Sunday, March 28, 2010

Not a Tourist

On World Hum, Tom Swick writes on the evolving role of the travel writer in the age of mass tourism and YouTube.

From the story...

Curiously, the genre’s renaissance coincided with the appearance of its obituary. In 1980, the cultural critic Paul Fussell published “Abroad,” a superb study of British travel and travel writing between the wars that concludes with the pronouncement that the postwar age of tourism killed real travel and, by extension, the writing that was its offspring. It didn’t finish off either, any more than televised baseball brought an end to a day at the ballpark. There is still the authentic experience but, like being a spectator at a game, travel is now altered by its well-recorded popularity.

In an age of mass tourism (and YouTube), the travel writer’s job has changed. It is not enough anymore simply to describe a landscape; we must root out its meanings. Jonathan Raban, playing the immigrant in “Hunting Mister Heartbreak,” goes shopping in 1980s Manhattan and is struck by the tone of bombastic abundance. “Macy’s was scared stiff of our boredom,” he writes, nailing the frenetic nature of not only an American department store but American capitalism. Writers such as Raban, Colin Thubron, Jan Morris and Pico Iyer each possess, in addition to the requisite eye for detail, an agile and well-stocked mind for synthesis, and their findings are riveting (and often surprising) even to people intimately familiar with their subjects. The physical hardships these writers endure in the course of their journeys often pale in comparison to those of their predecessors—though Thubron continues to travel rough—but the scaled-down suffering is offset by the greater creative challenge.

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