[ilds] ILDS Digest, Vol 6, Issue 10

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Sun Sep 16 06:48:46 PDT 2007

        On 9/16/2007 1:23 AM, Sumantra Nag wrote:
>         Charles,
>         I liked the article you forwarded. Interesting points: e.g., how much space 
>         should the travel writer devote to simple (as opposed to evocative) 
>         description, and on background information, when these are available to the 
>         reader on the Net through texts and photographs? Of course this raises the 
>         question: what is evocative description? I think Rory McLean has a point. 

>         Widespread travel has greatly 
>         increased the chances of readers visiting many places they would not have 
>         got to in an earlier era, and the travel writer has to have something new 
>         for readers who may have been where the writer has been.

Thanks for that outline, Sumantra.  The diary account of that debate at 
the Royal Society of Literature caught my attention not only because the 
name and words of "Lawrence Durrell" were cited, but also because here 
in agreement and disagreement Durrell seemed to be taken as having 
something serious to contribute, something important for which to 
stand.  I still would like to read the full transcript of the 
MacLean/Stewart exchange.  I wonder if Durrell's prose elicited any 
other comments?  If anyone attended the meeting, please share.

The MacLean/Stewart debate seems to come into conversation with our 
listserv discussion of "real" versus "literary" in /Bitter Lemons/.  For 
my own part, I would honor good writing as good writing and feel less 
urgent about declaring an emergency--i.e., travel writing /must /follow 
method (a) or method (b).  But debates take up extreme points by nature, 
and something is gained by definition, even if the strictures are let go 

I will reprint the Guardian piece once more in order to encourage more 



*Travelling hopefully**
Saturday September 15, 2007*


*·* The Royal Society of Literature is more likely to produce gentle 
rumination and poetic encomium than the tension of the debating chamber. 
So it was something of a surprise when an event this week turned into a 
standoff between Rory MacLean, now working on his seventh travel book, 
and Rory Stewart, author of an account of walking across post-Taliban 
Afghanistan, about the value of truth in travel writing - about whether 
modern-day travel writing had, in fact, completely lost its way. Each 
author began by setting out his stall. For MacLean, "travel writers seek 
out wonders - that's our job". He argued that, since advances in 
knowledge and technology have freed the travel writer from the 
obligation of simply imparting detail about far-off lands, his writing 
was something different: a synthesised sense of a place, often populated 
by composite characters. MacLean regularly knows what he wants to find 
before he leaves home: "I travel in search of the story I want to tell. 
The real travel is at my desk." He quoted Lawrence Durrell admiringly: 
"The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this - 
that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer, can 
reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side." 
There is, he added, "much wonder in that".

*·* Stewart, after a nod of collegiate friendliness, launched into his 
counter-argument. "From my point of view, his method represents a 
decadence, a falling-away in the travel-writing tradition." Stewart's 
own lodestar was the 19th century, when travellers wrote "records 
charged with the stakes of empire" for "people who needed to know what 
places were like". For him, this tradition reached its height at the end 
of the first world war, with Gertrude Bell's Review of the Civil 
Administration of Mesopotamia. Compared to current writings about Iraq, 
hamstrung by tired tropes and "seen only through the fixed frame of 
liberal democracy", he found the writings of Bell and her colleagues, 
"with their lightfootedness and sense of irony", both "more amusing to 
read and much more powerful". However, referring to the work of Peter 
Fleming (whose Brazilian Adventure contained, according to Stewart, 
elements of farce), Robert Byron (who wrote of faraway places "as if he 
was reporting on a dinner party in Mayfair") and Wilfred Thesiger, 
Stewart suggested that "British travel writing [was] condemned to a move 
away from truth", to value tone over content. His assertion that spies 
make the best travel writers prompted the Sunday Times literary editor 
Susannah Herbert, the deft moderator, to comment: "I keep wondering when 
he's going to declare himself." For Stewart, the future of travel 
writing lies with writers such as JM Coetzee and VS Naipaul, "whose 
identity or racial position is challenged" and who "are therefore able 
to raise the stakes".

*·* "I don't really want to start a fight, but I think it's 
irresistible," said Herbert, sensing the mood from the floor, from which 
questions came think and fast. The economist and historian Robert 
Skidelsky commented: "You worry, as a reader, whether something's true. 
You can't help it." This was why Colin Thubron, for example, a hero of 
MacLean's, made him queasy. What exactly was the role of literal-minded 
truth, Herbert asked. Was it not "touchingly innocent" to ask writers to 
cleave to it so closely? Was there a kind of higher truth that was 
honoured in the breach? MacLean did concede, eventually, that perhaps 
travel writers had slightly lost their way in the new dispensation, but 
otherwise he stood firm. "I'm writing a different sort of truth, what I 
feel is a deeper truth," he said. "I'm trying to reflect as accurate a 
picture as I can, and to enhance the opportunity for the reader to 
empathise. I want the reader to understand what it's like, to feel it." 
To which Stewart responded: "I'm just worried that we're being pushed 
into a backwater of elegant but ultimately disengaged prose."

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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