Article: Frank Bures spills dirty secrets in Guyana

The world demands payment sooner or later, which is how we arrived at this uneasy nexus of reportage and promotion which is often referred to as “destination” travel writing, but which has one goal: to generate tourism.

This great article from Frank Bures in Nowhere magazine has been echoing around the internet since it was first published.  Little surprise as it is an honest piece about press trips and their impact on travel writing.

Having accepted a press trip to Guyana, Frank Bures has second thoughts and walks us through how press trips work, why they are available and where they fit into the “vortex of sales” surrounding the travel industry.  

He observes that travel writing is driven by pressure to “sell the trip” which results in boosterism and cheery articles.  Consequently, much travel writing has become a sales extension of the global travel industry rather than being journeys by proxy, prompted by curiosity and something to be appreciated in their own right.     

It is no longer travel writing. It’s tourism writing. And tourism is boring. 

As the tourism sector grows, the commercial imperative checks the freedom to create interesting work.   By implication it also limits the range of destinations open to travel writing as the place must be capable of being sold.  If the reader can’t buy the flight, book the hotel or take the tour, what is the point of the article?  To effectively sell a destination, the reader must be able mentally to substitute themselves for the author and imagine themselves enjoying that experience.  The journey or travel experience in the article must be accessible.  

The function of this type of writing is different to the type of travel writing as explained by Paul Theroux:

In a sense, as a writer you are doing the travel for the reader…So I get the impression that people who read my books don’t intend to take that trip themselves. In an ideal world they would like to travel alone and go to malarial swamps, but they haven’t got the time. They only have a couple of weeks vacation. So the idea that I’m in New Guinea, facing down boys with spears saying they are going to kill me, is a thrill for them. People read travel books for the same reason that they read novels. To transport them.

Theroux observes that, good travel writing like travel itself, is a metaphor for life; a “leap in the dark”, about someone finding their way and awakening “all our old fears of danger and risk”.  While the best travel writing might (and hopefully will) inspire the reader to go and out and make a journey themselves, that is not necessarily its point, unlike its tourist writing counterpart.

Branding Guyana is well written and makes some interesting points about the state of travel writing.  There isn’t much about Guyana in the article although to be fair, that was not really Bures’ point.  We do however glean enough to know that Guyana is a place that does not lend itself to breezy clichés and where the phrase ‘creature comforts’ is more likely to mean that your chigger bites have stopped itching.  Guyana is therefore probably a place where travel involves a bit more travail than tourism.  




Article: Paris Review interview with Jan Morris


I don’t consider my books travel books. I don’t like travel books, as I said before. I don’t believe in them as a genre of literature. 

Celebrated travel writer Jan Morris on not being a travel writer.  Insightful and entertaining 1989 interview from the Paris Review.

This is a broad discussion covering a range of Jan Morris’ writing from throughout her career as well as her own journeys, external and internal, encompassing parts of her military service, writing career and change of gender.     

Whether familiar with her work or not, this is an interesting interview about several of Jan Morris’ works including the Sultan in Oman, her writings about cities, Spain and, of course, Venice.   She also talks about her non-fiction writing including her experiences on Everest, Conundrum (about her change of gender) and also her works and thoughts about histories and in particular the Pax Britannica Trilogy.    

I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. 

Of particular note are Jan Morris’ observations about travel writing and the relationship between her work and fiction including her thoughts on why she doesn’t consider her own writing to be travel books and why reading travel books by others haven’t always prepared her for journeys to those places.     

Great portrait of a varied, full and fascinating life and a great author.

The interview is also available in audio on Youtube:


Article: Matador’s advice from famous travel writers

But the overarching theme of the advice of the greats is this: just do it. Do it often. Don’t give up. Consider your audience. Work at it. And leave it at that.

There’s no shortage of advice available online about how to become a travel writer.  However, this Matador article from 2015 collects thoughts from some of the most famous travel writers about how to write about travel and succeed at it.  

