Several decades ago, when I first started publishing travel books, it was necessary to look for a knowledgeable clerk to help find my tomes when they hit the stores. I might find my latest darlings under “current events” or “new nonfiction” or “humor.” There weren’t “travel writing” aisles in major bookstores. You could find travel guides, but not “travel writing.” All that has changed in the last dozen years or so. Bookstores have discovered that there are such things as the travel essay, the travel book, and now some stores actually specialize in travel writing. This has led me to conclude that there are now a lot more writers who specialize in travel, and, concurrently, many more readers interested in reading those writers. We seem to be in a golden age of American travel writing and may actually be closing in on some of the great English travel writers who wrote timeless books and essays in the age of Empire and just after. (This is an arguable proposition and one that, I admit, may well be an inexcusable overstatement.) There was, of course, a hiccup in demand and production just after the events of September 11, 2001, but I sense that, lately, both output and demand have picked up considerably. Magazines are once again assigning writers to seek out remote and sometimes dangerous locations, or to come back with new insights concerning more familiar areas.
In the magazines that assign such work, the word “article” is never used. One writes a “piece” or sometimes, “a story.” It is the latter definition that I prefer.
My own opinion is that “story” is the essence of the travel essay. Stories are the way we organize the chaos in our lives, orchestrate voluminous factual material, and — if we are very good — shed some light on the human condition, such as it is.
I realize that there are many very good travel writers, people who interview this person and that, eliciting contrasting views in the manner of a good daily reporter, and those fine writers did not find their way into this book, due entirely to my own prejudice in the matter. Information is of immense value, but if I can’t find a story, I often feel I’m being beaten over the head with an encyclopedia. Stories are the sole written instruments that can bring tears to our eyes, or make us laugh, or even — God forbid — compel us to think, and thereby perhaps even take a position.
Additionally, they’re generally more fun to read. (In my entirely biased opinion.) So in choosing “pieces” for this anthology, I’ve looked for the best stories I could find and was brutal in eliminating purely informational material. There is a controversy in the travel writing community concerning such matters. One argument has it that “the reader wants to read about his trip, not yours.” I’m not so sure. Readers want to read, which means they want something that holds their attention. They want to be entertained and informed and amused. If they are reading for information only, modern travelers are blessed with any number of guidebooks, and these volumes seem to become better and more informative every year.
But in travel writing, story is of the essence. And if the narrative in question inspires the reader to visit the destination in question, so much the better. I know from letters I’ve received, from conversations I’ve had at writing seminars and book signings, that some of my own stories have inspired readers to undertake journeys similar to my own. Hell, certain adventure travel companies have made places I’ve written about long ago catalogue destinations, and at least one guidebook followed a trip I took years ago, informing independent travelers how to emulate that peculiar journey without encountering the multitude of dead ends and frustrations that my own party encountered. A hearty traveler, book in hand, could in ten days make the trip that took my party the better part of a month.
Guidebooks are about logistics; stories arise from the heart, and are the essence of travel. Ask anyone who has just returned from a trip how it went, and you are not likely to get directions. You’ll hear stories. In this book, our storytellers have blundered across the globe and come back with essays and articles that I hope will make you laugh, cry, think, and perhaps dream. Or at least that is what we as travel writers like to believe, and often state aloud in the many conferences devoted to travel writing that take place across the United States every year. New such workshops and seminars are springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
These are generally invigorating for both the writers and the attendees who would like to be travel writers. The established writers are forced to think abouut how and why they do what they do, matters I generally never contemplate. As a matter of fact, most writers, meeting casually, do not tttttalk about “the process,” or “narrative arch” or the complications of carpentering together a scene.
What we talk about is how we were financially sodomized by this publisher or that, and how the latest editor went goose-stepping through our sinuous prose.
I suspect the conferences are the only time we think about what we do, and in the dozens I’ve attended, it is instructive to watch established literary travel writers oscillate between self-congratulation and self-hate. On the one hand, there is a tendency to imagine that what we do is important and that encouraging people to travel promotes tolerance and understanding. As Mark Twain, who spent much of his early newspaper career as a “foreign correspondent,” said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” My sense is that most of the writers here would be in agreement.
So we like to think of ourselves as emissaries for world peace, for the convergence of cultures, for international harmony, and, by extension, the end of cultural disharmony and even war. If folks are encouraged to travel our route, so much the better; but if they choose to experience the culture from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy, it is of no matter.
We, as travel writers, will pat ourselves on the back. Maybe we haven’t cured cancer or come up with an AIDS vaccine, but we’ve gone to the ends of the earth, almost always on OPM (Other People’s Money: the only good-sized hunks of cash most travel writers get to see), and we can congratulate ourselves that we labor in the cause of understanding and world peace.
The fact that cultures are still in mortal conflict and that world peace is yet a fantasy suggests that either we are dead wrong, or that we still have a lot of work to do.
On the other hand, many of us are consumed with a sort of gentle self-loathing and generally bristle at being called travel writers. Most of the writers you will read here did not aspire to travel as a career. I didn’t. We like to think of ourselves as writers first, travelers second. We started out as novelists, narrative nonfiction writers, creative journalists, daily journalists, technical writers. And somehow, one day, in the midst of a personality profile or political piece or the explication of a current crime, some trick of fate, generally in the person of a cruel editor, sent us on an assignment that required travel, and we nailed the story. And that led to a second such assignment, and a third. And suddenly, much to our mystification, we became known as travel writers.
The majority of those in my occupation, I imagine, would rather be known as writers who, for reasons not totally explicable, find their ...