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Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writerby Chuck Thompson
After somewhere between ten and fifteen visits, this is my favorite anecdote from Bangkok. Every word true.
Were in a small, dark bar, an Aussie expat hangout. Across the table is my good friend Shanghai Bob, American expat and Old Asia Hand of distinguished order. To the right, a pair of astonishingly wasted guys in ridiculous bush hats (are there any other kind?) are sparking up what is certainly not the first joint of the evening. To the left, a young Thai girl is giving a rapid-fire, beneath-the-table hand job to a poker-faced German. Throughout the event, the German swigs his beer with a nonchalance that suggests hes back in Bielefeld with his loving Schnuckelputz and adorable rug rats Klaus and Liesl frolicking at his feet.
The German looks like hes in for the long haul and sometime during the girls indefatigable ministrations a door opens near the rear of the bar. Out spills a porcine gent, half a century old if hes a day, accompanied by a slightly disheveled teenager modestly hitching up her bright orange halter top. Behind the door one can see into a narrow room, the primary features of which are a naked lightbulb swinging from the ceiling and a stained mattress on the floor.
Its at this point that Shanghai Bob looks at me and says, with utter sincerity, with complete lack of irony, “You want to get another beer here or go someplace kind of sleazy?”
Though Ive spent the last decade writing about travel for national magazines, this is the first time one of my priceless Shanghai Bob anecdotes has ever appeared in print. If youre surprised that a veteran of the travel trade wouldnt have exploited this sort of golden material more often, its probably because you dont possess the keen insight that enables you to determine instantly that stories about colorful Aussies in bush hats surrounded by drugs, booze, and Thai whores (to say nothing of Shanghai Bobs) are considered absolutely off-limits by all but a handful of travel publications. Whereas stories about colorful Aussies sporting bush hats and delightful accents, surrounded by koalas and roos, and perhaps sipping one genteel glass of Fosters—enjoyed at sunset overlooking the enchanting opera house on the last perfect day of your magical visit to Sydney—are considered absolutely on the money.
This book is for those who understand that, no matter what they read in the travel press, no matter what they expect to encounter once they plunge into the Byzantine world of international tourism, theres nothing genteel, ever, about Fosters, bush hats, or Australian accents. And that even koalas will bite when properly provoked.
In 1995, non-travel writer Sallie Tisdale wrote an incendiary article titled, “Never Let the Locals See Your Map: Why Most Travel Writers Should Stay Home.” Published in Harpers, the piece was an unsparing evisceration of the travel-writing racket. “The modern reader,” Tisdale wrote, “has the misfortune of living in a time when travel literature is booming and good travel writers are few and far between.” Warming up to her theme, Tisdale proceeded to savage travel writers as self-important nihilists who put themselves at the center of their stories, ignored anything of genuine interest to readers, and contrived “trips taken largely to be written about, to create stories where none existed before.”
With her arch tone and unsympathetic opinions, Tisdale upset a fair number of people in the travel industry, but her story was of particular interest to me inasmuch as it was published at roughly the time I was stumbling into the business. A magazine had flown me to New York to produce a feel-good feature on a group of Russian classical musicians whod fled the chaos of Moscow and formed a successful orchestra in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. While I was in New York, the magazine asked me to drop by the newly opened Rose Museum inside Carnegie Hall, as well as a highly regarded Indian restaurant somewhere in the East Village. I wrote a feature about the musicians and short blurbs on the museum and restaurant. The magazine ended up liking the blurbs more than the feature. Would I have any interest, they asked, in reviewing a recently remodeled four-star restaurant in Toronto?