The article contains advice from writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert, Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Rolf Potts, Pico Iyer, Hunter S Thompson and Ernest Hemingway.

The advice given includes:

  1.  Treat writing as a vocation 
  2.  Be self forgiving
  3.  Write and do not just talk about writing
  4.  Do not be afraid of rejection
  5.  Don’t be boring
  6.  Travel a lot
  7.  Read a lot
  8.  Don’t quit your day job (at least to begin with)

Much of this may not be new but, it is always useful to have good advice to hand from the experienced when motivation is low.


Interview: Paul Theroux on Travelling

What draws me in is that a trip is a leap in the dark. It’s like a metaphor for life. You set off from home, and in the classic travel book you go to an unknown place. You discover a different world, and you discover yourself. The traveller is an ancient figure – a stand-in for mankind – finding his or her way. Ideally, in a travel book the traveller is alone.

Interview with Paul Theroux as part of The Browser‘s FiveBooks series, also published in Salon in 2012.

Paul Theroux discusses his early life in Malawi and Africa, how travelling gives a perspective on home countries and what it means to travel alone properly and how that intensifies the personal response to a physical journey.

He explains why he chooses not to read travel literature and how he chooses what books to take on a  journey, revealing views similar to Graham Greene:

What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast (The Lawless Roads)

Setting out his five book choices, Paul Theroux explains how each of them helped make him want to write a book himself, how we are drawn to stories about stories about suffering and people being tested and how the length of time a writer spends in a place can affect how they respond to and write about it.

Theroux gives an insight into the difficulty of treating travel writing as a strictly non-fiction literary form.  He highlights that three of his five choices are novelists (“a novelist should be a good traveller”) and explains the value of fiction techniques for travel writing (“the ability to write fiction…is helpful to someone writing a travel book”).  

This resonates with the views of Jan Morris, who resists not only being called a travel writer but also “the idea that travel writing has got to be factual.”  As if to make Theroux’s point about the closeness of travel writing and fiction, Morris recalls Theroux once saying to her that he “liked writing travel books because they gave him a plot; he didn’t have to think one up”.   However, as both authors point out, this does not simply mean making it up even though some travel writers haven been criticised for doing just that.

As for what the five books were? You can read those in the interview.



Article: How not to write about India…or Africa

I didn’t want to succumb to the tourist traps. I wasn’t interested in India-lite. I wanted the real thing…And Real India didn’t disappoint. It was clear that despite their plight, people are happy.

Civilian recently published an article, Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aargh!, in which “Chubby Mummy” describes a trip that she took to India along with Chubby Hubby and little Barnaby.  

Chubby Mummy’s account was cliche-ridden to the point of being offensive: “As I gazed at the scene unfolding around me, I saw a child in rags tap at the window of a brand new imported Mercedes: a slumdog and a millionaire.” Unsurprisingly, the article provoked a fair amount of fury and disbelief.  

It turns out that those readers who couldn’t believe it and assumed it was a parody were right.  Or at least half right.

The article was written by Monisha Rajesh, journalist and author of Around India in 80 Trains.  Tired of seeing poor quality writing about India, Rajesh put together the Civilian article using extracts from other published pieces.  The effect was so toe-curling it was actually quite amusing. 

 In a follow-up piece published a few days later, Rajesh came clean and expressed amazement that so few people had spotted her article was a fake and seemed to accept that it was “just another rubbish piece about India.”  

Perhaps that is not so surprising given the use of published articles about India.  Chubby Mummy’s reliance on “colour and chaos” was only distinguishable from the mass of poor journalism about India by degree rather than substance.  As if to make the point, in the days following publication of the fake article, Rajesh tweeted links to two or three more articles which all used the same cliches.    

My colleague and I play a game called Travel-writer Bingo while we edit, deleting the “white-sand beaches”, “crystal-clear waters”, and all the other “hidden gems” “tucked away down alleyways”, that “don’t disappoint”. But when it comes to writing on India, these articles take on a whole new dimension. 

