First Irony, Now Travel Writing Kicks the Bucket

When irony died a premature death, thanks to the events of 9/11, I wasn’t terribly upset. I actually hoped its passing would spell the end of cooler-than-thou t-shirt slogans that every hipster from Silverlake to Williamsburg wore as a de rigeur part of their wardrobe. Eh-eh. Instead, irony seems to have gone into a coma, not quite dead but not entirely certain the world is ready for the announcement that it’s still alive and kicking. I got over it.

But when I read that some bloke named Chuck Thompson (never trust a guy who willingly goes by “Chuck”) thinks that today’s travel writers amount to little more than a class of uninspired hacks, I was peeved — and a might bit baffled. Does this guy not read National Geographic Adventure or Outside? Has he not heard of Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer? Sure, there are more than enough travel-industry stoolies who’ll write a glowing review of any dump that throws them a comp, but isn’t toadyism part of any industry?

I haven’t yet read Chuck’s opus, Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, but based on the pieces I have scanned, I have no need to. The first one I plucked out on Amazon began — I kid you not:

Watching the Penis Olympics didn’t make me feel much like the “foreign ambassador” the JET orientation had prepared me to be. Worse, the pressure on me to participate was fierce. A lupine excitement gripped the room at the possibility of seeing a Caucasian penis in the engorged flesh, but the assumption that I was packing a gigantic wad, flattering to be sure, was also intimidating.

And two Surprise Me! clicks later:

Temples, not tits, filled my Thai checklist.

Pure poetry, Chuck.

If travel writing has passed its peak, Chuck sure ain’t helping prep for its comeback tour with frat-boy prose like that. So who is he to pass judgment on the rest of the travel-writing community, especially when the fluff pieces he so despises are usually taken by well-meaning writers just to pay the bills in between more important writing gigs?

Senor Chuck does, however, make some valid points, including several that brought back stinging memories of a not-so-long-ago gig. Says Rolf Potts, in his review of Chuck’s book [emboldened words hold special meaning for yours truly]:

Thompson proceeds with an accurate roundup of the elements that conspire to create bad travel writing: throw-away words like “hip,” “happening,” “sun-drenched,” “undiscovered,” and “magical”; imperative language that urges the reader to “do” this, “eat” that, “go” here; stories that depict tourism workers (taxi drivers, hotel clerks, bartenders) as “local color”; the fake narrative “raisons d’etre writers invent to justify their travels”; the untraveled writers and editors who assemble authoritative-sounding travel “roundups” from Internet research; the conflicts of interest that arise when writers fund their travels with industry-subsidized “comps”; publications running what is essentially the same story over and over again, never questioning stereotype assumptions about certain parts of the world.

All genres have their low-brow and their high. Travel writing is no different. To lump the commercial in with the literary is like comparing Knocked Up to North by Northwest. Kudos to Potts for taking Chuck down a notch.

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