Rowan McKinnon Answers our Travel Writing Lunchbox/Soapbox

Travel Writer Rowan McKinnon

Travel Writer Rowan McKinnon

While I don’t disagree with some of what Andrew Mueller says in his Lunchbox Soapbox – about newspaper travel sections being beholden to advertisers – I think his premise and manifesto are wrong and mischievous. Indeed, I suspect Mr Mueller is somewhat disingenuous in this infotainment piece, but the speaking circuit is a nice gig, so lets not let a little authenticity get in the way.

“Almost all modern travel writing is atrocious,” says Mueller. “Staid, timorous, trivial and fatuous.” He then proceeds to trivialise excerpts from an unnamed travel writer and unnamed publication – mercilessly taken out of context and read to a tittering audience. A cheap shot it seems to me. I, like Mueller, am a fan of rock music and I wondered whether I might similarly defile the whole of modern music by quoting – out of context – an especially egregious rhyming quatrain:

See the primitive wallflower frieze When the jelly-faced women all sneeze Hear the one with the moustache say “Jeeze I can’t find my knees” Bob Dylan – Visions of Johanna

It clearly follows that all rock ‘n’ roll sucks.

Mueller’s polemic seems to be that commercial considerations – aka advertising monies – prohibit commissioning travel editors of newspapers and magazine from publishing quality travel articles. That’s not been my experience.

Moreover, he asserts that sponsored travel – ‘contra deals’ where resorts and airlines provide free services in exchange for publicity and coverage – is the only kind of travel that gets written about in newspapers and magazines.

I have two problems with this: Firstly, it’s patently untrue. Travel writers pitch articles to many newspaper section editors including news sections, lifestyle and leisure lift-outs, opinion sections, features as well as travel sections – anywhere you might get published. Advertorial content just doesn’t cut the mustard beyond the travel pages. Secondly, are we to assume that travel writers cannot say anything intelligent, thoughtful and interesting about a destination if they’re on sponsored travel (provided that interest is clearly disclosed)? I don’t think so. Yes, it colours the article, but it doesn’t necessarily delegitimise the story. (Lets be clear – after 15 years as a professional travel writer I’m still waiting for my first all-expenses-paid deluxe travel junket. All offers graciously accepted.)

I do, however, agree that much travel writing is tedious and laden with clichés. But that’s not the writing I read, and not the content I want to write. Instead I’m looking for a story, not of beaches and swaying palms, but of people I can empathise with, engaging with their environments and beguiling me with their quirks and customs.

Travel writing does not suck, certainly not ‘almost all’ of it. The best can be hard to find, not least because it’s hard to do and hard to get published. But great travel writing is edifying and transformative, redolent of humanity’s shared experience, foibles and triumphs.

Some of the most interesting travel writing is appearing online in the blog space. The blogosphere can be a little self-referential and in need of a good edit, but players I like include Chuck Thompson, Brian Thacker and video blogger Natalie Tran for Lonely Planet. Andrew Mueller’s amusing musings can be found at www.andrewmueller.net.

Rowan McKinnon is a Melbourne-based freelance travel writer, consultant and lapsed rock muso. He’s worked Australia, the Caribbean and the USA, but mostly specialises in the island states of the South Pacific. His website is ‘under construction’, as is his first novel. He’s teaching the Victorian Writers' Centre course Travel Guidebook Writing 101 as part of their Summer School.