Two authors recently accused Granta of colonial high-handedness. One complaint was trivial; the other, about a proposed photoessay, less so. But whether the accusations were valid or not, they did make us think about the state of travel writing now.
Granta has long been associated with this particular form of creative non-fiction. It was sometimes more creative than readers and editors knew, as in the case of Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish journalist and travel writer best known for his reportage from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Artur Domosławski’s 2010 biography revealed that many of Kapuściński’s most vivid vignettes, like the story of Haile Selassie’s lapdog Lulu peeing on the shoes of visitors, courtier ready with a satin cloth, were inventions. ‘Ryszard Kapuściński – the hero of Ryszard Kapuściński’s books – is also a fictional character,’ Domosławski memorably wrote.
Bruce Chatwin, too, has been criticised for being cavalier with facts. Like Raymond Carver, Chatwin explained nothing – you fall into his travel stories, and stay there. Are they true? Maybe. Not the whole truth, perhaps, but who can ever tell the whole truth? He captured atmospheres – that was enough, then. Editors now set more exacting standards for their writers. Fact-checking is easier with the Internet, of course, but there is also a nervousness about what you can publish and write. Public shaming is easier too, and bland generalities multiply in the mainstream while fringe publications and right-wing radio shows revel in provocations.
And sticking to the truth, of course, is not the whole story. Travel writing is about place, but it is also usually, one way or another, about people, the inhabitants of those places to which the author travels. These people are, by definition, different from the author, and can be exoticised, objectified or mocked in any number of ways. But I still think that writing about other people doesn’t have to be an exercise of power or a theft of identity. It can be done with engagement, empathy and respect.
I also wonder if, in fact, any writing is innocent of objectification or misrepresentation. Every piece of text is a story, and every story has a point of view, with its own preconceived notions, potentially harmful (or beneficial) to others.
But of course this kind of cultural relativism is on the wane. I am writing in New York – it’s late November and Aleppo is falling, but the news here is dominated by Donald Trump’s tweets. The commentators are flummoxed. They hardly know how to talk about a president-elect who is so openly disdainful of the complex presidential web of constitutional principles and historical conventions. Mr Trump seems determined to show that he is a regular guy – an ordinary insomniac, incensed by this and that, prejudiced and angry and not afraid to show it. Post-truth, and post-shame.
The expression ‘going after’ has spread like a virus since this awful election campaign. Mrs Clinton used the phrase repeatedly, I guess to show that she was tough; Mr Trump hardly needed to say it, he just did it. Now everyone in the political arena and beyond is going after this or that.
I am here to judge Granta’s next Best of Young American Novelists issue (Spring 2017) with our jury of writers, A.M. Homes, Ben Marcus, Kelly Link and Patrick deWitt. The American Civil Liberties Union has kindly lent us office space and we are in a lovely boardroom, spacious and pleasantly gloomy, surrounded by books. The restrooms have signs to say that you can use the facility of the gender you identify with – a sign of the times, and yet it also feels like an artefact of another era. Trump’s election is a kind of revolution. How will we talk about it, I wonder, in time?