Saturday, January 28, 2012

Travel writing, bloggery & poetic prose

I wonder if it is entirely accurate to criticize travel blogs as poorly written, as Theroux does.  True, some are indifferently written, but with others there is nothing in particular wrong in their expression, and a precious few are a pleasure to read.  Is it perhaps a better complaint that, beyond the value of any specific advice they give on current travel, they are otherwise just not very interesting?  It is true, of course, that good writing is hard work, but then so, too, may be finding enough interesting to write about.

You may have been months in the jungle, but you probably spent no more than a minute or two wrestling the crocodile.  If you hold off writing about your trip until you get home, you can showcase the incident rather better than if it is buried in the daily narrative of heat and mud and insects, dangerous food and unreliable transport and the quotidian bother of travel.

Which brings up the question of whether there may be something wrong with the concept of travel blogging, at least as a form of literature.  Think of the great journeys we have read about: how often they were day after day of unchanging ocean or desert or snow or jungle; the food monotonous; the companions mute.  Sunrise and sunset: another day.  It may have been an epic journey, the account of which could become a monument of travel literature, but it is not going to make arresting blogging.

I found what I think a very good piece of travel writing in, of all places, Poetry Magazine. “Everyone Is an Immigrant:Poetry and reportage in Lampedusa”, by Eliza Griswold.
The author is a poet who traveled with an Italian-speaking friend to the island of Lampedusa, once the domain of the aristocratic Giuseppi di Lampedusa, author of the novel The Leopard.  The island, lying between Sicily and North Africa, has been overrun by wave upon wave of African immigrants fleeing the various wars and distempers of their region and descending disruptively upon what had once been a slightly out-of-the-way tourist destination.

The writer is inquisitive and resourceful and fills her notebook with scenes and conversations and reflections and scraps of poetry, her own and others, and in the end comes to this:

I am not going to write an article about this trip. I am going to write only this notebook, because I don’t think that what I’ve seen here, the story I’ve been able to gather with the refugees at such a distance, is a matter of news. What I’ve seen is a complicated set piece, a drama, which I’ve watched only as a member of the audience sat before the false proscenium.

She offers no helpful advice to the traveler, but much that is vastly satisfying to a traveler’s soul, which is the sort of thing that I want to read.  I have said that I think the best sort of writing is poetic prose and this is a fair specimen of what I had in mind.

And would that other, professional journalists were as mindful as our poet that they had seen only as an audience to an on-going drama, in progress before they arrived and of which they had witnessed no more than a few scenes, and be similarly circumspect in their summary of plot and commentary on the action.


  1. As one who has written a "travel blog," OUCH! That said, travel blogs are online journals. When I submitted stuff for publication, I've gone through several rewrites and eight or ten edits. When I blog, I might do one quick edit "check" and often later am horrified to find missing or incorrect words, but... I'm not writing for publication and I hope people find something interesting and worthwhile in what I post.

    1. Sage: No need to "ouch". You may notice that I keep coming back to read your blog. I appreciate the constraints of the blog format (which I suspect the Great Grouch may not allow for) and I think you are doing it right.

      This post was shortened from a longer form wherein I took to task certain travel writing which has survived the gimlet eye of editors to appear between hard covers.

      So please, no "ouch".

  2. Agreed, the best travel writing is that which avoids sweeping generalizations and high-minded culture-explaining conclusions based on what amount to a few snapshots. I'm guilty of this myself, certainly--it is easy, so very easy, to get caught up in the temptation to believe that your own fleeting experiences capture some eternal truth. And they may, of course. But far better, far more responsible as a storyteller, to let the scenes and details speak for themselves and to say, essentially, "here are a few noteworthy dots and here is how *they* are connected, but there are also a thousand other dots that I don't know about, so I'm not going to try to tell you what they all add up to, collectively." That's especially true for a place and story as culturally and politically complex and ever-evolving as Lampedusa.

    Plus, the somewhat fractured, impressionistic quality of Griswold's storytelling here seems like the perfect match for the subject matter.

    1. Doug: I get particularly irritated with writers who report as revelation something their cabdriver or waiter tells them. This, however, is more a sin of name-brand writers who appear between hardcover than of bloggerfolk. It is a temptation succumbed to by established writers who have a book contract that expects them to deliver pithy truths that prove harder to come by than the writer had thought back when he agreed to do the book and spent the advance.

      I have many more complaints against travel writers than I do against travel bloggers. I accept that a blog is a blog, but I hold those who slay trees to a higher standard.

  3. I think people who write thoughtfully and carefully should run from the term 'blog" and call what they do articles or essays. Perhaps that will help people separate the wheat from the chaff.
    I have recently been reading Charles Dickens on travel. He wrote his American Notes and Pictures of Italy based on dispatches to newspapers and/or letters to friends. The original sketches had time to marinate before he published them, but what he was writing was not that different from blogging on the road. Likewise, Mark Twain generally wrote daily newspaper reports of his travels and then compiled them into a book when he got back. I believe that either of these fine writers would have been enthusiastic bloggers providing they could figure a way to make it pay.

    1. Vera Marie: I think you are right about Twain but I wonder if Dickens might have despised the internet, as a recurrent theme was his unhappiness about Americans pirating his work in those days before the Copyright Convention, and paying him nothing.

      My great grandfather was born in 1841 and in the process of writing about his life and times I read a number of early 19th-Century European travel writers who had passed through his area, including Dickens, and found that Dickens' reportage was not wholly disinterested but, particularly in one case -- Cairo, Illinois -- seemed to reflect personal animosity over a failed investment, causing one critic to declare that Dickens wrote the truth about nothing west of Philadelphia. Which in no way detracts from my enjoyment at reading it.