Travel writing and the blurry line between fact and fiction

Writing!_by_Markus_Rodder_flickrIs travel writing a lie? That’s a question The Guardian recently posed, looking at some famous examples of travel writers who exaggerated, embellished or even outright lied on occasion.

The Guardian has some solid examples of travel writers’ tendency to, well, exaggerate. Everything from sailors’ tales of sea monsters, to Marco Polo’s did-he-or-didn’t-he legacy have built travel writing on a firm foundation of, if not lies, at least a suspect allegience to the truth.

But what the Guardian does not address is whether or not it matters that travel writers embellish the truth. Does rearranging events so they flow better, inventing characters that provide a bit or humor or otherwise exercising literary license in pursuit of a story mean that the results are somehow less valuable?

Is such travel writing a lie, or is it simply a different story than a documentary film might tell?

Of course I’m thinking of travel writing mainly in book form, making things up for a magazine article purporting to tell where you should go and what you should do in say, Cuba, is an entirely different matter that (hopefully) inspires writers stick to the pure facts.

But when it comes to capturing the sense of a place, is a little embellishment as bad thing? Bruce Chatwin rather famously distorted and misrepresented some of the people he portrayed in his books, but as his biographer once argued, the stories were “not a half truth, but a truth and a half,” and in some respects that sounds a lot like traveling.

The truth of travel is not in the pure facts of a guidebook, if it were there would be no need to leave home. Instead traveling is mash of our own ideas, perceptions and yes, even fictions, meeting with the world around us. That the results inspire many to be creative in telling their stories is testament to the power of traveling not an indictment of those who write about it.

When most of us go to set our impressions down on the page does it matter whether we omit something or add a bit more to something if the final goal is really to capture what it felt like to be there?

Will we, as the Guardian seems to fear, lose something if the fact checking army of the internet is constantly pointing out inconsistencies and inaccuracies in travel books? Perhaps we should just accept travel writing for its results rather than combing through its methods and motivations looking for lies.

[photo credit Markus Rödder, Flickr]

Posted by | Comments (1)  | September 30, 2009
Category: General

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