Since then, Ive traveled on assignment in more than thirty-five countries, written two guidebooks, edited two others, worked as an editor at four magazines—including a year as editor in chief of Travelocity.coms short-lived newsstand magazine, at the end of which I was drop-kicked out the door—and been involved as writer, editor, or photographer in a conservative count of two thousand travel stories. Ive hunkered down with airline execs, watched marketing campaigns being slicked up, looked behind the curtains of some of the worlds largest airports, schmoozed with resort managers, and been badgered by publicists to produce reams of favorable copy. In other words, Ive watched the travel world spin from more angles than most people know it has. Travel writing has changed in the decade or so since Tisdales attempted wake-up call. But not for the better. Bright patches excepted, its instead settled into a period of weary decline.
The point was driven home some years back by a University of Pennsylvania-sponsored travel-writing conference. Bright-eyed hopefuls expecting to attend edifying lectures, hear war stories from industry heavyweights, make contacts, and generally advance their careers were treated instead to lectures from several presenters—British author Colin Thubron, travel editors from newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer—who expressed the opinion that most travel writers were not talented enough to write for “real” publications. They were press junketeers, starved of original thought, incapable of ending any sentence without a phone number, Web address, or other transparent plug for whatever tourist board happened to be picking up the tab for their latest vacation—“talentless freeloaders” who inhabited “the last refuge of the hack” from which they produced “journalistic tiramisu.” From a convention of Mississippi Baptists mulling over gay marriage, OK. But its not a good sign for your profession when this sort of vitriol comes out of a gathering of peers presumably intended to profit those in attendance.
If the concept of “journalistic tiramisu” seems vague, pick up any travel magazine and flip through the pages. I recently did just this at the Safeway down the street from my house. Thinking I might need five or ten minutes to find some genuine turd of an example, I picked up a basket at the door and tossed in a bag of chips and some apples, just so I wouldnt look like one of those social deviants for whom they post the “Do Not Read the Magazines!” sign.
I neednt have worried. I hit tiramisu pay dirt with the first magazine I lifted off the shelf, a special issue of Outside devoted to travel. Opening to a random page, heres the first piece of copy that caught my eye:
Renaissance funhogs, brace yourselves: This trip, combining three days of mountain biking with five days of whitewater rafting on the Colorado River, may be the tastiest pairing since chocolate and cabernet. It takes you straight into the heart of Canyonlands high-desert rock garden, defined by the goose-necking canyons of Green and Colorado rivers and an almost hallucinogenic symphony of spires, buttes, mesas, hoodoos, fins, arches, and slickrock.
Outside is a very successful, award-winning magazine, but any way you define it, thats just piss-poor writing. The breathless cheerleading (F-U-N-H-O-G-S, what does it spell?), hackneyed comparison (please, talentless scribes, lets all stop using “delicious” and “tasty” to describe anything other than food), and insufferable hyperbole (its a canyon, not an acid trip)—its enough to stop a Renaissance funhog dead in his tracks.
But its not out of the ordinary. This kind of chirpy discourse pretty much defines contemporary travel writing. Coming across it so quickly was like tossing out the first cast of the day and pulling in an undersized tuna. Or an elderly flounder. A decent catch, though nothing the world hadnt seen before.
When the brilliant social critic Joe Queenan—whose caustic stories played a minor role in my getting fired from Travelocity magazine—sat down to take his first crack at a travel book in 2004, he was so mortified at the possibility of being mistaken for a travel writer that he included in the first chapter this Judas-like disclaimer: “The narrative that follows embodies the confessions of a reluctant Anglophile. It is not a travel book per se, as travel books are dull.”
Queenan then commenced with 240 pages of travel narrative about England. Highly entertaining, but travel narrative all the same.
The biggest reason travel writing is dull, as Queenan correctly pointed out, is that most of it is devoid of anything approaching an authentic point of view. On those rare occasions when travel writers are allowed to express an actual opinion, it must be a completely harmless one thats also shared by the travel industry at large. These are usually offered as hard-hitting commentaries describing how “quaint” a hotel room is, how “mind-blowing” a nature park is, or how “mouthwatering” a chefs specialty is. Everything is superlative. Like being a sports fan, one of the best things about being a traveler is complaining about the parts you dont like—hating the Dallas Cowboys not only doesnt make me any less a football fan, it probably makes me a more avid one. This is a concept the travel industry has never embraced.
