Philip Serzo on travel writing
Philip sent me this email, and very generously allowed me to reproduce it:
Tyler,I know you’ve been going back and forth recently on travel writing. I don’t read a ton of travel writing, but I could totally see why it has limitations, like all genres. I say this after studying Graham Greene a favorite writer of mine. He crossed over successfully into many genres of writing. Travel writing being one of them.Here’s my point. Rolf Potts interviews Pico Iyer on a book he wrote about Graham Greene and Pott’s asks this questions below:
One interesting contradiction you raise in your book is how Greene was better at evoking the humanity of faraway places in his fiction than in his nonfiction travel books. You even go so far as to say that “his travel books were a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel.” Why do you think this is the case, and what does it say about Greene’s way of seeing the world?
We are never less forthright than when writing of ourselves; that’s one of the lessons I feel I share with Greene (or maybe partly learned from him). Memoir to me is a kind of fiction, and the most striking autobiographical works I know—whether Philip Roth’s The Facts or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn or V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival—all present themselves as novels. So it’s always seemed perfect to me that in his two quasi-memoirs, Greene uses charm and anecdote and childhood memory to avoid really telling us anything about himself, his loves or his beliefs; yet in his novels, given a mask or cover, he’s as naked and unguarded as any author I know. Give yourself an alias or call your work fiction and you can say things you might not say to your closest friends.
In his travel-writing, likewise, Greene was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he’d seen in Mexico into a novel—The Power and the Glory—he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.
He might be almost offering us—inadvertently—a lesson on the limitations of travel-writing, much as Naipaul or Theroux or Maugham also do in novels that are far more compassionate and sympathetic than the travel-books that gave rise to them. In writing a non-fictional book about travel, you usually have to create a fictional persona of sorts, some convenient version of the self that will make the narrative work. But that front is almost never as rich or deep or conflicted as the self we allow ourselves to entertain in fiction; it can’t be. Very often the travel-writers we enjoy are engaging or buoyant or splenetic on the page, but all those are really just useful props, tiny fragments of the self, and don’t always take us very deep.