Contemporary Travel Narratives Criticism: Overviews - Essay

Criticism: Overviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holland, Patrick, and Graham Huggan. “Introduction: Travel Writing Today.” In Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, pp. 1-26. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Holland and Huggan discuss the continued popularity of travel writing in the twentieth century, focusing on a definition of contemporary travel writing and its components.]

“I do not expect to see many travel books in the near future,” wrote Evelyn Waugh at the end of the Second World War: “Never again … shall we land on foreign soil with letter of credit and passport … and feel the world wide open to us” (When the Going Was Good 11). But Waugh, as it turned out, was seriously underestimating the resilience of travelers, and of the worldwide network—the business—that continues to support their enterprise. Travel and its literary by-product, the travel book, have a habit of justifying their continuation by anticipating their own decline; and if the postwar traveler lives, as Mark Cocker believes, “in fear of modernity's encroachment” (259), then that fear might well result in the publication of another book. Travel writing today is, like its subject, very much a going concern. Sales figures are good, with one or two best-sellers. Recent examples here include Peter Mayle's nostalgic memoir A Year in Provence (1989), which has sold over a million copies, been translated into seventeen languages, and been converted into a popular British TV serial; Paul Theroux's sardonic travel narratives, several of which have featured on the New York Times best-sellers' lists, making their author one of the best-known contemporary literary figures in America; and the highly successful Random House Vintage Departures series, which boasts about sixty current titles, and which has enjoyed a steady expansion since its inception in the mid-1980s. The shelves in the travel section of the big bookstores are well stocked; top newspapers in the United Kingdom, United States, and elsewhere feature thriving travel supplements; specialist magazines such as Granta (in Britain) and Condé Nast Traveler (in the United States) are reporting increased sales, while National Geographic, in a flurry of publicity, has celebrated its hundredth year; travel vehicles (TV programs and commercials, films, videos, etc.) proliferate in the visual media; surrogate travel is available through the Internet and what Martin Roberts calls the “global culture industries” (world literature, world cinema, world music, etc.);1 and academic interest, too, is growing, with the publication of influential critical studies such as Dennis Porter's Haunted Journeys (1991), Eric Leed's The Mind of the Traveler (1991), and Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes (1992), and the attempt to analyze the metaphorical implications of travel as an analogue for different forms of intellectual and cultural displacement in the age of globalization (Edward Said, “Traveling Theory” [1983]; James Clifford, “Traveling Cultures” [1992]; Robertson et al., eds., Travellers' Tales [1994]).

Why the current boom in travel writing? One of the reasons is obvious: there is a greater degree of mobility in the world than ever before—a greater movement of ideas, goods, peoples; and an increasing accessibility to previously remote parts of the world owing to cheaper travel and the unprecedented expansion of worldwide transportation networks. Another reason, however, is diametrically opposed to this one: for those same globalizing processes that have helped make the world more accessible have also arguably made it less exciting, less diverse. The travel literature industry—and in this should be included both literary-minded travel narratives and more information-oriented travelogues and guidebooks—has been quick to cash in on Westerners' growing fears of homogenization, promoting its products as thrilling alternatives to the sanitized spectacles of mass tourism; as evidence that the world is still heterogeneous, unfathomable, bewildering; as proof that the spirit of adventure can hold off the threat of exhaustion. In this sense, the travel (literature) business has capitalized on, while contributing to, a new exotic: a celebration of the modern spectacle of global cultural diversity that flies in the face of the very agency—the universal market of mass tourism—that does most to make such a spectacle, and its literary representation, possible.2

