'Best of' has never been a more subjective concept
The Best American Travel Writing 2011
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: Oct 2011
Although it would seem a natural for light summer fun, I’m not sure a ‘Best of Travel Writing’ annual is as good an idea as you might think.
Travel writing, more than most non-fiction genres, is about individuality – it exists, in the most fundamental terms, as a means to convey unique experiences, as chosen by a reader who likewise has a very personal relationship to the material: want to understand this exotica better, always fantasized about going there, would love to know what this author thinks about this place I love…
I’m very sure that in their original settings (mostly higher-end magazines), as deliberately chosen by an intrigued reader, nearly all of the 18 pieces here came across as fascinating in that exact manner, and as thoroughly able to entice on their own merits. There’s some absolutely excellent writing in this volume, from Annie Proulx among others; there’s a lot of detail about not only interesting but relevant places and people.
If the overall selection felt more trendy than terrifically novel, and the list of contributors not particularly familiar, at least the travelers’ eyes and interests range pleasingly wide both geographically and socially—from the struggles of the Middle East, a Copenhagen commune and the Shinnecock tribe of Long Island through to lighter explorations, as of NASCAR’s struggles with authenticity vs. commercial success, or the seedy wannabe underworld of Miami Beach.
My personal favourites were the less fashionable and more intriguingly idiosyncratic; in perhaps the most intimate essay of the lot, a young woman makes a pilgrimage to a Mediterranean villa in search of the romance or reality behind a Monet painting; another explores the frankly surreal black comedy that is Moscow gridlock. There’s even a piece—whose geekily eager self-consciousness makes it my personal favourite—chronicling an expedition into the Eastern European heartland, searching for the ‘real’ vampires of Balkan legend. (It should hopefully be spoiling nothing to note that they are, as it turns out, the pure antithesis of sparkly.)
But reading all of them one after another, without respect for context or truly piqued interest… after awhile, I found myself being worn down by sheer sameness of style. I’m not sure whether it’s the result of a general trend in the genre or the preference of the single editor, Sloane Crosley – her Introduction, along with her status as an acclaimed novelist, leads me to believe it might be about both—but, save for welcome flashes (the aforementioned idiosyncratic bits among them, along with Proulx’ gracefully immediate insights into, of all things, New England wildlife) all these experiences seemed to be narrated in a single voice, and that voice might best be described as Effortlessly Stylised.
Perhaps this is in fact what you get when you assign a novelist to the job: a dedication to the literary flourishes. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter, again, of the subject being so intensely personal. Crosley makes an eloquent—if slightly clichéd—argument for all of these pieces having touched and impressed her greatly, even opened her mind to new ways of seeing the world; but they didn’t me, so much.
Largely because (oddly enough, in a collection helmed by someone Amazon describes as ‘hilarious’) there’s precious little real humour here. Not in the sense of knock-knock jokes, so much as the fundamental appreciation of human foibles. In its place is a lot of political… not correctness, exactly… evasion, that works better.
Now, I am not campaigning for, say, a discussion of the decline of NASCAR that doesn’t make the effort to reach past the author’s personal opinion of redneck stereotypes; and I can understand why the white man who is in the midst of poignantly retelling the story of a charming-but-shiftless young Haitian hustler in the years leading up to the earthquake feels the need to avoid outright condemnation, both from a literary and a humanitarian POV.
As Crosley correctly points out, the detached voice is that of reason, of the thoughtful, unbiased and fully-rounded insight, and I cannot say that any of the authors here are at fault for providing same. Still, the deliberate authorial distancing from anything resembling an immediately human take on humanity meant that I was steadily becoming less and less content with literary excellence as a motivation for finishing the book.
By the time I got round to the one truly infuriating piece, near the end – a tour of the disputed Middle Eastern Kurdish territories that’s so completely ironically detached it never gets around to grounding itself in such basic travelogue-type details as where the author is, never mind who the people are, let alone the roots of their conflict – I was reduced to flipping listlessly through accounts of horrific random violence. Which is clearly not how it’s supposed to work.
Crosley makes mention of the ‘formulaic’ nature of pitching an essay in this genre, and I think she’s got something there. I would in fact really like to have heard from someone who wasn’t consciously Travel Writing, if that makes sense. I’m more used to the likes of Bill Bryson, PJ O’Rourke, Anthony Bourdain, even Michael Palin to a certain extent. People who go places and see things for their own personal but overwhelmingly urgent reasons, and are most concerned with how the landscape fits their needs and suits their (often equally personal) opinions, not the other way around.
This style make no pretense to inoffensiveness, let alone objectivity, but it’s always grounded in the immediate, niggling, hopelessly un-literary mundane details of daily existence—and I do find I get a whole lot more in the way of international understanding out of it. I’m more than willing to make allowances for authorial interference, provided it is thus both cleverly put and bluntly honest, and I suspect this may be truer of my fellow travel-writing enthusiasts than the editor of this volume realises.
Go pick up a copy, browse it for awhile, read the pieces that catch your eye. If all, some or any of them hit straight at your heart and stay there, then by all means this is the book for you.