Monday, 8 February 2010

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 – the only literary bastion defending the literary quality of the literary travel book. 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 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). That and what one might call ‘tricky travel’ across continents in company with an inspiring parrot, donkey, camel or refrigerator.