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The Nature and Challenges of Travel Writing

Travel is the most experiential form of learning. It is also a human behaviour that since the beginning of human civilization has occurred for many reasons. To homo sapiens sapiens, travel has meant survival; a search for ideals; an escape from one reality to another; simple pleasure; a physical, psychological, and spiritual process — and much more. Travel has defined us as a species.

Travel writing, journalism, literature has taken many forms. Travel writers are essentially storytellers, and this tradition goes back many centuries. The natures of those stories, the lessons inherent in them, and how they are told are as diverse as the stories themselves. And in the new electronic age when almost anyone who has been somewhere significant can tell his or her story to the world, it is important to take a closer look at the multi-dimensional craft of travel writing, and indeed the nature of travel itself.

John Berendt and Robert D. Kaplan, two very special travel writers

In a recent interview on Talking Travel, author John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels) spoke to Roy about his new book on Venice. In the interview he comments on how his book came about and makes specific reference to the art of travel writing.

To hear this interview click on the audio icon.

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of a number of books including Mediterrean Winter: A Journey Through History, a book Talking Travel strongly recommends.

In a recent article in the online Columbia Journalism Review, Kaplan also writes about the nature of travel writing and journalism in general. Below you will find excerpted statements from that article. To read the entire article, click on the above link.

  • The most dangerous thing a writer can do sometimes is to describe what he sees in front of his face, for the very ideals and assumptions that many of us live by are dependent upon maintaining a comfortable distance from the evidence.
  • The Internet now makes facts so effortless to obtain that there is the illusion of knowledge where none actually exists.... rare is the commentator who does the field work necessary to earn his opinions — or even his prejudices.... the public is increasingly removed from the intangible essences and minutiae of distant places that explain the present, and thus forewarn of the future.
  • Above all, it is the lack of appreciation for geography in the broad, nineteenth-century sense of the word that is basic to an age of journalism increasingly given to summarizing from above rather than reporting from below.
  • Barry Lopez, the nature writer, notes that in the current climate even such a seemingly obvious notion as the American landscape is a concoction of the media and advertising industries: in truth, the American landscape is a product of many little landscapes, each with its local genius...
  • Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing. Travel writing is more important than ever as a means to reveal the vivid reality of places that get lost in the elevator music of 24-hour media reports.
  • ...the best travel books have always been about something else. Mary McCarthy’s The Stones of Florence (1959) and Robert Byron’s The Station (1928) deal with the art of the Renaissance and the Byzantine empire respectively.... Owen Lattimore’s The Desert Road to Turkestan (1929) is on one level about the organization of camel caravans, and on another about Russian and Chinese imperial ambitions.
  • For what people really believe — contrary to what they often tell journalists — takes time and effort to find out.
    [When you don't :interview people but instead listen to them] ... Then in their talk there comes out the rich rough ore of what they themselves accept as the truth about their lives and beliefs, not spoiled in trying to refine it unskillfully by suiting the words to the listener.... Just listening to people, to their stories — rather than cutting them off to ask probing, impolite questions — forms the essence of these and all other good travel books.... You’ll never truly understand anybody by asking a direct question, especially someone you don’t know very well.
  • Travel writing emphasizes solitariness. The best writing, literary or journalistic, occurs under the loneliest of circumstances, when a writer encounters the evidence firsthand without anyone of his social, economic, or professional group nearby to help him filter it, or otherwise condition his opinions.
  • The best travel writing prepares you for what a place is really like, and consequently gives the reader who will never travel there an accurate ground-level portrait of it.
  • How will good reporting survive? Individual men and women will slip away from the crowd — away from the panels and seminars, the courses and conferences, away from the writers’ hangouts and e-mail networks — to cultivate loneliness.