Let’s face it: travel writing, for the most part, sucks. It’s vapid, junket-driven, cliché-laden dross in which anything remotely interesting is boiled away for fear of offending the travel industry whose ads pay for said junkets and for the travel sections of the weekend editions of newspapers in which this stuff appears. Chuck Thompson makes this point in his new book, Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer. Not even the Lonely Planet guides (“Lonely Planet is the only publisher I know of that seems to actively dislike its readers”) are exempt.
It’s an entertaining read, but it doesn’t quite make it. Attacking the clichés of the genre would make for a pretty slim volume; there are chapters sharing his experiences as a travel magazine editor, as a travel writer, and as a traveller, full stop. They seem like padding to me, but if nothing else, they explain how easy it is to become jaded by the travel industry. His realization that his dislike of the Caribbean is because of the juxtaposition of luxury resorts and endemic poverty resonates with my own ambivalence about the idea of vacationing there. His off-colour, disaster-laden travel stories are just the sort of thing that would be unlikely to appear in the travel section of a newspaper, but it’s hardly transgressive that they’re seeing print — Paul Theroux was writing stronger stuff 30 years ago.
And there’s a point there: there are two genres of travel writing, the literary sort (Chatwin, Naipaul, Theroux) and the advertorial sort; this book is about the latter (even if, in one telling passage, Thompson nails Theroux for writing the advertorial pabulum that his overall body of work seems to stand against).