On Bad Travel Writing

Tunku Varadarajan asks Paul Theroux, in jest, “whether he’s willing, as the originator of the travel-writing genre, to apologize” for all the bad travel writing around us. Theroux replies:

For setting these people loose? No, of course not! There are so many forms of travel writing now . . . ‘Where I went on my bike,’ or ‘My wife and I went somewhere and didn’t we have a jolly time,’ or ‘I don’t think I have anything to write about so I think I’ll take a trip and write about that.’ The ones that amuse me are the ones that make a drama—an ordeal—out of something pretty banal.

That is just about a perfect summary of the different kinds of bad travel writing around us. Most of the travel writing I see in our media—at least two Indian newspapers devote substantial weekly space to it—is mediocre, banal and self-indulgent, the last of which would not be a sin if the first two weren’t part of the package.

Varadarajan says of Theroux that his writing “reflects affection for the people in whose midst he is apt to find himself, and a spirit of inquiry that is part anthropological and part autobiographical.” If more of our writers had that affection and that spirit of inquiry, it wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t write as well as Theorux (or Iyer or Bryson etc), they would still be worth reading. But most travel pieces in Indian newspapers are either vacation albums turned into dull and self-conscious prose, or ninth-standard essays meant to impress the English Composition teacher with language skills.

Having written these harsh words, I’m wondering if I should publish this post. Many of my friends fancy themselves as travel writers; could they get offended? Nah, they’ll probably read this, nod, and think: “Amit’s right, but I’m not one of those bad travel writers.” So here we go…