“Travelandia” – Never Trust a Travel Writer

Never trust a travel writer
It is a truth universally acknowledged that travel-writing bears only a tenuous relationship with the truth. Lisa Gerard-Sharp ponders the moral matrix which surrounds the murky world of travel writing.
– summary

This is my first blog post. It’s a rant. Bear with me. I can do charming as well as critical, passionate as well as preachy. But today it’s a jaded insider’s take on travel journalism and why you should never trust a travel-writer. We writers feel compelled to spin tall tales and top ten lists. Like performing seals, we deliver, mostly leaving our best tricks beyond the aquarium. Our ball-spinning might be a semblance of the truth but it’s rarely the real story, the surreal story you’d like to hear. More often than not, our coverage reflects a sun-dappled world in which seals are never mistreated and cruise ships never sink.

I was born opinionated but my best opinions rarely reach the best readers. Yes, I am an outspoken elitist but not in the Aryan supremacist sense. Thoughtful travel-writing needs championing. We are drowning in bad blogging and paint-by-numbers journalism. Both readers and writers are the losers.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that travel journalism celebrates the art of saying nothing

The mainstream travel pages are overflowing with random top ten lists, hip lists and cool lists, yawn lists and travel porn lists. Holiday packing lists as hip-replacement lists. Where are the individual voices? Safety and superficiality rule. Similar features abound. Bad news barely touches the travel pages. Wit is sacrificed to witlessness. Nuanced opinions are crushed by self-censorship and clunky editing. Heaven forbid that the faintest political or social comment should seep into the piece. Still less should the writer show signs of pondering life beyond the next gastrodome. There is an unchallenged assumption that literary travel-writing is dead. Soon it will be unless we fight to save it.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that travel-writing bears only a tenuous relationship with the truth

In the mainstream travel world, we writers are often constrained or self-censored. We are all complicit in this incestuous blame game. Public relations companies want pretty pictures and pert coverage for their clients. Advertisers want safe advertorial spun as slightly edgier editorial. Publishers serve advertisers rather than readers. Readers are presumed to be pea-brained, with the attention span of a gnat. Writers are guns for hire even if there are rarely any bullets in the gun. Editors lack the courage to let a trusted writer think outside the box. And the box is always a “boutique bolthole”, the latest, loveliest bijou bed in Belgrade or Bermuda.

Behind the two-way bedroom mirror lurks a posse of public relations people. Don’t worry: they’re mostly charming, light of mane and brain, and called Georgie, Cassie or Clemmie. But these breezy blondes still want us to name-check their cutting-edge hotel – the one with snide staff and light switches as sharp as their suits. We oblige: we need a bed. Souls have been sold for far less.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most travel-writers are poorer than their readers

The Champagne lifestyle may mask real poverty, not just poverty of the imagination. Off-the-road lifestyles are more McDonalds than Michelin-starred, more flat-pack than flat bed, more Virgin trains than Virgin Upper Class. The dodgy travel matrix presumes a copy-for-favours model that smacks of the Sicilian Mafia. Even without horse heads in boutique beds, most writers decide to dabble in the dark arts to survive. Only rigorously independent niche publications stand above the fray. Elsewhere, the tenor of much travel-writing is permeated by transactions, whether subtle or blatant. This is the price we pay for embracing a profession widely seen as a lifestyle choice.

Talking about money is vulgar but writing without money is criminal and increasingly common. One of my favourite travel publishers recently decided to outsource all its writing to Poland. Expert travel-writers made way for moonlighting Polish plumbers. That’s a cheap jibe: they’re far more likely to be professors of philology masquerading as jobbing journalists. The real Polish plumbers are all living it up in London. The point is not that the writers are Polish but that they are cheap, and cheap matters. Cheap means unprofessional, under-researched and poorly written. What’s more, a world in which plumbers are paid far better than travel-writers reveals a lack of respect for literary endeavour.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many travel-writers can’t write

It’s saying the unsayable but publication proves nothing. If travel-writing is often dismissed as second-rate journalism it is because it attracts so many second-rate writers. Just as there are few true “destination hotels”, so there are few true travel-writers. It’s a democracy of the dumbest. Dysfunctional dilettantes dabble, often for free. Hobbyists happily reinvent themselves as travel-writers but are too busy Tweeting to deliver. Silver Travellers soldier on, in search of a second income and a second wind. Bloggers with more social media sense than writing skills launch themselves into the Blogosphere. A bubbly blogging personality is bolstered by superlatives and swagger, not by talent. Cruise-writers cruise on into oblivion, bound for the “death by chocolate” buffet. Even for talented writers, the paucity of challenging commissions means that we often sell ourselves short.

