When people ask me my favorite place, Turkey is always among the handful of countries I name. I spent three happy weeks there in 1997; this passage about my visit to Selcuk is from my second book, A Way to See the World (2003):
"Nearby stood the train station, with its own cafe tucked under branches and a fountain where a girl, with a little red wagon full of empty plastic bottles, graciously motioned me to go ahead of her to get my drink. And here it was again: not just kindness, but that instinctive radar for detecting a stranger's need for it. I thought of the wine merchant in Cappadocia who opened a bottle to give me a taste, the woman in Ankara's old town who emerged from nowhere to hand me a warm loaf of bread, the van driver who made sure that I caught the right bus, the sweets seller who knew I wanted more nougat. ...Turkey was proving my theory that there are countries that treat you as a tourist and others - often the less celebrated ones - that receive you as a guest."
I am reading the collected travel writings of a well-known (living) American novelist and I'm struck by how lackluster they are. I've noticed this before when novelists write travel articles for magazines (which is where many of these pieces first appeared): They seem to see it as an opportunity to let up on the gas. Very much unlike the great British novelist/travel writers: D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh. In the pieces I'm reading there are felicitous phrases of course, and, from time to time, insightful observations, but there is very little dialogue; there are very few characters other than the author and his companion; there is no attempt to engage with the place. Do novelists believe that, thanks to their well-honed intuitive powers, they don't have to; that they can divine everything essential just by observing from the sidelines? (True, Lawrence did this, but he had the genius for it.) Or is travel writing a vacation for them in every sense, allowing them to escape the narrative demands and imaginative labors of fiction and focus, finally, on themselves?
The woman standing in front of me in the lunch line at the American Library Association conference this weekend turned and said: "A lot of librarians."
"Yes," I said. "But they don't look like librarians."
"That's nice of you to say," she said. "When I first started coming to these there was always one woman in the back of the room knitting."
A lasting image (at least for me) of the 2012 Summer Olympics is of London mayor Boris Johnson suspended on a zip line several feet above the ground. As I recall, each of his chubby hands held a small Union Jack. The announcer, Bob Costas, painted the mayor as something of a buffoon, unaware, probably, of his journalistic career which included editorship of The Spectator, in whose pages I first made his acquaintance. I thought it unfortunate that this learned, witty man would now be seen by Americans as an ineffectual clown. How things can change in four years.
A newspaper book critic recently posted on Facebook that she's had it with memoirs. It seemed an odd statement coming from a professional reader. Isn't it, or shouldn't it be, all about the writing? There are sublime memoirs (Speak, Memory; The Gastronomical Me; Bronx Primitive; An American Childhood - to name just four) and countless numbers of worthless novels. We are constantly being urged to look beyond gender - what about genre?