Beyond copy softened by corporate considerations, published scrutiny of travel and life abroad is limited even more egregiously by the merciless hammer of political correctness. The writer who dares make anything other than holistically supportive judgments of any foreign culture (not counting Arab) risks career suicide. Add the contemporary medias increasingly polemic Im-right-youre-an-asshole style of analysis, and its nearly impossible to generate any frank assessment of foreign cultures and experience. Easier just to fall back on clichés and fawning descriptions of rooms, views, and meals.
Applied to an activity as presumably frivolous as tourism, this may all seem trivial, but its not. In terms of revenue and head count, travel/leisure is now the worlds second-largest commercial enterprise. In a good year, according to some, it surpasses even oil and petroleum exports as the worlds largest industry. Over the past fifty years, vast regions of the world have supplicated themselves to tourism. Like my hometown of Juneau, Alaska, entire countries have mortgaged their economies to the whims of traveling strangers, altering, sometimes even desecrating, their cultures and landscapes forever. At the very least, travel and tourism deserve open and thoughtful public examination, a discussion that moves beyond the prevailing pap.
This is especially true because the business is in such dramatic flux. A golden age of international tourism may be drawing to a close. Flights across the Atlantic for pocket change? Weekend fishing safaris in South America? A market that supports entire guidebooks covering Central Pacific islands you never heard of? These basics of travel that Americans take for granted arent gone, but theyre shifting.
Skyrocketing fuel prices. Unmanageable airline budgets. A declining U.S. dollar. International instability and Americas increasingly dismal reputation abroad. The new age of travel is about more than waiting in line so that a sixty-year-old TSA biddy can wave a security wand in front of your crotch. In coming years, the way we travel will change significantly. Where all of this leaves travel writing is an open question, but one thing is certain: the overly sentimental, cautious, and commercial tenor of travel writing is satisfying to almost no one beyond the navel gazers who write it and the “hospitality” advertisers who sponsor it.
After more than a decade in the business, Ive grown tired of coming home from the intoxicating hell of the road and leaving the most interesting material on the cutting-room floor. The stories my friends actually pay attention to never seem to interest editors, most of them emasculated by demands to portray travel as an unbroken fantasy of on-time departures, courteous flunkies, sugar-white beaches, fascinating cities, charming locals, first-class hotels, golden days, purple nights, and, of course, “an exotic blend of the ancient and the modern.” The most memorable experiences—getting laid, sick, lost, home—always seem “too negative,” “too graphic,” or “too over the heads of our readers” to find their ways into print. Inside information on the vagaries of the travel industry itself borders on sedition.
I bring up Tisdale and Outside and Queenan—and many others throughout this book—not to belittle but to commiserate. And to add to the list my own frustration with interpreting “rich and ancient cultures” for readers back home. These frustrations perhaps had something to do with my limitations as a writer, but since Im inclined to pass around blame whenever possible, I began taking long, hard looks at the demands placed on me by the editors, publicists, marketers, executives, and various snake-oil merchants who run the travel trade. And I began taking notes.
Those reflections piled up in notebooks and those notebooks eventually led to a dog-eared epiphany. I wanted to write about travel the way I experienced it, not the way the travel business wants readers, wants you, to imagine it is. The presumption that readers have the intellectual curiosity of a squirrel monkey and the moral range of an Amish yam farmer has worn thin. This book is a small effort to correct the travel industrys bias against candor and honesty. Or at least a way to pay it back for both the good times and the trouble its given me.
To do the job, Ill need to start off with a few stories of the sort travel writers almost never get to write. At least not for the kinds of publications that actually pay for copy. Call it my revenge. Or what my future bosses would call the first steps in the wrong direction.
Copyright © 2007 by Chuck Thompson. All rights reserved.
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