Book clinic: has social media killed travel writing?


Is travel writing dead in the age of social media?
Charu Gupta, India

Sara Wheeler, biographer and author of travel books including Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, writes:
Charu, no! Travel writing is all about observational detail, which can’t really be captured in social media. The writer gets a longer run at it in pieces or books – the marathon as opposed to the sprint. If you suggest that travel writing is dead in the age of social media, you might as well say that the novel has expired now that you can make up a sentence on Twitter.

Travel writing will always have a place in the world, even now that all the journeys have been done. Social media by necessity has to grab the instant message, but the best travel writing captures the beautiful ordinariness of the everyday. Don’t you find daily life unbearably poetic?

A travel piece can tell a story. It can embrace direct speech, allowing people on the ground to speak for themselves. It can embrace humour even among the awful, hymn the mundane, and sprinkle hope among the horror.

Is Moritz Thomsen’s The Saddest Pleasure any less revealing about the lives of the Brazilian urban poor than it was when Thomsen wrote the book in 1990?  (The title, by the way, is a Paul Theroux quote referring to travel itself). The  Victorian Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa  (1897) has as much to say about otherness, and the joy of the open road (the open swamp, in Kingsley’s case) than anything penned today.

Take a fresh look at Norman Lewis (my herobelow ). Lewis’s volume on India, A Goddess in the Stones (1991), especially the chapters on Orissa, has left the confines of its era and entered the immortal zone. Here’s a challenge. Let’s have a tweet encapsulating Lewis’s Naples ’44 – one of the best travel books ever written. If it matches the genius of the original, I will send a signed copy of my Antarctic travel book, with warm wishes.

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