The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Thematic: The Varieties of Travel Experience

A (Partial) Defense of Travel Writing

Other Lives, Other Times, Other Minds

Clare Coffey

Photograph by Dariusz Sankowski via Unsplash.

It can be difficult enough to justify travel—to explain why we hold this expensive and unproductive pursuit in such high cultural esteem, even make it a personal aspiration. Travel writers labor under the burden of all the usual general objections to travel (one of the more notable: a wasteful, high-energy pastime in a carbon-conscious world) while fending off a few others aimed at specific aspects of their genre. Travel writing can be exploitative, exposing quiet corners of the world to a popularity that will alter them forever. Travel writing is self-indulgent: You pay (in theory) for your trip to Uzbekistan by getting all the rubes at home to read you talking about what a great time you had. I certainly look with loathing on all those glossy-magazine writers with their expense-comped hotel stays—why not me, Lord? It’s a question the reader might ask as well. And it does take a special kind of hubris to anoint the hated holiday-picture slide show of pre-Instagram days as its own dedicated art form.

With some of that same hubris, you could answer, “Well, the holiday-picture slide-show maker was not a good writer. I am. I can turn the banal into the beautiful.” Even if we allow this annoying but occasionally true argument to stand, that still gets us little further; style covers only so many sins. Why not apply these vaunted literary gifts that we’ve heard so much about, Miss Travel Writer, to a subject more worthy of them? Political analysis, hard reporting, that novel you always seem to be “working on”? Isn’t travel writing always a bit parasitic on the thing itself? Arts and book criticism might face the same charge of parasitism, but art and authorship are public performances, implicitly a conversation inviting a public response. Isn’t the point of travel the personal, the irreducibly singular and direct experience?

While you are trying to think of something to say to this, your imaginary interlocutor is preparing her knockout argument: Isn’t travel writing, whatever its virtues may have been, simply irrelevant? Flights are cheap. The Internet is cheaper. Nobody needs to see the world through anyone else’s eyes these days.

Why, then, in a moment that seems to mark its rapidly advancing obsolescence, produce travel writing?

But writers want to be read, and so the real question, which touches both writer and reader, is—Why read it?

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