A similar observation about travel writing cliches has been made before, only about Africa rather than India.

In 2006, Granta published an article by Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina, called How to Write about Africa.  Rather than a parody piece of travel writing it is an essay offering advice on how to write about Africa in stereotyped form.  

The African cliches Wainaina deploys as satire in that essay are as recognisable as those Rajesh highlights about India.  It is easy to be superior and to scoff but depressing to notice how frequently travel writers resort to them. 

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

Ironically, although Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay was published in Granta, it was in fact writing in Granta that prompted it.   The article began life as an email rant (“a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day”) responding to stereotyped writing about Africa in Granta which was “populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.”   As Wainaina explains in How to Write About Africa II, Granta’s new editor Ian Jack responded to his email and an edited version was used in a subsequent Granta Africa issue.   

The essay grew a life off its own and became Granta’s most forwarded article.  There is even a Youtube video of actor, Djimon Hounsou (who appeared in Amistad, Gladiator and Blood Diamond) narrating Wainaina’s article:

As the New Yorker has observed, “to write about Africa without consulting this handy guide is to do yourself a disservice, and to potentially set yourself up for a good mocking.”  To that, one can now add that anyone writing about India ought similarly to consult Monisha Rajesh’s Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aargh!.

Article: What next for travel writing?

Is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe at the click of a mouse? Why bother with someone else’s subjective opinions, when hard information about the world is now so easily available? Why read a travel book when you can just go on Google Earth and look for yourself?

William Dalrymple considers the future for travel writing in a Guardian article that later appeared as an introduction to the Travelers’ Tales/Solas House anthology, The Best Travel Writing 2010.

Reflecting on the deaths of a number of the great travel writers of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Norman Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Wilfred Thesiger and Eric Newby, William Dalrymple wonders whether the revival of travel writing that started in the last quarter of the twentieth century is fading.

There are few blanks left on maps.  Increasing numbers of us travel to countries and remote places that fifty years ago would have been unthinkable. Travel and tourism have become an increasingly two way street with more visitors from the east travelling west.  

That the era of travel is over is not a new idea.  In 1964, Jan Morris noted that “the frontiers..are distinctly fading” and that “there is little in contemporary travel that is altogether unfamiliar; partly because television has taken us everywhere already.”  

Is there then a point to travel writing when we have so much information about foreign places and cultures at our fingertips and when we are as likely to encounter the ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ at home as abroad?

Rather than “grumble about sameness, Americanisation and the impossibility of getting away from the tourists”, Jan Morris approached the question with her customary optimism, seeing the opening of travel as clearing the way for a “merrier kind of melange…the much happier hodgepodge of individual variety.” 

Quoting Jonathan Raban, Dalrymple echoes this and sees globalisation as a veneer: “Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they meet the brute differences in everything of importance.”

In this context, travel writers reporting on foreign places no longer seems seems sufficient.  What can travel writing offer if it cannot adapt to an increasingly complex and globalised world? 

Dalrymple urges that travel writing can and must adapt and that it still has a major role to play.

In order to explore the diversity of the world, rather than being about places, modern travel writing must focus on the people (keep the narrator in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories centre stage”).   

Morris made a similar point in her 1964 Spectator piece.  With the world so open and mixed, “the interest of travel lies in the particular rather than the general, in what you do rather than where you are.”  

Dalrymple argues that, as a genre which absorbs elements of other literary forms, travel books allow writers to explore other cultures in depth and to understand them in a way impossible in other literary or journalistic forms, despite the mass of information available through the internet.  

Eloquent and motivating, Dalrymple therefore concludes: “there is still no substitute for a good piece of travel writing”. 

More of William Dalrymple’s journalism is available on his website, or follow him on Twitter: @DalrympleWill.  The Best Travel Writing 2010 is available on Amazon: