The fun thing about questions like this is that you can substitute any word or term for ‘travel writing’ with no diminution of the urgency of the enquiry. Some years ago, for example, I spoke at a conference in San Francisco dedicated to the question ‘Is photography over?’ In the end we weren’t sure. Yes and no. Sort of. And the same is true here.
Two forms of travel writing do seem sufficiently well-worn that they’ve become the literary equivalent of package tours in which destination and experience are so thoroughly predetermined that one is reluctant to make a booking. These would be: 1. In the Footsteps of . . . where a writer recreates journeys made by someone or other and observes the changes that have taken place in the terrain while also telling the story of the antecedent’s life and work. 2. On a . . . where a writer chooses a deliberately impractical mode of transport, thereby inviting the calamities that will inevitably befall him or her. Something along the lines of Round South America on a Pogo Stick. Naturally, the journey itself is braided with a history and cultural significance of the pogo stick.
I exaggerate but the problem is that travel writing, a form of writing about departures, about leaving the known in order to venture into the unknown, could become a stay-at-home genre. Any successful travel book should involve some kind of departure from previously visited ideas of the travel book. Claudio Magris’s Danube was a subtle expansion of the possibilities of travel writing. Or one could just delete the ‘travel’ part altogether and say it’s a great piece of writing. That deletion cannot always be safely made since certain titles enjoy a reputation as ‘travel’ classics while falling way below more general standards of literary achievement. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts depends on these standards being dispensed with entirely. (That would be an interesting journey: an investigation into the way certain books serve as fake passports, permitting the author to travel to literary immortality without the let or hindrance of critical questioning.)
The ‘travel’ books I most admire are either much more than travel books or could be classified as something else entirely. To call Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Soccer War or Don DeLillo’s The Names (a novel!) ‘travel’ books is like referring to Miles Davis’s music from the 1970s as ‘jazz’. For a while, starting with Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968), Miles offered his albums as ‘Directions in Music’. That’s what I’m after: Directions in Writing.
Finally, we might ask: what kinds of writing aren’t travel writing? We read – often while sitting on a form of mass transit – in order to be privately transported. Geographical distance has nothing to do with it. You can be transported while reading about London on the Tube. Charles Dickens, Annie Dillard, Isak Dinesen and Emily Dickinson (how many writers have taken us to weirder places?) are all travel writers. It’s quite natural, therefore – if we may be permitted a couple of alphabetical steps backwards – that E.M. Cioran, of all people, expressed his adoration of Emily Brontë in the form of destination and pilgrimage: ‘Haworth is my Mecca’. So the question, to revert to our initial point of departure, becomes: ‘Is literature dead?’ Answers on a postcard please.