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Travel writing is changing in the 21st century. Here's what it looks like

Having travelled the world to interview some of the greatest names in travel writing, academic and author Tim Hannigan reflects on how the genre is changing in the 21st century.

By Tim Hannigan
Published 2 Sept 2021, 11:05 BST, Updated 7 Sept 2021, 10:18 BST
The need for travel books to provide solid, practical information about far-off destinations has probably passed ...

The need for travel books to provide solid, practical information about far-off destinations has probably passed in this era of mass information. But what a sensitive travel writer can still do is to provide space for the voices of the people they meet along the way.

Photograph by Alamy

Having researched historical travel books, what are your thoughts on traditional travel writing?  

I can’t think of any other literary genre as potentially contentious as travel writing. Historically, it’s been dominated by privileged male authors — often Etonian-educated — representing other countries and other cultures sometimes in decidedly colonialist terms. It’s little surprise that postcolonial scholars have given the genre a bit of a hard time. By its very nature, travel writing is always going to have the potential to stir up controversy, and anyone writing — or reading — travel books need to be sensitive to that. But as it becomes more diffuse and diverse, I think we’re beginning to move away from the idea that, ethically, there might be something fundamentally wrong with travel writing.

Can or should travel writing be a force for good?

Although travel writing has often been criticised for its complicity with colonialism and for reproducing outdated stereotypes, I think its basic impulse is a positive one: to encounter other peoples, find out about other places. In recent decades, a lot of British travel writing has had a domestic focus, with much blurring of the distinction between travel and nature writing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in a way it mirrors a political and cultural turn away from the wider world. Surely a genre that travels beyond our own shores, seeks international connections, is a force for good — even if it makes some mistakes along the way.

Is it a writer’s responsibility to exercise restraint on exoticisation, or could doing so perhaps ignore the potential for the sense of wonder inherent in good travel writing?

The great challenge for a responsible travel writer is finding the right balance. Wanting to experience the atmosphere of a foreign land is one of the reasons people read travel books, and conjuring up that atmosphere is part of the writer’s job. But we should always remember that what’s ‘exotic’ to the writer and their audience is simply ‘home’ to someone else.

Read more: Enter the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Travel Writing Competition

What did you learn from reading the diaries of some of the great travel writers of the 19th and 20th centuries?

When I started digging around in the archives of the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger I was expecting to find a tight connection between his raw travel journals and the finished books. But it soon became clear that his writing process had been fraught and complex, and his crafted literary narratives had travelled a long way from the strictly factual details recorded in the diaries.

Where does the frontier between fact and fiction lie in travel writing?

Perhaps the thorniest of all questions about travel writing is ‘where does the frontier between fact and fiction lie?’ Many writers insist they make nothing up; others openly embrace elements of fictionalisation. But when you start digging a bit deeper, that clear distinction quickly breaks down, and it turns out that almost everyone rejigs chronology, shifts characters around, creates composites. You could say the frontier between fact and fiction is crossed the moment a travel writer sits down at their desk and starts typing.

With information about destinations so easy to find, which elements of well-known places should travel writers be communicating?

The need for travel books to provide solid, practical information about far-off destinations has probably passed in this era of mass information. But what a sensitive travel writer can still do is to provide space for the voices of the people they meet along the way — those that scholars sometimes call ‘the travellee’. That’s something you’ll never get from Wikipedia and Tripadvisor.

Who excites you most in the world of travel writing at the moment?

Travel writing has opened up and branched out over the past couple of decades. Writers like Kapka Kassabova, Noo Saro-Wiwa and Monisha Rajesh complicate what it means to be an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’. Others such as Taran Khan and Samanth Subramanian have shaken up outdated notions about travel writers invariably starting out from the old imperial power centres. There’s a greater diversity of voices and perspectives in the genre than there used to be, and that’s really exciting for a reader like me. But at the moment, I’m particularly looking forward to the new book from a grand veteran — Colin Thubron’s The Amur River, out in September. In some ways, Thubron is the archetype of the traditional elite traveller — an actual Old Etonian. But his books have always been far more sensitive and self-reflective than the most simplistic critiques of the genre would suggest.

Are you optimistic about the future of travel writing?

Travel writing has existed for far longer than the novel, and it turns up in virtually every literary culture around the world. It’s universal and flexible. That gives me confidence that travel writing of some kind will be around forever.

Did researching your book make you question your love of travel writing?

I set out on my own journey in search of travel writing with a sense of trepidation, an ethical unease. Was there something fundamentally wrong with travel writing? And would my own love of the genre as a reader survive? But it was all OK in the end. I’ve come away with a greater appreciation for its challenges and its complexity, and for its rich heritage — and that has only deepened my love for it.

Tim Hannigan is the author of The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre (Hurst, £20).

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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