‘Is it okay for travel writers to make things up?’

Pandemic may revive genre despite recent ethical and commercial struggles

I discovered travel writing as a teenager in the 1990s. Books by writers like Paul Theroux and Patrick Leigh Fermor seemed to have been designed for a boy who loved to read but struggled to sit still, constantly pulled back and forth between the opposing poles of the library and the great outdoors.

They made a thirst for knowledge into a thing of action, with Colin Thubron, Philip Marsden and others setting off on arduous journeys to explore the histories and cultures of far-off lands. It was intoxicating stuff, but what I didn’t realise in my first flush of youthful enthusiasm was that this was an ethically problematic genre.

The history of English-language travel writing – with its roots in the “voyages and travels” of adventurers like Walter Raleigh – is inextricably bound up with that of colonialism. The voice of the Victorian traveller – typically an upper-crust English man; more rarely a well-heeled English woman in a good thick skirt – lording it through some “savage” region still sometimes echoed in the travel writing of the late 20th century. The worst modern travel books still brim with crude stereotypes and cheap exoticism.

And even in the best, an uncomfortable power dynamic is often at play, with Oxbridge-educated authors declaiming authoritatively about India or Afghanistan. One critical scholar, Debbie Lisle, goes as far as to argue that there is "something wrong with travel writing in general".

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By the time I found out about the stern postcolonial critique, in my twenties, travel writing was also beginning to fall from commercial favour. Some unfortunate combination of factors – from post-9/11 political instability to the democratisation of travel itself and the increasing availability of cheap airfares – seemed to have done for it. People were beginning to ask, “Is travel writing dead?”

Two decades after my first encounter with travel books I set out on a literary quest of my own, to try to answer that last question, and all the others about this trickiest of genres – a journey in search of travel writing itself.

I went to meet great travel writers from senior generations, and younger authors headed for unknown destinations. I sipped English breakfast tea with the explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison at his manor house on Bodmin Moor, swilled beer with Dervla Murphy in her ramshackle compound in Lismore, and drank green tea with onetime backpackers' hero Nick Danziger in his apartment in Monaco. I put the difficult questions about the genre directly to its practitioners.

What I quickly discovered was that the travel writers were just as aware of the genre’s ethical issues as their academic critics. And when it came to mounting a defence, almost all of them saw redemption in travel writing’s core form: the first-person narrative. It was this, they told me, that allowed sensitive travellers to reflect on their own privilege, their own cultural baggage, in a way that was seldom possible in journalism or academia.

'This is probably all a bit risky, given the circumstances – a room full of travel writers. You'd never know where they've just come back from'

No one put this better than Philip Marsden, the very first travel writer I met on my journey. “In a travel narrative,” he said, “you don’t start off as an expert saying, ‘This is how it is.’ You’re saying, ‘This is what I found’.”

And the younger travel writers I spoke to – Nicholas Jubber, Patrick Barkham, Samanth Subramanian, Monisha Rajesh and Kapka Kassabova – all use that first-person mode to produce books more tentative and self-questioning than those penned by the Old Etonians of the last century, sometimes drawing on their own ambiguous “insider-outsider” perspectives on particular places; at other times foregrounding their own anxieties about the fraught business of describing other people, other places.

By far the thorniest issue, it soon emerged, was travel writing’s troubled relationship with “the truth”, the source of its greatest controversies, from John Mandeville in the 14th century to Bruce Chatwin in the 1980s. A more pressing question than “Is travel writing dead?” might well be “Is it okay for travel writers to make things up?”

Most of the writers I spoke to were firm about this: they were duty-bound to tell the truth; there was an unwritten “contract” with readers. But under questioning, such certainty quickly crumbled. Writer after writer admitted to creating composite characters and reordering events, sometimes to protect identities, but more often for the sake of narrative coherence.

This, I think, is what makes travel writing so fascinating as literature: the unstable connection between the actual experience and the written narrative, and the hidden tension this brings to the relationship between writers and their readers.

As Sara Wheeler, author of the acclaimed Terra Incognita, told me, sitting in her book-lined study in London, “I feel that I’m creating a work of literature, so the demands of making it an acceptable work override, in my opinion, any question of verisimilitude.” But when I asked how she thought her readers would react if they knew about such literary practices, she laughed: “I know, because of speaking to them! They hate it!”

At the very end of my journey, in February 2020, I found myself at Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards ceremony at the London Transport Museum. A noisy throng of publishers, authors and agents gathered amongst the vintage London buses, and uniformed waiters ducked through the crowd carrying trays of fancy finger food.

It was a merry event, but during one of the acceptance speeches an alarming thought struck me, based on recent headlines about a mystery virus. I whispered to the person beside me, “This is probably all a bit risky, given the circumstances – a room full of travel writers. You’d never know where they’ve just come back from.”

Waiting for my flight back to Ireland the next morning I spotted, for the first time, a few travellers wearing facemasks.

It would be easy to assume that the global pandemic would kill off travel writing once and for all. It certainly must have disrupted the research plans of many writers. But during the first lockdown, articles began to appear listing favourite travel books – ways of vicarious escape for readers stuck at home. It is probably too early to say whether this will have an impact on the decisions of commissioning editors in the years to come, but already the venerable publisher John Murray has combed its archives to launch a new list of reissued travel classics in 2021. And why not?

If the ready availability of cheap airfares was a factor in the earlier decline in travel writing’s popularity, then a period of enforced immobility must surely have revived a readerly hankering for armchair travel.

There have been other developments of significance for travel writing too in the past year. The pandemic has coincided with a hugely increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with high-profile debates around colonialism – debates with relevance to the travel genre’s problematic heritage.

During 2020, the British Guild of Travel Writers held a series of panel discussions – online, of course – on “Decolonising Travel Writing”, organised by the journalist Meera Dattani, which reached new audiences of writers and readers. Again, it’s impossible to know what impact this will have on the future of the genre, but it seems likely that at very least there will be a better effort to seek out more diverse travel writing voices.

I’m still not entirely sure if it’s okay for travel writers to make things up, but I do know that travel writing isn’t dead. And perhaps ultimately the global pandemic may turn out to have been good for it.

Tim Hannigan is the author of The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre (Hurst)