Paul Theroux called it “maddening.” Jonathan Raban called it a “raffish open house where very different genres are likely to end up in the same bed.” Call it what you will, travel writing is a diverse genre, and the forms it can take are virtually endless.
But if travel writing is such a confusing and promiscuous genre, how can we make sense of it all?
Categorizing travel writing
There are many ways to explore and question travel writing as a genre. Is the author self-effacing or is the author an important part of the story? Does the writing have a plot, or is it essentially without a story? Is the account truthful, fictional, or some weird combination therein?
These are legitimate questions.
But one of the most helpful ways to categorize travel writing is to follow in the footsteps of Paul Fussell, who sketched a framework helpful in classifying travel writing in his 1980 study Abroad.
In Abroad, Fussell’s primary interest was the travel book, against which he contrasted the travel guidebook in a chapter about travel books as literary phenomena. Fussell says: “A guidebook is addressed to those who plan to follow the traveler […]. A travel book, at its purest, is addressed to those who do not plan to follow the traveler at all…”
Two types of travel writing
Paul Fussell was talking about the book form, but he essentially categorized travel writing into two main types depending on its practical or literary intent. Carl Thompson discusses this further in his book Travel Writing.
The sniff test is to ask whether the writing aims to be promotional, practical, or helpful. If the answer is yes, this is commercial travel writing. Probably.
What is commercial travel writing?
The aim of commercial travel writing is to market, to promote, to serve, and/or to help travelers and tourists have better experiences traveling. Readers consume it for its practical information. Commercial travel writing often has ties to the larger travel and tourism industry.
Commercial travel writing can come in the form of guidebooks, top-ten lists, best-of lists, articles, destination pieces, itineraries, journalism, restaurant and hotel reviews, how-to guides, side-trip suggestions, advertorials, marketing copy, and other service-oriented articles.
Paul Theroux said that it is “market-driven—intending to sell vacations, hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and it is nearly always upbeat. […] It informs vacationers who have limited time to travel and services the travel industry.”
Is the goal to inspire travel, to give council or advice, to help, to serve, to offer pointers and tips, or to help others figure out where to go, what to do, and what to eat? If so, this is commercial travel writing.
What is literary travel writing?
The aim of literary travel writing is to entertain. Readers consume it “for pleasure, and for its aesthetic merits,” Thompson notes, instead of for practical insight.
Literary travel writing can take the shape of books, novels, memoirs, articles, poems, journals and diaries, journalism, personal essays, travelogues, op-eds, blog posts, and other more experimental forms of writing.
Is the goal to tell a story, to entertain, to humor, to express a fundamental truth about humanity? If so, this is literary travel writing.
Mathilde Poizat-Amar says that travel literature “excludes non literary texts.” What she means by “literary texts” are texts that attempt to be more concerned with writing as a form of art.
Just the tip of the iceberg
As you can see in the diagram above, these categories can overlap. There is space for other categories and subdivisions to emerge. And the commercial/literary distinction is not the only one to make.
For example, where do academic studies, industry reports, and scientific reports fit into this categorization? These forms don’t often have a commercial or literary intent. Perhaps critical travel writing is a better category. Can’t journalism fit into this category too? And what about journals and diaries-are they really literary? Does a non-profit organization’s “practical” travel information really have a “commercial” intent?
Dr. Poizat-Amar notes that in travel writing as a whole “the critical terminology that we usually use to describe texts does not really work.”
Similarities between commercial and literary travel writing
It is not uncommon for “literary” travel writers to disparage commercial travel writers. Fussell, for example, does not hide his cards when discussing his appreciation for “real” travel writing over commercial travel writing, as he does with his preference for “real” travel over tourism.
But who hasn’t before been charmed by an advertorial’s elegant language? Who hasn’t before cast aside an insufferable book written by a supposed “literary heavyweight?”
We will leave the academics to dispute whether something is “artistic.” What is indisputable is that travel writing, whichever form it assumes, is inherently creative.
And what makes travel writing “maddening” then is its greatest and most powerful asset: its formal diversity and its ability to assume new forms.
Last Updated on 21 September 2020 by Travel Writing World
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