It is no surprise to find, then, in a number of contemporary travel narratives, a heated defense of the conventional traveler/tourist distinction.3 The distinction is, of course, highly specious: travelers, unlike tourists, are “nonexploitative” visitors, motivated not by the lazy desire for instant entertainment but by the hard-won battle to satisfy their insatiable curiosity about other countries and peoples. As Dean MacCannell and, more recently, James Buzard have demonstrated convincingly, this distinction has been manipulated by the tourist industry to serve its own commercial ends. For MacCannell, travelers' seemingly plaintive need to dissociate themselves from “mere” tourists functions as a strategy of self-exemption, whereby they displace their guilt for interfering with, and adversely changing, the cultures through which they travel onto tourists; see themselves as contributing toward the well-being of those cultures rather than as exploiting them for their own benefit; and view themselves as open-minded inquirers rather than as pleasure-seeking guests. The tourist industry profits from this rhetoric of moral superiority (MacCannell), using it to lure the adventure-minded traveler onto an alternative beaten track (Buzard). To see travel as merely another form of tourism is to recognize the increasing commodification of place; what travel writers offer in this context is not an insight into the “real,” but a countercommodified version of what they take to be reality.4 The critical potential of travel writing—its capacity to expose and attack the invasive practices of mass tourism—is further diminished when it is recognized, not as an out-and-out opponent of tourism, but as a valuable adjunct to it. The armchair curiosity that Paul Fussell, among others, has seen as an inducement to read travel narratives should by no means be thought of as replacing the urge to travel; rather, travel writing sells while also helping to sell holidays. Nor are travel writers necessarily averse to taking their cut. Is it too cynical to suggest that many of today's travel writers are motivated less by the universal imperative of cultural inquiry than they are by the far more urgent need for another commission? Travel writing still remains lucrative only for a handful of recognized writers; many others ply a more moderate trade in largely part-time journalism. Nonetheless, contemporary travel writers, whatever their status or their institutional affiliation, are continuing to provide sterling service to tourism—about to become the world's largest industry—even when they might imagine themselves to be its most strident adversaries.

Clearly, not all travel writers are alike (nor, for that matter, are all tourists). To see contemporary travel writers merely as touristic scribes—as latter-day tourists with typewriters—is to fail to recognize their efforts to reexplore regions of the world that, although “discovered,” remain unfamiliar, or to revive interest in familiar places, now seen from a fresh, informed perspective. It is also to underestimate the unsettling effects produced by travel writing: its ability to jolt its readers out of complacent beliefs and attitudes, and its challenge to prevailing stereotypes and cultural myths of place. Finally, it is to miss the crucial role played by travel narratives in interrogating the “stability” of the cultural subject—a role made more conspicuous, to be sure, in the age of postmodernity, but one that is evident throughout the history of travel writing, which shows a tendency to blur the lines between “true” and “false,” documentation and fabrication, and to investigate forms of “otherness”—both biological and culturally coded—that alternately confirm and question the position of the investigating subject.

Travel writing can arguably be seen, then, as having transgressive potential: in allowing the writer to flout conventions that exist within his/her own society, it subjects those conventions—those often rigid codes of behavior—to close critical scrutiny. Examples here are the continuing usefulness of travel writing to women writers, who avail themselves of the freedoms of travel in order to celebrate their own independence, as well as to reassess the powerful myths surrounding a history of male exploration; and to postcolonial writers, whose travel narratives, charting changes in the geopolitical landscape of what is as much a neoimperial as a postimperial age, demonstrate at the same time the complicity between travel writing and the very (cultural) imperialist attitudes it often claims to resist. The patriarchal and imperialist undertones of travel writing—expertly analyzed by critics such as Mary Louise Pratt, Sara Mills, David Spurr, Tim Youngs, and, most recently, Inderpal Grewal—suggest that an uncritical view of travel writing as a celebration of human freedom needs to be adjusted to the modern realities of class, race, and gender privilege. In his recent study of modern British travel writing, Mark Cocker remarks, “In journeys we discover all over again the newness of the world. … travel is one of the greatest doors to human freedom, and the travel book is a medium through which humans celebrate this freedom” (260). This begs the question of who “we” are: who are such freedom's beneficiaries?5 Clearly, the freedom of travel writers is not the freedom of all: it is the privilege of mobility that allows them to travel, and to write. Indeed, travel writing, like travel itself, is apt to claim its freedom at others' expense; in so doing, it sometimes betrays an attitude of cultural suprematism that has led critics less charitable than Cocker to see it as an agent of imperial dominance. In the nineteenth century, says Martin Green, travel narratives were among a plethora of adventure tales that energized the myth of Empire: they reinforced prevailing notions that the world was ripe to conquer. Their twentieth-century counterparts might be, by and large, more sensitive to their privilege, but as Charles Sugnet, among others, has argued, many twentieth-century travel writers still arrogate the rights of mobility and representation that once accrued to Empire. In a postcolonial world, they thus fight a rearguard action, concealing beneath their patronizing language and their persistent cultural nostalgia a thinly disguised desire to resurrect the imperial past. Sugnet, in his diatribe against the British magazine Granta, pulls no punches: its travel articles are designed to “restore the lost dream of empire in a way that allows young-fogy readers to pretend that they're still living in the nineteenth century. … A curious fusion of the 1880s and the 1980s is what keeps all those Granta travel writers up in the air, afloat over various parts of the globe, their luggage filled with portable shards of colonialist discourse” (85).