We shouldn’t expect sympathy for turning a passion into a profession. We are immensely privileged. Travel defines us. We are searchers and show-offs in equal measure. Badly-paid but spuriously glamorous, travel provides us with an open road and open seas. Even narrow gauge Swiss railways broaden the mind. Travel means the freedom to rub shoulders with a Milanese fashion designer one day and the Mafia the next. They might actually be one and the same but that’s the magic of the mix.

It’s as surreal a life as we choose. It can be dystopian or dazzling, from Belgian battlefields it’s on to the Cannes Film Festival, Nazi concentration camps, Papal Rome and Disneyland at sea. We can travel out of our league and trump tales of hurricanes and pirate attacks. More profoundly, one harrowing travel encounter can change the course of our lives. More mundanely, we pass off fine dining as research and dismiss dancing with a witchdoctor as part and parcel of a weekend in a South African Township.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we’re all guilty

So where does that leave us? Bad writers rarely recognise the moral dilemmas within the travel matrix. Even good writers happily accept a boutique bed in return for compromised copy. I’m not holier than thou. I, too, often snooze in hand-spun linen sheets and feel guiltily spoilt. I sleep in those sheets to tell you how soft they are. Someone needs to. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

But do I tell you about the famous ballet-dancer I found pirouetting by the pool? Probably not. Do I tell you that, beyond the chef’s smoke-and-mirrors show, the Michelin-starred molecular ice cream tastes like normal ice cream? Do I tell you about the anti-banking riot viewed from my bedroom window? Do I tell you about the Russian spy poisoned by polonium in the bar? No. It’s about playing the game in as pedestrian a manner as possible. No further tricks are required of a performing seal. Welcome to my seductive, slimy, sea-lion world. It may be murky but it’s still my world.

(copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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  1. Caroline Hurry16/06/15

    Marvellous piece. Bravo! Still, I do feel we travel writers earn every penny! Having to wax lyrical just because we are being hosted, is not as easy as it sound. Occasional forays into fiction is often a prerequisite! Great blog too, btw.

  2. Lisa Gerard-Sharp16/06/15

    Thanks, Caroline. Agree about forays into fiction. I have just discovered Caroline’s website and recommend her entertaining but pertinent Travel Writing Tips on: www.travelwrite.co.za.

  3. Sandie16/06/15

    Having been a travel writer in a previous incarnation, I can tell you that most travel writers don't realise one basic truth: travel writing is about people, not places.

  4. Lisa Gerard-Sharp16/06/15

    Thanks, Sandie. You say that “travel writing is about people not places.” While the people part of the equation is often ignored, I still contend that good travel writing is about both people and places, with any focus on people playing into the sense of place, even as a counterpoint.

  5. Janine Marsh16/06/15

    Oh so true... but being a travel writer isn't a job, its a life style, it's not about money, its about discovery and sharing and so much more though of course we must eat, and feed our animals and put shoes on our feet. Also, we write for the majority usually and they don't always want to discover, they don't always have time or energy, so we do our best to help them get there quicker with our help.Great blog, looking forward to read more, best wishes, Janine at The Good Life France.

  6. Lisa Gerard-Sharp17/06/15

    Thanks, Janine. I agree about the pleasures of discovering and sharing in travel (and share your love of Champagne and French cheeses). That said, I do have deep misgivings about the lifestyle model that permeates contemporary travel writing: proper writers need to be paid decently to indulge in anything resembling the Champagne lifestyle, as I’m sure you’d agree. For many, the lifestyle is more basic, a diet of “la vache qui rit.”

  7. Mandeville19/06/15

    A superb first blog post. And I liked the others since - especially the one on Switzerland. Congratulations, Lisa. Can I take issue with Janine (in the previous comment)? This idea that travel writing is a lifestyle seems to me to be quite flawed. It is an economic activity - just like any other form of content creation. True, it may be a literary activity too, but even the production of literature has an economic underpinning. The best travel writers have intellectual capital - heaps of it - and they sell their labour (ie. their time). If travel writers devalue their efforts, and think of their work as being merely lifestyle attributes, then the entire economic basis of travel writing will fracture and fall apart. Travel writers should charge fees for their work - fees that are set at a level appropriate to their experience and the capital assets (including intellectual assets) which they bring to the job. As soon as there are travel writers who just play the lifestyle card, those individuals will undermine the opportunities for the real professionals. I don't know where you are based, Janine, but hopefully professional associations of travel writers in your own country really act as a bridgehead and say a very firm NO to writers who say they are in it merely for the lifestyle.

