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.