Sugnet's argument, in the nature of polemics, is boisterously hyperbolic; its effect is reduced by his failure to account for contemporary travel writing's ubiquitous self-irony: its awareness of its own belatedness (a point to which we shall return). Nonetheless, Sugnet's frontal attack reminds us that travel narratives have proved remarkably effective over time in (re)producing the “foreign” world as an object of Western knowledge (Pratt 5). At best, says Dennis Porter, travel narratives “[have] been an effort to overcome cultural distance through a protracted act of understanding. At worst, [they have] been a vehicle for the expression of Eurocentric conceit or racist intolerance” (3). In either case, travel writing tends to reinforce the authority of its predominantly metropolitan readership; its world of wonders is, in one sense, a world already known—one made available to readers “back home” through the comforting reiteration of familiar exotic myths. (Exoticism is precisely the mechanism for this process of retrieval, a means by which the “otherness” of the foreign world can be assimilated, and its threatening difference defused by taking on a familiar cast.) It is here that travel writing, for all its transgressive potential and vaunted claims to see the world anew, looks suspiciously conformist. “Home,” after all, is the frame of reference for most contemporary travel writers (even when it is precisely the category of “home” that their writing calls in question).6 Their experiences of travel are predicated on the possibility of return; their adventure trips are round trips. And their vocabulary frequently reflects the security of a shared culture; in this sense many travel writers, in spite of their cultivated eccentricities and assertive individualism, operate within a readily identifiable semantic field. Travel writing in the late twentieth century continues to be haunted by the specter of cliché: its catalogs of anomalies are often recorded in remarkably similar terms. The same words and phrases crop up again and again, the same myths and stereotypes, the same literary analogies. One begins after a while even to recognize the same faces. Indeed, there is a genteel clubbability about many contemporary travel writers—particularly British ones—that belies their apparent commitment to iconoclasm and adventure. Nor is the mutual backslapping confined to cross-quotation: among the writers under scrutiny here, Newby encounters Thesiger “in the flesh” in the wilds of Nuristan; Morris bumps into Raban in Cairo; Chatwin collaborates with Theroux on Patagonia (and also borrows Leigh Fermor's house in Greece); even the chronically displaced Trinidadian Naipaul seems to wish to reincarnate himself as a post-Edwardian Englishman.

The anachronistic ideals of (English) gentlemanliness are at work behind many of the writers whose work is featured in this book: ideals that, though often parodied, are still likely to attest to the traveler's honesty and courage, his sense of fair play. (This might account for the outrage some of the writers express when they are confronted with others' deceptions.) But it is the capacity for self-deprecation that most marks the gentleman's progress: an indication not only that he doesn't take himself too seriously, but that we shouldn't take him too seriously either. The impulse to trivialize is behind much contemporary travel writing, from the camp affectations of Chatwin and Barthes to the buffoonery of Cahill and O'Hanlon. The foppishness of some of these writers, who tend to make light of their misadventures, provides a useful alibi for their cultural gaffes and, at times, their arrogance; it also affords a reminder that their often dubious pronouncements about people and cultures are only the opinions of an enthusiastic amateur. The traveler-writer, in this context, contrives to masquerade as a faux naïf; his/her narrative is content to bask in an atmosphere of cheerful superficiality. (The reality is, of course, more complex; and it is no surprise to find that several of these writers—O'Hanlon, for example—are bona fide scientists.)

