24 January, 2011

Have travelled, will write

Many years ago, when I worked in a bookstore, a woman asked me for our travel narrative section, because that was 'pretty much all' she read.

I was surprised, not thinking there'd be enough on offer to sustain such a predilection. Now, I'd consider that customer overwhelmed for choice.

While the genre is broad, two types of titles dominate: women who move, usually alone, to a Mediterranean idyll; and men who set out on a journey, courtesy of a challenge.

In the case of women's travel writing especially, it fits squarely into the niche of aspirational literature. The books are successful because of their destinations, because of their romance, not simply because they offer well-told stories. You can be sure that Eat Pray Love would not have been the runaway seller it is if one of the 'I' countries that Elizabeth Gilbert travelled to had been Iceland, rather than Italy.

It's intriguing that the women's stories usually involve relocation, leaving something behind, becoming connected with a new community, and, more often than not, finding love. The men are rarely so stationary. Think Charley Boorman and his innumerable trips around the globe on unusual types of transport; Tim Elliott and his Spanish search to unravel the myth around bullfighter JesulĂ­n; and Tony Hawks' bizarre determination to travel around Ireland with a fridge. Unlike the women, they often leave intact, rather than broken, relationships behind, yet conversely they seem absent from their experiences rather than integral.

What I realise, thinking through these typical storylines, is that what we see repeatedly in travel writing is the heroine's and hero's journeys. In the former, the heroine must reject a mother-figure (her homeland) and seek a new environment, where she comes to an emotional nadir (feeling trapped in an unwelcoming city, but not ready to return home) before piecing their life back together (new job, new love) and embracing their animus (through the stoicism of staying and finding acceptance).

The hero, on the other hand, is presented with a challenge (the fridge, the bullfighter, a rowboat), which at first they resist (how will I carry a fridge? or, My wife would never agree) before taking it on and receiving help along the way (people who write travel books invariably encounter the friendliest people in any part of the world). They emerge from the supreme battle (near death at the hands of a freighter, hangovers) to return with the boon (often a fresh understanding of culture).

This consistently different emphasis between the genders in travel writing had always puzzled me, but, oddly, I think this analogy might have solved it. To travel is to journey, and the journey has been the foundation of storytelling for centuries. I wonder often why the same type of experience continues to sell travel books, but it's because it taps into a sub-conscious resource of familiar stories.

When I started this post, I wasn't planning to write about heroes and heroines at all - it wasn't until summarising the types of travel writing that the link occurred to me. What I was going to write about was how far short so many travel books fall of the mark of being a good book. Setting and circumstance are what sell, rather than the quality of how the author tells it. Not everyone who treechanges to an overseas locale writes a book about it, and not everyone who does has the ability to tell the tale well. What they have is the licence to share the experience.

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