ESSAY Timothy Laurence Marsh

NWR Issue r14

Dark Formula: Why Reckless Travel Writing Matters

In April 2008, the Guardian reported on former Lonely Planet guidebook author Thomas Kohnstamm, who admitted shortly before the release of his memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? that he did not always write honestly about the places he reviewed, and that his work on a guidebook of Columbia was actually undertaken while living in San Francisco. Kohnstamm claims that most experienced travel writers – because of cost-cutting publishers who pay pennies in expenses – learn ways to cut corners, mostly in the sense of cribbing information from means and sources other than personal experience. In a statement posted to the company website, Lonely Planet defended itself by saying that many of their authors were hired to write only about a country’s history, not to travel there and encounter the culture first-hand, and that Kohnstamm’s case was not unusual. But the defence did little to quash the firestorm ignited by Kohnstamm’s book, in which he flippantly confessed to plagiarising material, trading positive reviews for in-kind favours, and distorting his interactions to create a more marketable account.

Oddly enough, much of my passion for travel writing originates from a hefty cynicism toward the travel writing industry. Long before Kohnstamm’s memoir, my hunch was that most contemporary travel authors (particularly those within the resource and lifestyle market) worked from a narrative script based on an agenda their publishers wanted them to follow. Like bakers who used too much sugar, they relied heavily on gushing hyperbole and candied adjectives that gave their depictions the taste of glorified ad copy. They took trips to Lovely London, Gorgeous Grenada, Beautiful Brazil, and when they got there everything was scintillating, sumptuous, breathtaking, surreal. Instinctively, I knew it wasn’t a matter of lousy writing. It was smart writing doing a lousy thing. The problem was that I lacked the critical ability to distinguish what that ‘thing’ was. All I had was a crude sense of my exploitation – the feeling that as a reader I was not only being insufficiently informed by these writers, but darkly inveigled.

Then, about a year into my doctoral studies, I got my hands on a copy of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. Writing of a dismally underwhelming trip to Barbados, Botton notes how easily he’d been ‘turned to prey’ by the tantalizing succotash of a high-end tourist brochure. To Botton, the creators of the brochure had demonstrated a fiendish power: the ability to intuit the banality and confinement of his middle-class existence. The impressions they promoted (luxuriant beaches, botanical pavilions, cavorting locals) had elicited feelings of stagnation, commandeered his free will, and provoked a longing that was at once clear and disturbing evidence of how a rational mind could be influenced, if not outright brainwashed, by ‘the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness.’

Botton’s example sheds valuable light on a shadowy tactic. Exotic adventure travel copy, like the articles we find in leisure columns and airline magazines, often redistribute the emphasis from place to self. Their writers (faced with the pressure to sell first and inform second) are compelled to do one thing above all: arouse interest. It is not essential, therefore, that they boldly reveal the rougher facts or realties of their destinations. What matters is that readers are supplied with a snappy and scrumptious concept of somewhere else – an imaginative antidote to feelings of domestic repression. Escape, mobility, renewal, release. These crucial human needs are made urgent to us through florid lionisations of a destination’s most desirable qualities, lending terrific power to the dangerous belief that what is wrong with our lives is the result of where we are. Or, more accurately perhaps, where we are not.


The same year Kohnstamm gutted the scaly underbelly of the travel-writing world, another snake oil salesman, Chuck Thompson, turned against the market with even greater vengeance and glee. In his misanthropic demo-job, Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, Thompson sledgehammers the editors and corporate execs who he alleges have done more to ruin certain locations than the tourists everybody complains about. Thompson spits much of his venom at the market’s servile allegiance to advertisers, pointing out that in most travel magazines the ad copy thoroughly dictates the editorial coverage, putting pressure on writers to churn out ‘witless puffery’ and ‘sun-dappled barf’ instead of relevant commentary. ‘It’s the same words, the same buzzers,’ says Thompson in an NPR interview. ‘The advertiser content pushes the editorial content, and what you get when the writers become aware of this – what you get are a lot of writers groping for the language of advertisers. It’s all hyperbole.’

Considering the sordid, puerile, drug-peddling transgressions glamorised in their memoirs, it would be over-generous to laud Kohnstamm or Thompson as courageous ‘rogue’ writers fighting for the integrity of their craft. Neither produces the type of exposé into which one should place good trust. Kohnstamm overstrains in his effort to be inflammatory, airing plenty of dirty laundry but delving little into the moral conflict of writers held to ransom by the demands of profit-driven publishers; while Thompson’s memoir is largely a compost of men’s- room anecdotes that routinely fall short of describing anything more scandalous about his destinations than what is already widely presumed about them. Even more problematic is the fact that neither writer sufficiently considers why such misconduct matters to the travel-reading public. So what if a travel article is packed to the rafters with hyperbole? Big deal if some island getaway is prettified for effect. What does it matter if a guidebook about one country is researched from another country, without personal observation or direct experience by the author?