Obviously, not all travel narratives are given to such indulgence: the gentleman traveler is only one of many possible personas. Nonetheless, this figure, and the irony with which it is treated, is instructive. For the cult of gentlemanliness in contemporary Anglo-phone travel writing is both a throwback to another era and an ironic recognition that this era, and the values for which it stands, are now long gone. Self-parody, in this context, demonstrates the awareness of belatedness—an awareness that inevitably reminds contemporary travel writers of their own limitations.7 It is an axiom of recent travel writing that writers offer tribute to their predecessors, homage often paid in adulatory terms. Contemporary travel writers thus consciously place themselves in a tradition—a tradition as much literary as historically based. Nor need these predecessors, literary or historical, have actually traveled; for travel writers are fascinated, rather, by the imaginative texture of place—the process by which places and their inhabitants are shaped and reshaped by (literary) myth. In paying their statutory respects to previous writers and travelers, contemporary travel writers realize that their own endeavors have come too late; it rests for them to emulate what others before them have achieved. Hence their weakness for self-parody: their tendency to view themselves as pale imitations of their distinguished forebears. However, the consideration of their own insufficiencies is less likely to cause them anxiety than it is to cause amusement. Self-irony also affords a useful strategy of self-protection—as if the writer, in revealing his/her faults, might be relieved of social responsibilities. Some travel writers, hiding behind the mask of escapist explorer-adventurers, or lurching from one disaster to the next for the delectation of their readers, are reluctant to be held accountable for their gauche but “inoffensive” actions. Others, quick to moralize about the ills of other cultures, exempt themselves from complicity in the cultural processes they describe. One strategy of self-exemption is to claim a cool detachment—as if travel writers were neutral observers of the places they visit. Another strategy is for the writer to designate himself or herself as an eccentric—as if eccentricity excused mistakes usually based on cultural ignorance. The most frequent strategy, however, is to assume a variety of disguises. In their self-presentation, travel writers are often extremely elusive, shifting roles with the same facility as they move from place to place. Now the pedagogue, now the clown; now the traveler, now (even) the tourist. They manage, thus, to benefit from alternative temporary privileges, one moment taking advantage of an honorary insider's knowledge, the next taking refuge in a foreigner's convenient incomprehension.

This manipulation of roles is one of the skills of travel writing; to condemn the travel writer for one form or other of artful dodgery is to forget that the genre has a long history—a license—of entertaining fraud. The ambiguity surrounding travel narratives—the uncertainty, at given moments, of whether the writer is telling us the truth—is part of their appeal; the stories they tell are no less compelling if they happen to be mendacious. It is worth remembering, though, that travel writing, however entertaining, is hardly harmless, and that behind its apparent innocuousness and its charmingly anecdotal observations lies a series of powerfully distorting myths about other (often, “non-Western”) cultures. To see travel writing in its current format as merely a vehicle for cultural prejudice is to overlook the genre's significant impact as an instrument of cultural critique. (Travel is, after all, at least potentially a learning experience: a means of testing, and then revising, the traveler's cultural expectations.) Nonetheless, travel writing shares some of the problems of its poor relation, tourism. Travelers are tourists, although of an independent breed, and the thrills and spills described in travel narratives, if different in kind and spirit from the organized pleasures of the much-derided “package trip,” still provide their readers with the manufactured wonders, not to mention the scandals, of surrogate tourism. Travel writing, like tourism, generates nostalgia for other times and places, even as it recognizes that they may by now have “lost” their romantic aura.8 Contemporary travel writing tends to be self-conscious—self-ironic—about such losses: it is both nostalgic and, at its best, aware of the deceptiveness of nostalgia. Yet if the tourist industry cynically dresses its expansionist designs in a rhetoric of lost innocence—as “other” places are destroyed, other “others” duly emerge to take their place—the travel writer is more than a shocked witness to this self-perpetuating process. Travel writers, and their readers, participate in global tourism: they contribute, if indirectly, to both its benefits and its worst excesses. So Waugh is right, after all, in believing that a certain approach to travel and the travel book is no longer possible: the one that cries foul at tourism and expects, in turn, to go unpunished.


