I have an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books that uses the story of my career to look at travel writing over the last 40 years (in books, magazines, and newspapers). Along the way it touches on the rise of American self-absorption, the shame of National Geographic, and the mystery of Louis C.K.'s initials.
Walking around Kenyon I also noticed, with some concern, posters bearing my picture. A friend had gotten me invited to speak as part of the Kenyon Review’s “Writers on Writing” series. I had never been published in the esteemed quarterly (thankfully, I had not submitted anything in years), and now I was scheduled to address students and faculty in its dollhouse offices. In the Cheever Room. On the campus where David Foster Wallace gave his now famous commencement address (copies of which were for sale in the college bookstore). I strolled the gravel paths nervously going over my lines.
About 25 people sat expectantly in the bright Cheever Room at the back of the Review’s offices. I began by reading the opening of an essay of mine from The Wilson Quarterly (as a sign that I was quarterly-worthy). Then I spoke for about 30 minutes on the three steps in writing a travel story: preparation before the trip, legwork while on site, and writing. I talked about the important elements: movement, personal voice, point of view, imagination, humor. And I mentioned how most of my time in front of the computer screen is not spent writing but rewriting. I quoted Paddy Chayevsky – “I’m not a great writer, but I’m a great rewriter” – but forgot Andre Gide: “I rewrite in order to be reread.”
The talk was well-received, which made me feel good (I hadn’t embarrassed my friend). But later it occurred to me that a travel writer speaking in an academic setting benefits from a remarkably low bar. If you don’t talk about frequent flyer strategies and the top 10 European hotels, you can almost come off sounding intellectual.
Saturday I was sitting at Paul’s at Sawgrass Mills – Hania and our house guest had gone off shopping – reading an email from an editor expressing his desire to publish the essay I had sent him. The joy of modern communication, I thought: At any moment, even on a Saturday afternoon, your world can be made bright.
Sunday night we sat with our houseguests at Thai Spice. As they studied the menu, I checked my emails. There was one from another editor at the same magazine; the first editor had mentioned that he would give my essay to a colleague for some ‘slight’ trimming. This editor said that he had narrowed the focus of my essay, and because of that it would require a new ending.
I slipped my phone back into my pocket and silently cursed the immediacy of modern communication.
My six-week travel writing course in Miami – which begins tonight – coincides nicely with the new issue of Granta in which 13 writers are asked if travel writing is dead.
It’s something I’ve been asking myself, but in a different way, wondering if there is still any interest among the public in travel writing. Reading is on the decline generally, and when it comes to getting to know the world there are now many more enticing (though not necessarily superior) ways to do it – HD, interactive apps, virtual reality, etc. The two most popular travel books of recent years – Eat, Pray, Love and Wild – were at heart memoirs.
Pico Iyer gets at this dwindling not of a genre but of an audience for it (which, ultimately I guess, is the same thing) when he laments the abundance of pedestrian blogs and the increasing absence of bold, thoughtful, rigorous portraitures of places. “But that doesn’t mean that travel writing is dead;” he concludes, “only that we sometimes are.”