Travel Writing: It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Cot That Sting

Since a lot of otherwise sensible people seem to feel that reading about a place is the next best thing to going there, the vocation of travel writing has grown from a small pocket of journalism to a light industry employing hundreds of people who under other circumstances—and, I’m afraid, happily—would never have thought of trying to make a living by writing. I’m not speaking of travel writers in the great tradition, such as Tocqueville or even Lemuel Gulliver, but rather of the fellow who grinds out endless columns chronicling the wonders of this place or that, observing no faults anywhere, and whose compulsion to please the local tourist board or syndicat d’initiative is as strong as the drive of a spawning salmon to swim upstream. It’s no accident that neither the Pulitzer nor any other objective journalism group has ever seen the need to make an award for excellence in this category of writing. Finding a worthy candidate working this field of hymnody would take some doing.

The late A. J. Liebling, one of the press’s finest critics, wrote: “When I am working at it, I have no time to think about the shortcomings of the American press; I must look sharp not to come too short myself.” Coming as it does from a man I admire, this worries me. I write about travel myself from time to time, and I can’t escape the implication in Liebling’s reminder. Nevertheless, I must say that a great deal of travel writing today, especially the stuff in the Sunday newspaper supplements and in some of the magazines, is not remarkable in any way. If this strikes some readers as being unbecoming on my part, I can only say in my own defense that I read somewhere that Gladstone put out a contract on Disraeli’s parrot. Niceties sometimes must be overlooked in the larger view of things.

To make some sense out of a sprawling and ill-defined field, perhaps travel writing should be separated from place writing or destination writing. John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country is a good example of the latter category. It is a high-spirited description of Alaska, boldly laid out with a clear eye for relevant detail, and stylishly written. It has almost nothing in common with the average travel book or travel article, loaded as they are with information on airline schedules, hotel accommodations, the comparative quality of discotheques, and details of the local landscape often described on an ascending scale of extravagance. There was a time in my life when, editing magazines dealing with travel, I waded through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these articles. Now, I would unflinchingly choose the Iron Maiden rather than spend an evening with the Sunday travel section of the New York Times.

But even good destination writing requires some little spin on the ball, some extra twist, which often is puzzling to otherwise good writers and causes them to throw wildly. D. H. Lawrence’s attempts at place writing did him no credit whatever; Sea and Sardinia and Etruscan Places were notable failures. Hemingway’s least talent, in my opinion, lay in his description of places; prolix and wooden, the places never were as real as his characters. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, appealing as it was, will always rank as one of his minor works; certainly it never achieved equality with The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden.

Yet some writers possessing the secret, whatever it is, can write of places with such grace and evocation as to cause the reader to gasp. E. B. White’s Here Is New York is one of the most magnificent pieces of place writing that one is ever likely to encounter; it ranks easily beside Flaubert’s description of Paris in winter, the only distinctive feature of an otherwise dull novel called Novembre. Boris Pasternak wrote well and easily of places; Edmund Wilson did not. Dickens, Thoreau, and Robert Louis Stevenson did; Hugo, Henry Adams, and Max Beerbohm didn’t. Graham Greene does; Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t. And then there is Isak Dinesen, who occupies an exalted spot of her own, the finial figure of all place writing.

Why travel writing has failed to develop in a journalistic sense, as political writing and even sports writing have succeeded in doing, is baffling. Perhaps it is because the great mass of travel writing today is trompe I’oeil; it possesses no basic reality. It is ground out quickly and in enormous quantities, and if much of it possesses the unmistakable style of a press release, that is probably because it was cloned from a press release to begin with. In all fairness, however, it should be said that it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. I once worked with a travel editor who took to rejecting manuscripts with the penciled notation: “I don’t think you’ve ever been there.” He attracted the unqualified loathing of travel writers everywhere, for which he should be congratulated. It became a moral imperative with him that a writer should have visited the place written about, and he often growled, while reading a manuscript, “Here is another travel writer whose work takes him to the four corners of the room.”

The reason much travel writing is of such lamentably low quality, in my opinion, is that it almost totally lacks any sting or any critical comment. A good travel article should be written not with the idea that it will become ballast in a vacationer’s valise, to remind him upon arrival where to eat and what to see, but to help him make the bigger decision of whether to go there in the first place. If everything is described in the noblest of terms, the reader is often misled. Faults must be pointed out with the same enthusiasm that the writer shows for the quality of the food or the beauty of the sunset. I once read a travel article that filled me with delight. It was written by a mountain climber who said there wasn’t a damned thing up there, but at least he could see how he got up. That’s honest writing.

I don’t mean to imply that the travel writer should go about his business looking for trouble, because that’s no better than closing one’s eyes to it. No, what I’m suggesting is that the writer keep his outrage at a fairly low setting, but subject to upward adjustment whenever the climate warrants. This is as innovational, in its way, as suggesting that a bit of taste, wit, and intelligence also go into the report. I once encountered an American travel writer in Dubrovnik who was shouting loudly at a hotel clerk and waving his fist like an Old Testament prophet; yet three weeks later, when I read his report in a Sunday travel supplement, there was no hint that the city, or indeed all of Yugoslavia, was anything but flawless. Most travel writers seem far more eager to please the country they are visiting than to please their readers. There are certain periods of the year at some resorts where even the White Star Temperance Hotel is fully booked, yet it is difficult to recall in modern travel literature any reference to such a situation, however mild and glancing that criticism may be.