But what, exactly, is a travel book? By which criteria should it be judged? Who qualifies as a travel writer? And more specifically, who merits inclusion in a study of this kind? Travel writing, it need hardly be said, is hard to define, not least because it is a hybrid genre that straddles categories and disciplines. Travel narratives run from picaresque adventure to philosophical treatise, political commentary, ecological parable, and spiritual quest. They borrow freely from history, geography, anthropology, and social science, often demonstrating great erudition, but without seeing fit to respect the rules that govern conventional scholarship. Irredeemably opinionated, travel writers avail themselves of the several licenses that are granted to a form that freely mixes fact and fable, anecdote and analysis. Not least of these is the license to exaggerate, or even to invent: as Percy Adams says in his entertaining survey, travel writers are under no obligation to tell their readers the truth; instead, they are often practiced liars “infested with the itch to tell wonderful stories” or, in some cases, “inflicted with the desire to tell lies ‘of a darker complexion’” (5). Not all travel writers, of course, are liars; among the contemporary figures, Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez would be upset at the allegation, and even tricksters, such as (the late) Bruce Chatwin, would defend their selective use of facts. Travel writing is best seen, then, as a “mediation between fact and fiction” (Fussell), referring to actual people, places, and events as the writer encounters them, but freely interspersing these with stories that are often of dubious provenance or derive from mythical or fictitious sources.

But what, again, is a travel book? Perhaps it is better to begin by defining what it is not. Travel books, says Paul Fussell, referring to the fully fashioned literary works that are the objects of his study, are to be distinguished initially from guidebooks, which

are not autobiographical and are not sustained by a narrative exploiting the devices of fiction. A guide book is addressed to those who plan to follow the traveler, doing what he has done, but more selectively. A travel book, at its purest, is addressed to those who do not plan to follow the traveler at all, but who require the exotic anomalies, wonders, and scandals of the literary form romance which their own place or time cannot entirely supply.


Fussell's distinction is a useful one, although it begs important questions. For example, cannot certain travel books be used, precisely, as guidebooks—is it not possible to combine the aesthetic and ideological functions of the “travel book” with the pragmatic function of the “guide”? (On a recent visit to Patagonia, one of the present authors noticed several fellow travelers using Chatwin's In Patagonia as a guide. Clearly, the “exotic anomalies” provided in plenty by Chatwin's narrative had not prevented its readers from checking out the terrain for themselves.) As argued earlier, travel books do not necessarily act as substitutes for actual travel; on the contrary, they may often function as its catalyzing agents.

Fussell's next distinction proves to be equally problematic: Travel books, he claims in a valiant attempt to reach a provisional definition,

are a sub-species of memoir in which the autobiographical narrative arises from the speaker's encounter with distant or unfamiliar data, and in which the narrative—unlike that in a novel or a romance—claims literal validity by constant reference to actuality.


Fussell's formulation is admirably neat, but it suffers again from simplification. Both novels and romances can make frequent, detailed “reference to actuality” without necessarily seeming less fictive or claiming “literal validity.” The rise of the novel, indeed—if Ian Watt's influential thesis is to be accepted—depended on the rearrangement and embellishment of “authentic” information: on the attempt both to (re)present and to satirize “recorded facts.”9

Fussell comes closer when he refers, via Frye, to travel narratives as displaced romances, distinguishing here between the picaresque mode of comic misadventure and the pastoral mode of contemplation and elegiac reverie (206, 209-10). These modes are certainly relevant to many (contemporary) travel narratives, as is their displacement, less through a reworking of the “original” literary forms than through an ironic juxtaposition of their usual components. In a contemporary travel narrative like, for instance, Chatwin's aforementioned In Patagonia, the reader is continually shuttled between alternative modes and registers, so that the hybrid work that accumulates from these various stylistic fragments starts to resemble, oxymoronically, a contemplative picaresque elegy or a rollicking pastoral adventure.

