about his book, Kohnstamm has talked about writing Lonely Planet entries on Colombia without ever leaving San Francisco. There are other things, like the snarky description of having sex with a waitress after closing hours in a Brazilian restaurant, and describing the table service as “friendly” in his guidebook write-up, but mostly it’s the supposed plagiarism that has pissed people off.

One has only to read World Hum’s interview with Kohnstamm to see that the issue is confusing and has obviously been blown out of proportion. Kohnstamm comes across as well-spoken, articulate, sensible, and apologetic. (Side note: how sick I am of Americans saying they “regret” saying idiotic or hurtful things! “I’m sorry for what I said” seems to have become our national anthem. What tosh. Whether it’s Kohnstamm regretting his flippant remark about getting research material from a “chick” he dated in the Colombian embassy, or Mel Gibson apologizing for making anti-Semitic remarks, I seriously doubt these people regret anything but the fact that their own ugly underbellies were exposed to the light.) The plagiarism issue vanishes in a puff of smoke — Kohnstamm was paid to write about history and culture in the guidebook, and was never expected to visit the country. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about guidebooks (like having read one) can see that they’re put together by a large team of people, some of whom are responsible for legwork and some of whom are expected to research in libraries.

Sure, Kohnstamm’s manner is irritating and I wonder if he’s such a womanizer and boozer as the press about his book indicates. But what, really, is the big deal?

Well, then I visited Eva Holland’s post on Brave New Traveler and began to wonder if the pissed-off crowd might have a point. Read it for yourself to get the full brunt of her flawless reasoning, but here are Holland’s essential points:

“Kohnstamm has done several things at once here:

1. seriously undermined the credibility of an enormous publishing house that – in my opinion, anyway – does some pretty good work in the world
2. re-proven in the minds of many editors that travel writers as a group are not to be taken seriously – and hey, guess what, it doesn’t benefit any of us in the long run to be considered a bunch of plagiarizing hacks
3. taken opportunities away from other young writers who might have actually been willing to do the job they were paid for
4. and done it all deliberately, in the name of his own self-enrichment. Nice guy, right?”

Even though the plagiarism issue seems to be in fact nonexistent, it’s hard to argue that the damage to writers’ reputations is still a valid point, especially when Kohnstamm comes out with lines like this in the World Hum interview:

“I wrote that “the majority of” travelogues and contemporary travel literature tends to be either:

a) sentimental and overly earnest (i.e. other parts of the world offer all of the spiritual-completeness that we lack)
b) curmudgeonly, cheap humor (i.e. other parts of the world are hilariously backward, allow me to mock them)
c) stories of personal heroism and bravado (i.e. I am the most adventurous man in the world, and here’s why)

That’s not to say that there isn’t good and inventive travel writing out there, but, in my opinion, those three tried-and-true publishing formulas dominate the genre.”

and then goes on to say he hopes his book fills all three criteria. It’s sad to see that Kohnstamm views himself and other guidebook writers as such hacks that these, the very worst aspects of writing that can barely be considered travel writing, are what will sell his book. I’m almost with Eva Holland on this one — there are so many excellent travel writers out there, good writers who write about travel and place, that I don’t see much point in wasting my time on a book whose attraction is yet another tale of some guy’s swaggering bravado in the world. On the other hand, it’s a little unfair to judge a book as full of pointless male dick-waving when I haven’t actually read it. Maybe it’s got depth, eh? Kohnstamm might be right that the travel publishing world is full of rubbish (and no different from the rest of publishing), but there’s no reason we need to encourage it.

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