The Decline of Literary Travel Writing

A recent ‘bee in my bonnet’ at present is the unremarked demise of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for which I was short-listed in its final 25th year of 2004. This came about as a result of my literary travel book on the island provinces of Papua New Guinea, the first for over a hundred years. The only literary bastion defending the literary quality of the travel book has disappeared. This particular genre is experiencing a terribly difficult period just now. Unless there are large quantities of olives in the landscape or readers are easily able to travel and identify with the destination chosen by the author, publishers seem to show marginal interest. One used to read travel literature because one was not easily able to reach the author’s destination and to learn something significant of foreign cultures.

My own area of exploration is the South Pacific. Little of any consequence outside the world of anthropology has been published on these fascinating Oceanic cultures for years. One can scarcely credit now the impact that the publication of Captain Cook’s Journals had at the time. Actually if Captain Cook did not visit it, a Pacific Island and its culture is completely off the European mind-map forevermore.

Travel writing has become ‘personality’ and author-centred to an uncomfortable and quite boring degree. Standards have suffered greatly and now there is no longer even a discriminating prize for writers to aspire to win. Many literary travel writers I know who perceive the travel book as a remarkably free genre of expression have turned to the novel or been advised to take it up. 

So-called ‘adventure’ travel, travelling self-consciously aboard a motor bike or any other ‘difficult’ conveyance accompanied by almost zero cultural input has become pretty much the order of the day (pace the wonderful Dervla Murphy, the superb writing of Colin Thubron or Claudio Magris). That and what one might call ‘trivial tricky travel’ across continents in company with an inspiring parrot, donkey, camel or refrigerator has become the norm.

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