A lot of people view travel with foreboding (so do I), and the travel writer who can capture the essential spirit of a place and present it in an evocative way is the writer who has accomplished the main task: he has furnished the reader with something substantial enough to be used as the basis for a sensible decision. Knowing what the place is like, the uneasy traveler can make up his mind as to whether it is worth the trouble to undertake the journey. This is more reassuring than booking reservations to an unknown destination in a moment of hysterical optimism. It is here, though, that the travel writer falters; listing hotels, restaurants, cathedrals, and discotheques is far simpler than portraying the flavor of a place —its sounds, its smells, its tempo, its historical perspective, the rhythm and life-style of its people. Any attempt at the sublime must risk descent to the ridiculous, and too often the insecure travel writer prefers to back away, unwilling to plumb even shallows deeper than usual.

There are writers who can invest places with emotion and meaning. Rebecca West is one. Of Venice, she wrote: “And there is the light. The sea wind blows in from the Adriatic across the wide, shallow lagoons, and one of these forces welling up from the earth below catches it, and millions of salty crystals stay hanging in the air, so that the sunshine glistens and a dull day shines like polished silver and mists are iridescent and lightning is twice itself.” Joan Didion is another. Describing Bogota, she wrote: “For the whole history of the place has been made to seem a mirage, a delusion on the high savanna, its gold and its emeralds unattainable, inaccessible, its isolation so splendid and unthinkable that the very existence of a city astonishes. There on the very spine of the Andes, gardeners espalier roses on embassy walls.” And Katherine Anne Porter is still another, as she writes of a winter visit to the house in Rome where Keats died: “. . . when the clear twilight was coming on, I climbed those steep marble stairs in the tall house at the right-hand side of the Spanish Steps, as you go up, to visit the room where Keats died. Yet, the room is so very little, so narrow, with a marble fireplace on the inner wall, and a great window looking out over the Steps and up to the great church, and the houses across the way, it can hardly have changed at all.”

Why do ordinary travel writers take themselves so gravely, unless it is because they are so lavishly welcomed by their hosts that they become giddy with the vertige of power? Humor can often accomplish more in travel writing than in any other literary effort, yet one encounters it rarely. When S. J. Perelman, who frequently casts a jaundiced eye on the travel scene, describes a drink from his Scottish host as consisting of “rare old Glencordite,” things come instantly into focus. Or consider Mordecai Richler’s irreverent description of a Nova Scotian lodge as “a sort of Presbyterian Grossinger’s.” (“I felt it wouldn’t do to drift into the dining room for breakfast,” he writes, “but rather that I should report to the mess, offering my rank and serial number.”) Or John Kenneth Galbraith writing of Australian trains: “The Australians have done great things for their transcontinental travelers, but one senses adherence to the accepted view that those going short distances should be subject to normal abuse.” Or John Cheever, writing of a dining room in a hotel on Rumania’s Black Sea, where “a left-handed violinist in tails and a black tie was making a frontal assault on the favorite songs from Oklahoma!” Or Irwin Shaw reporting on Cannes during the film festival and saying: “Other professional ladies, whose interest lay outside the film world, were, as usual, at their accustomed stands, many of them dressed more tastefully than the invited guests.” But, alas, none of these writers are what you would call travel writers; they labor in that field only occasionally.

One of the things that troubles me the most about travel writing in the newspapers and magazines is not that it is devoid of all traces of criticism but that it also conceals no surprises. Not only is everything tip-top, but you know from the start that everything is going to be tip-top. If it is an exotic place, the sun is going to drop into the sea at sundown like an orange ball. Flying fish are going to skim from wave to wave like silver moths. Bougainvillaea is going to envelop garden walls like a flame. Twilight settles like a perfumedrenched mantle. If it isn’t an exotic place, some place like Dallas, say, the article is constructed of nuts and bolts: how to get there, where to stay, and — this is important but I don’t know why—who goes there.

I will offer an example although I’m afraid I must go close to the nerve here. I read recently in New York magazine an article on Key West, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell whether or not the author had been there. There was considerable discussion about the island’s similarity to the Hamptons, a cluster of chic towns on the south shore of Long Island; some comment on restaurants and hotels; but the main thrust of the piece seemed to be listing the fashionable New York people who went to Key West, not, it seems, to see Key West, but to see other fashionable people from New York. Why they all didn’t stay in New York and not go to the bother of traveling is somewhat puzzling, but a lot of New York’s folkways strike me as curious. At any rate, no one can accuse the author of the Key West piece of not being critical. Comparing a place to the Hamptons is not only critical, it’s almost actionable.