  8. Lisa Gerard-Sharp20/06/15

    Thanks, Mandeville. These are pertinent comments and I presume you are a writer, too. Playing the lifestyle card is, indeed, very dangerous and undermines the seriousness of our calling. In terms of reward, travel is poorly paid, partly because of the lifestyle card but also exacerbated by the “citizen journalism” scenario, and the belief that anyone can be a travel writer. Even within journalism, travel, as a genre, is undervalued, with journalists in other fields often dismissing it as a soft option. Nor are prestigious publications a guarantee of a living. Some of the best publications pay the least.

  9. Sean O'Reilly11/08/15

    I agree with a great deal of what you have outlined and it is for this reason that Travelers' Tales wwww.travelerstales.com was created more than 20 years ago. We try to publish stories with meaning and are vigilant about not publishing vacuous nonsense. What is really disgraceful is that publishers of travel writing--at least in newspapers and magazines--seem to universally prefer political correct drivel to substantial, informed writing. Unfortunately, 'spin' whether in travel writing or the so-called professional journals is endemic to the trade.

  10. Lisa Gerard-Sharp12/08/15

    Thanks, Sean, for your heartfelt comments on the current state of travel writing. Your Travelers’ Tales collections look like an impressive addition to the travel scene. My only caveat is that your focus seems to be on American travel writers, which is fair enough but your project would be even better if it were truly international in scope and ambition.

  11. Roger Bray21/08/15

    Lisa - your contentions that travel writing bears only a tenuous relationship with the truth, that it celebrates the art of saying nothing and that we're all guilty are not truths universally acknowledged. I don't acknowledge them. In more than half a lifetime of reporting news of the travel industry and writing destination features I have never knowingly bent the truth and have always tried to say something. It is however an incontrovertible truth that the overwhelming majority of readers travels for pleasure and not, for example, to experience the reasons why so many Somalis and Syrians are camping in Calais. Therefore it is perfectly understandable that most travel writing should concentrate on the accessible and enjoyable. However, the claim made by one of your respondents that most newspapers and magazines prefer "politically correct drivel" to substantial, informed writing in their travel pages is plain silly. Those pages have included - and continue to include - the work of fine writers, past and present: Jan Morris, Eric Newby, Norman Lewis, Brian Jackman, Giles Milton and many more whose names are less familiar. Of course there are some poor writers too, but they exist in all areas of journalism. While there are more facets of travel to be praised than adversely criticised those pages have also included many examples of the latter. But how are the antics of a ballet dancer by the pool relevant to a consumer considering booking that hotel? Why pick on the ice cream if the rest of the meal is brilliant? How can it be relevant to a prospective traveller that a one off anti bank riot occurred outside - and as for the polonium incident, which would in any case be all over the news pages, the hotel would surely revel in the notoriety. Which brings my to my final point. We do not travel to write critiques of foreign governments (if we don't like them we shouldn't go in the first place). We are never there long enough. Leave it to the foreign correspondents. Save in narrative books or very long articles our role is to describe what we see through the eyes of once or twice a year holiday travellers, be they in search of sun and sand or local culture - even in obscure places - and to sharpen the description with the experience which enables us to compare and contrast.

  12. Lisa Gerard-Sharp22/08/15

    Thanks for joining the debate, Roger, and for putting your head above the parapet. For the record, all the myriad private messages I’ve had from respected travel journalists and travel professionals have broadly supported my views. I am not unsympathetic to the picture you paint but it’s not my picture. You raise important issues which I debate more fully in my forthcoming blog, Truths in Travel Writing (in Never Trust a Travel Writer). Travel journalism covers such a broad spectrum that there should be room for hugely diverse voices on the mainstream travel pages. That this is rarely the case means that readers are often the losers. Please keep debating these issues and don’t take offence: I appreciate your sincere views and your record speaks for itself. Our differences reflect our personal visions of travel writing, views which are not necessarily diametrically opposed, but sometimes differences of emphasis.

  13. Suzanne04/11/15

    Wow! This is exactly what I needed. I've always wanted to break into travel writing, particularly literary travel writing. However, today it's all about whether you have over 1000 Twitter or Instagram followers. No one writes stuff worth reading anymore. I myself have succumbed to writing top 10 lists just to get blog readers but often feel empty afterwards. Any advice?

  14. Thanks, Suzanne. Top ten lists are a necessary evil but can sharpen your sense of fun. Such lists are best written with a glass of wine to hand and a smile at the sillier side of travel journalism. As for feeling empty after penning predictable copy, that's another occupational hazard. That said, your blog should be shaped as you choose, and there are still some literary magazine out there, such as Hidden Europe's. And now I must return to Top Ten Sunsets for the Visually Impaired and Top Ten Christmas Gifts for Home Alone Travelistas.

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