Columbia Journalism Review, May-June 2001
"Roads Not Taken"

Why is so much travel writing so boring? Why on Monday morning do people talk about an op-ed piece they read in the Sunday paper, or a sports column, or a magazine essay, or a feature profile, but rarely a travel story? Why do the travel magazines, lavish with tips and sumptuous photographs, leave us feeling so empty? (Journalism's tiramisu.) Why has the travel book become a rich literary domain while the travel story has not?

One simple answer is that Travel is not a high priority at any newspaper. Like Food, Fashion, Home & Garden, it is far removed from the main business of reporting the news. Yet the Travel section has enormous potential precisely because of its life of low expectations. It need not adhere to the strictures of journalism that govern the rest of the newspaper -- brevity, clarity, distance; instead it can accommodate leisurely, nuanced, occasionally passionate writing. Because it is not the most important section of the paper -- quite the contrary -- it can experiment, take risks, have fun. It should -- by virtue of its generous space, deadlines, and subject matter -- feature the best writing in the newspaper.

But it's had its handicaps. In the old days Travel sections brimmed with florid passages of trumped-up delights, usually written by a recent guest of the hotel or island or tour being extolled. Then in the late 1980s a debate on ethics was launched, and many papers cut their ties with writers who took subsidized trips. This should have improved the sections, since many of the people cast out -- so called "professional travel writers" -- were free-loaders who had simply found a cheap way to travel.

But the trend had already shifted toward more service-oriented articles, telling readers where to stay and what to see and how to do it. Of course, Travel sections have to publish helpful information; it would be churlish of them not to. People come to them looking not only for ideas, but for ways and means. But a concentration on the practical to the exclusion of the evocative and ruminative discriminates against the large number of people who -- for various reasons -- don't travel. It ignores the fact that, in this day of disappearing foreign bureaus, the Travel section is many papers' only in-house window on the world at large. And it does a disservice to people who do travel by suggesting that this patently transportive act is nothing more than a series of negotiable transactions. (Not to mention the fact that the job of merely stockpiling information is now being done much better -- with greater timeliness and infinitely wider scope -- on the Internet.)

To serve their purposes, without appearing too utilitarian, newspapers have created a standard type of travel story that is generally about a person who goes to a place -- as opposed to being about a place -- often with a spouse or companion. In this genre, a variation on the phrase "my husband, Ken, and I," is pretty much de rigueur by at least the third paragraph. These two prim sojourners invariably stay in good hotels ("elegant" if in a city, "rustic" in the country), and eat in fine restaurants, savoring the "succulent regional cuisine." They visit the museums and other sights, which allows for the inclusion of pertinent historical facts, as well as helpful touristic information. "The following two days were packed with visits to Neapolis, the Greek theater, and the Latomia del Paradiso (an ancient quarry, now overgrown), never leaving us time to use the hotel's inviting private beach" (from a New York Times story by Ken's wife, last September). The author may express to his or her companion admiration for ancient skills or practices, which, it is sometimes added, are sadly lacking today. They stroll cobblestone streets, palm-fringed beaches, hedgerowed lanes, patchwork fields (pick your picturesqueness); they drift blissfully through a "land of contrasts." Though sometimes baffled by strange money or foreign telephones, they are never in any danger. They leave enchanted and refreshed -- though rarely moved or permanently altered -- frequently vowing to return some day. It is the travel story's equivalent of living happily ever after, and it leaves a reader with the sense that something is missing in this fairy tale.

For starters, there's almost nothing negative. This is partly a vestige of the old days of free trips, when it was bad form to speak unfavorably of a place that had treated you lavishly. A tone of uncritical approval crept into travel journalism that has yet to be eradicated. Paul Theroux's famously sniping journeys are an obvious reaction against this rosiness, though his style, despite the enormous popularity of his books, has failed to make a dent in travel journalism.

The irony is that in their mission to "inform" their readers, Travel sections misinform them through their unrelenting good cheer. A few years ago I received a call from a woman who wished to express her despair at the large number of stray dogs she'd seen on a trip to Puerto Rico. Her complaint was against the island, but implicit in it was an indictment of travel journalism, for nothing she had read about Puerto Rico had prepared her for abandoned animals.

Joining the "negative" in the travel story's closet of unmentionables is a sense of the present. It is not that the stories are timeless, but rather that their preferred frame of reference is the past.