One response is that travel writers who deal in the retail of imaginative antidotes invariably reduce their destinations to theatrical stages. These stages are ornamented with dazzling props that assume the form of convivial natives, flourishing terrains, and other exciting fetishisations. Looking at such props from a position of inexperience, the reader cannot see anything but what is facing back at him. There are no angles to the images, no depth. The symbols are flat, and, however colourful and lurid, without life or substance. On the road, however, these props become startlingly multi-dimensional once we are physically in a place. They form working mouths that may speak rude things; working eyes that may leer or make us uncomfortable; working arms that may reach out to beg or pick our pockets. The beaches may come alive with pollution or crowds; the food may become real with an unappetizing taste; and after so many of these jarring reality checks, we may find ourselves exhibiting the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder – neither revived nor inspired, as we once imagined, but socially incapacitated, desperately confused, and increasingly disdainful of our host culture.

Of course all authors, to some degree, create their own version of reality. But while most of us accept the inevitability of artifice when we pick up a text, even a work of nonfiction, there is the expectation that no text will jeopardize our welfare. Travel literature that simply targets the fantasies of an audience, rather than supplying it with relevant information, may ultimately put those readers at risk. Not just the emotional risk of disillusionment, as Botton experienced, but financial and physical risk as well. On the one hand, travellers following the guidance of a bogus travel account may walk into a well-reviewed restaurant and find themselves merely disenchanted by the table service. On the other, they may wander into an area under-reported for its crime against foreigners and find themselves in genuine danger.

Then there are those like humanities scholar Robert Hauptman, who hold truth to be ‘the single most important authorial benchmark.’ For them, professional authors have responsibilities. Like all professionals they are expected to operate within the ethics of their profession, to ask themselves the principle ethical questions (Is this action right or wrong? Acceptable or unacceptable?) and act appropriately upon the answers at which they arrive. Novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists – all writers are bound to authenticity, to do no harm to their subjects or audience; and in the case of travel writers, to generate enthusiasm without egregious distortion. Refusing to bait readers with seductive illusions, or to testify to cultural virtues that were not directly experienced, even if that testimony is somehow accurate – these are just a few of the commitments that constitute responsible travel writing. And with the swift decline of print literature and the engulfing rise of online content, it is more important than ever to uphold them. Which brings me to the bigger issue.

The future has leapt upon us. We are a new race of travellers no longer limited in the ways we see and sense the world, but who are constantly saturated by waves of digital global material crashing around us in a range of texts and media. The more these materials are normalised with romantic contrivance and cajoling hogwash, the harder it will become for travellers to conceptualise other cultural landscapes as a multifaceted experience, and thus prepare for those turbulent points of intersection that travel inevitably forces upon us. It is not a matter to be taken lightly. Our expectations carry tremendous power, and when they are not regulated, crisis is never far away.

As the glad owner of a dozen or so guidebooks, and as a steady reader of a half dozen travel magazines, none of this is meant to suggest that travel writing is worthless by nature or that its authors are inherently bad people. There can be no doubt, given the surging mess of ‘patriotism’ that has spread across western civilization, that a good many of us sorely need to be inspired to go places, and to encounter more of the world than the excessively homogenous communities outside our front doors.

I mean only to suggest that as consumers of exotic experience we ought to be diligently wary of any literature that so aggressively appeals to our fantasies. The destinations of our dreams are not imaginary or untouchable. They are real places well within the influence of the emerging global market, locations that have achieved perfection only in the desktop backgrounds of our computers or the posters taped to the windows of travel agencies. Although we may dream of the pleasure of a tropical coast or the restorative power of a bright golden sun, the reality is that fulfilment is far too extraordinary a condition to be achieved simply by shifting our whereabouts. Ultimately, the true sin of reckless travel writing lies not in its overemphatic rhetoric, but in what it fails to emphasise enough.

Timothy Laurence Marsh earned his PhD in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University. He is the author of the essay collection, 'How to Make White People Happy', forthcoming to be published this April byfrom Alternative Book Press (USA). Recent work includes creative nonfiction for Catapult, The Los Angeles Review, Fourth River and tThe Saranac Review. He was also highly recommended in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2015. He currently lives in New York.


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