Contemporary Travel Narratives Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Contemporary Travel Narratives

The following entry presents discussion and criticism of contemporary travel accounts in literature through 2003.

Travel writing has flourished though the ages, and early travel accounts by explorers and other travelers continue to be valued as a significant source of information about historical cultures and places. Although there is a consistent pattern of travel writing through the centuries, travelogues and adventure narratives witnessed their greatest commercial boom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with great impetus provided to the industry through imperialism and colonization of territories hitherto unexplored by Western travelers. In the twentieth century, travel narratives evolved into several different categories, including a vast number of travel guidebook series, travel-related periodicals, travel diaries, recordings of scientific and exploratory missions, adventure narratives, and semi-autobiographical accounts of personal travels. While these sub-genres continue to be popular both among travelers and the general reading public, travel-writing theory tends to focus mostly on “literary” travelogues or adventure narratives, defining them as a separate genre that is both literary and an art form.

In this context, contemporary travel narratives have a long and established history of literary conventions to draw upon, and while their focus may have changed over time, critics have noted the continued use of traditional elements in contemporary travel literature. Like their predecessors, contemporary travel narratives continue to be based on notes made by the traveler during a particular journey, which are then expanded into a narrative account at the end of the journey. In contrast to many nineteenth-century travelogues, however, contemporary travel literature seems to focus more fully on the writer's experience and personal point of view, leading critics such as Stephan Kohl to draw a parallel between aspects of travel writing and autobiography. Kohl writes about the distinctly personal nature of many contemporary travel texts, which, he says help define the author's identity as much as they do the places visited in the book. As examples, he includes texts such as Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express (1979), Jonathan Raban's Coasting (1986), and Philip Glazebrook's Journey to Kars (1984).

Critical reaction to travel narratives has a mixed history, with scholars such as Paul Fussell perceiving many of these texts as a “haven for second-rate [literary] talents.” Yet their popularity continues unabated, with travel writers having achieved remarkable commercial success. A notable example is the set of memoirs by British author Peter Mayle about France's Provence region, his adopted home. According to Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, writers such as Mayle appeal to a mostly middle-class readership, and while their success is to be lauded, both critics caution against travel writing that “frequently provides an effective alibi for the perpetuation and reinstallation of ethnocentrically superior attitudes to ‘other’ cultures, peoples, and places.” Holland and Huggan concede, nonetheless, that despite its accompanying prejudices, the very act of writing about another culture or place introduces it to a wider audience, allowing for the formation of new cultural affiliations and links that promote analysis and reassessment. In contrast to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century imperialist travel narratives, contemporary travel narratives cover a wide range of points of view, including those of postcolonial travelers, women, and environmentalists. In addition, the horizons for travel-related texts continues to expand, through venues such as travel periodicals, the increased popularity of television programs focusing on travel and adventure, and the incredible mobility provided by modern means of travel.