The formal approach to travel writing risks running aground on these definitional inconsistencies, and on the seeming determination of the genre to fly in the face of traditional boundaries. A more fruitful approach, perhaps, is that which sees travel writing as occupying a space of discursive conflict. Travel narratives, in this context, are examples of what Hayden White calls “fictions of factual representation”: they claim validity—or make as if to claim it—by referring to actual events and places, but then assimilate those events and places to a highly personal vision.10 Travel writing thus charts the tension between the writers' compulsion to report the world they see and their often repressed desire to make the world conform to their preconception of it. (Take the observations, discussed in this book, of Naipaul in India or Iyer in Japan, observations that miraculously conform to a cultural “essence” each writer believes he has discovered. In this sense, there is something Socratic about the inquiries made by many travel writers: they seek after “truths” they imagine they already have in their possession.)

The subjectivity of travel writing might be seen, in this sense, as a form of willful interference: it is not that travel writers try to veil their personal interpretation but, on the contrary, that they impose it on their putative reportage. Like certain forms of investigative journalism—another member of the genre's extended family—travel writing enjoys an intermediary status between subjective inquiry and objective documentation. In his book on Naipaul's travel writing, Rob Nixon similarly identifies travel literature as a polyvalent genre that alternates between “a semi-ethnographic, distanced, analytic mode” and “an autobiographical, emotionally tangled mode” (15). What is most characteristic about Naipaul's travel writing, according to Nixon, is the way it negotiates the slippage between these two modes in order to maximize the writer's discursive authority. Hence the paradox, previously mentioned, of travel writers' amateur expertise: they may back up their opinions by appealing in some manner or other to the rigors of science, but they usually fall short of allowing science to cramp their personal style.

Nixon's observation raises the more specific question of the indebtedness of travel writing to ethnography. As Valerie Wheeler, among others, has noted, travelers and anthropologists have more in common than is usually supposed:

Both traveler and anthropologist are strangers who deliver the exotic to an audience unlikely to follow them to the place they have visited, but likely perhaps to follow their explorations of them. In neither case is the account written for the people or places experienced, but for person and profession.


In this context, travel writing and ethnography differ primarily in emphasis. Travel writing is self-consciously autobiographical, intentionally anecdotal, and (in some cases) deliberately ethnocentric, whereas ethnography has tended until recently to play down the personality of its author, to substitute scientific for anecdotal information, and to critique ethnocentric assumptions behind the study and description of “foreign cultures” while remaining aware at the same time of its own prejudices and biases. But distinctions between travel writing and ethnography remain, at best, problematic; and while anthropologists have sometimes made concerted attempts to dissociate themselves from travelers—Lévi-Strauss is a famous example—travelers may be equally keen to see, or even bill, themselves as anthropologists.12 As with the tenuous distinctions made by Fussell between the travel book and the guidebook, or between travel writing and (romance) fiction, there is no prescriptive basis for differentiating between travel writing and ethnography, although there are a number of generally identifiable differences in method (travel writers are bricoleurs, unashamed dilettantes; ethnographers are research scholars) and audience (travel writing is written for a lay readership; ethnography aims at a more specialized audience). The central issue here, however, appears to be one of power. Again, no easy distinctions can be made: travel writers and anthropologists both occupy positions of power—granted largely by the economic differences between their own societies and the societies they visit—that allow them to establish an often unwarranted authority over their subjects. While travel writing tends to advertise the “special status” of the traveler as a privileged outsider—privileges that are merely confirmed when the outsider attempts to “move in,” to “go native”—ethnography tends to downplay these privileges and to obviate the cult of personality, claiming instead to rely on a different kind of authority, conferred by the proven truths of science.

These generalizations can of course be questioned; for travel writing, to repeat, is generically elusive, as unwilling to give up its claims to documentary veracity as it is to waive its license to rhetorical excess. Perhaps it is best to see travel writing as pseudoethnographic, insofar as it purports to provide a document of, or report on, other peoples and cultures while using them as a backdrop for the author's personal quest. Not all travel narratives, obviously, are of the questing variety; not all of them assimilate their encounters to the dictates of personal experience. Nonetheless, in travel narratives, as in other forms of autobiographical writing, the self is writ large in its alien surroundings. The attempt to find underlying rules and principles is secondary to the desire, or the mockery of the desire, to achieve self-understanding. Mockery is perhaps the key word here, for even the most earnest travel writers are usually aware of the discrepancy between their philosophical observations and the haphazardness of the experience from which those observations are derived. Travel...

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