Travel writing is in crisis, for at least a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reflects – perhaps even amplifies – the wider crisis afflicting journalism: failing media outlets, derisory writing fees and an editorial culture that favours puff pieces over independent reportage. ‘The dream is over and the quickening plunge into poverty is unsettling,’ explains Leif Pettersen.
Secondly and more happily, the age of the monied, cultured Victorian explorer who recounted the traveller’s tale of unexplored lands peopled by savages has given way to a smaller, more democratic world in which we all know more about each other.
The coming-together of these two trends has caused many to wonder whether the genre is on its way to extinction. But to predict the end of travel writing is a bit like assuming the invention of photography will bring about the end of art. The former only jeopardises the latter if you assume its role is to represent in a literal way. As many lovers of the genre have argued, travel writing is as much about ways of seeing a place and the inner journey of the narrator as the recording of facts and external events.
My current, preferred formulation of what travel writing is for us, now, comes from Michael Jacobs : “the greatness of good travel literature lies perhaps in its mingling of genres”. A genre that has traditionally combined reporting on place with autobiographical elements provides the perfect starting point for the writing about place and nature which makes up so much of contemporary narrative non-fiction.
Meanwhile on the economic front, it’s possible that the digital age may yet give back what it has taken away. The rise of longform journalism/shortform writing represents something of a revolution: the economics of traditional book publishing has rarely allowed the publication of standalone short stories and essays, while collections have long been the cinderella of full-length works.
The emergence of longform is enabling me to combine the new form of the short, digital travelogue with an old tradition of travel writing in which the narrator, drawn by the popular image of a place, goes to find the reality. In In Search of Glastonbury, I set out to discover how far the market town lives up to its reputation as a New Age mecca for our times.
I’m calling this little travel book a ‘travella’ – a short travelogue with a nod to the novella. (I did think of ‘travelette’, but was put off by the association with the moist towelettes you still get on some airlines which doesn’t have quite the same ring.)
In Search of Glastonbury will be published on June 20th, the eve of the longest day, when I plan to set fire to – oh, damn those prepositions! - in my garden.