The narrators of conventional travel stories tend to be interested only in history; if the present intrudes in their stories at all it does so in the ephemeral and nugatory realm of the trendy: the latest restaurants, the hottest clubs. But during the day, their work hours, they dutifully visit the museums, the landmarks, the churches, the battlefields; they ignore the everyday life of the streets. Which is why when you read about Puerto Rico you hear all about the colonial architecture of old San Juan and nothing about the population of stray dogs.

A knowledge of the past is, of course, essential to an understanding of the present. And the past is easy: it is housed, displayed, labeled (often in English), accessible. The present is fluid, inchoate, and often unintelligible. It is an unknown quantity. History books, guidebooks, travel stories have all told us the lessons of yesteryear; the challenge and thrill of travel is discovering those of today. And we find them in the streets and the parks, in cafes and stadiums, in offices and homes. Some of these places are difficult to gain access to, but that is precisely the point: anyone can see a painting; it is a rare and invaluable privilege to get invited in for a meal. It is this distinction -- how you travel, not where -- that defines a traveler as opposed to a tourist. And it is the job of travel writers to have experiences that are beyond the realm of the average tourist, to go beneath the surface, and then to write interestingly of what they find.

One way to accomplish the latter is to employ the third element missing from the conventional travel story: imagination. Most travel journalists are under the impression that since they are writing nonfiction -- and travel nonfiction at that -- they need only record what is there (and, as we have seen, not all of that). Yet all writing is enhanced by a creative imagination. To illustrate, I present the lead from a New York Times travel story, dated September 3, 2000. (Though not the one by Ken's wife.)

"Just my luck," I muttered, gazing at the unattended welcome sign to Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. "STOP. Pay $10 here," it said. All I had was a $20 bill.

Compare that with this lead, from a story by Peter Ackroyd, which appears in Views from Abroad, a collection of travel writing from the London Spectator:

Each Nordic country is cold in its own way; in Oslo, it is a rural cold, the cold of surrounding landscape. An urban cold rises from Stockholm, from the streets and public buildings. In Helsinki it is an elemental cold, a cold which invades the body and leaves it stunned. At midday you gaze at the sun without blinking; all things turn to ice. It is like the coldness of God. To travel here from Sweden is to move from light sleep to a harsh and sudden consciousness.

Ackroyd's imaginative sense -- aside from keeping us spellbound -- leads to insight, which is the fourth element missing from the conventional travel story. Good travel writers understand that times have changed, and in an age when everybody has been everywhere (and when there is a Travel Channel for those who haven't), it is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it. Jonathan Raban, writing about the Mississippi River floods in Granta a few years back, opened with this show-stopping sentence: "Flying to Minneapolis from the West, you see it as a theological problem." He went on to describe "this right-angled, right-thinking Lutheran country" and the "deviously winding" Mississippi River, which "looks as if it had been put here to teach the God-fearing Midwest a lesson about stubborn and unregenerate nature." Just as travel sections have become more practical, travel books have become more analytical.

Read enough stories with sentences beginning "Just my luck" and "My husband, Ken, and I" and you soon discover the fifth element that is too often absent from the conventional travel story: humor. Occasionally, you will find pieces by writers with a light, amusing style, but the humor is almost always directed at themselves -- the innocent fumblings of the fish out of water. Its sole purpose is to get a laugh, not to reveal interesting truths about national character.

The emergence of humor is handicapped by the absence of dialogue (missing element #6). In recent times, writers of travel books have gone to the most sparsely populated regions -- Patagonia (Bruce Chatwin) and Siberia (Colin Thubron) -- and come back with pages of scintillating dialogue. Even the misanthropic V.S. Naipaul stoops to talk to the locals. Yet in the conventional travel story, no one speaks; reading it is like moving through a landscape of mimes -- figures are sensed, sometimes even seen, but almost never heard from.

The absence of dialogue is directly related to the omission of the final and most important element: people. Except for the author and his or her companion, few characters ever clutter the stage of the conventional travel story. Travel journalists may go to the most densely populated cities in the world -- Tokyo, Cairo, Mumbai; places where you are immersed in a crush of humanity -- and fail to introduce their readers to a single human being. In the history of travel journalism, more has been written about the animals of Africa than the people.

And the question lingers: What can you know -- and feel -- about a place when you don't meet the people who live in it? We learn through human contact, and the knowledge that we gain is of infinitely greater value than any number of practical tips. Similarly, it is through human contact that we open our hearts. Enlightenment and love -- there are no more compelling reasons to travel, or write about it.