One of my favorite sites is World Hum, a page dedicated to publishing all kinds of insightful and interesting stories, profiles, links, and lists about travel and travel writing. Possibly my favorite thing about the site is that I’m able to easily post contrarian viewpoints on the nature of travel writing and be in dialogue with some of the industry’s top voices. Open forums make that possible.
Recently, Eva Holland, the senior editor, posted an excerpt taken from a recent Harper’s piece written by Robert MacFarlane which she really liked.
Here’s the excerpt in question:
He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.
Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions”—particularly “Rings Of Saturn”—that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.
I disagree with the implications of what MacFarlane’s saying, and I said as much in the forum. In my reading, MarFarlane’s postulating that because essentially every destination had already been written about in Chatwin’s day, Chatwin shifted the dynamic by creating new forms and making that the emphasis of the genre.
What bothers me about this is that people and places aren’t static, so it’s not like every place on earth had or has been written about. Once even a little time has passed, the destination will be different, especially in our rapidly changing world, which means that it is in effect a new place and worth writing about for that reason alone. New forms can be great, but I don’t believe they’re inherently necessary because the fact that people and places are always changing means that there’s always new places to write about.
In fact, I believe an emphasis on constantly creating new forms puts travel writing on a dangerous uphill trajectory, where it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with these new forms. The result may be a race to gimmickry. Check out the rest of the conversation and Eva Holland’s response here.