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The novel coronavirus has brought the travel industry to its knees, its crash bringing the world of travel media along with it; and it would, as travel media is mostly an appendage of the travel industry itself. Case in point, the near-global paralysis of the travel industry has already resulted in the folding of some in-flight publications and the drying up of travel assignments and freelance opportunities. Travel writers across the globe are in a state of anxious uncertainty about how they will make ends meet, not just today when the need is the most urgent, but tomorrow when the dust settles. Travel bloggers, who generate income through traffic, ad revenue, and affiliate marketing, are also scrambling to protect themselves from the fallout.
Yet, with at least a third of the world on coronavirus lockdown, bookstores are reporting a surge in online sales. And my inbox is alerting me daily to new articles and blog posts recommending “the best travel books” for the vicarious or armchair traveler. Even Travel Writing World couldn’t resist the urge. Surely travel book authors are seeing spikes in their sales, but with the global economy each day coming closer and closer to a standstill, one can’t help but wonder how long it will last.
What will the post-coronavirus world look like for the travel industry and for travel writing, broadly speaking, when we unlatch our bunker doors and survey the landscape?
This was the question I asked a variety of writers in the travel writing space including well-published journalists like Jason Wilson and Amar Grover, renowned travel bloggers like Tim Leffel and Nomadic Matt, and travel book authors like Tim Hannigan, Jonathan Chatwin, Rolf Potts, Monisha Rajesh, and Paul Theroux.
Listen to the episode to hear what they have to say in this round-up episode of Travel Writing World—an unusual format for unusual times.
Paul Theroux was the only guest to submit a response via email, which I read at the very end of the episode and post below.
Paul Theroux, the well-known author of the recently-published On the Plain of Snakes, responded to my questions via email from Hawaii.
Travel Writing World: Commercial travel writing is in large dependent upon the travel industry. But with travel literature, if we could make such a distinction, the relationship is less direct. Do you have any insights into how commercial travel writing and travel literature might change as a result of the corona-crisis, if at all?
Paul Theroux: The “commercial travel writing” you mention is market-driven – intending to sell vacations, hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and it is nearly always up-beat. I don’t disparage it, because it informs vacationers who have limited time to travel and services the travel industry. But “travel literature” – or let’s say, “the literature of wandering” is quite different, low budget, somewhat open-ended, random and glorying in having a bad time full of life lessons. Your question is whether either of the two will change, and the simple answer is no – probably no change at all, because “travel writing” as a designation is maddening, and encompasses autobiography, mythomania, memoir, and topographical observation as well as adventures, exotic romances and ordeals. Of all of these I prefer to read about The Ordeal. By the way, Hawaii usually gets ten million visitors a year – and yesterday 120 visitors arrived. I have never seen Hawaii so empty.
TWW: What would you tell the aspiring travel writer whose plans are suddenly, if temporarily, grounded?
PT: Aspiring travel writers – aspiring writers of all kinds – need to be passionate readers – not of the new trend-spotting stuff but of the great novels and travel books. Ideally, this aspiring writer reads a biography of (say) Joseph Conrad or Jack London or Rebecca West – all three of whom were travelers – and then reads eight or ten books by Conrad or London or West. It so happens I have done this, with pleasure.
TWW: In what books are you currently finding solace, if any?
PT: I’m reading a biography of H. G. Wells and intend to read or reread six or eight of his novels. I recommend your listeners get a hold of my anthology The Tao of Travel and look at two sections – “Staying Home” (books by people who loved isolation) and “Walking” (books by people who loved hiking and who believe the words “solvitur ambulando” – “it is solved by walking”).
TWW: How you are passing the time in self-isolation?
PT: I have spent my entire writing life – sixty or so years – in self-isolation, doing exactly what I am doing now – reading, writing – and making meals with my wife. Also bike riding. No swimming, though – I am in Hawaii, the beaches are closed.
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Update – 26 May 2020: Jason Wilson, who appeared in this episode, published an article in Guernica today and mentioned having a “change of heart” about his original speculations and predictions. It is worth a read.