George Saunders on travel and travel writing

Until I read the 2006 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, I wasn’t all that familiar with the nonfiction work of George Saunders, author of fiction tomes like In Persuasion Nation and Pastoralia. As it turned out, there was a reason for this: His story in the anthology, a dispatch from Dubai for GQ, was basically the first true travel piece he’d ever written, after years of writing short stories.

I learned this fact from a recent Saunders interview with Frank Bures in World Hum. In the Q&A, I particularly enjoyed his analysis of how — by concentrating on small perspectives — travel writing reveals things about places that the standard news media overlooks:

There was always a moment when I was overreaching, where I said, “Ergo, based on my time here, one must conclude…” And then I’d think: Hold on, you’ve been here three days. Speaking scientifically, you’re working from a limited data set. And this should inform your level of confidence in your conclusions. As long as you explain and understand the limits of your study, you’re okay. If you go to Baghdad for one day, and hang around a video arcade, and then write, “Baghdad is composed of purely young men playing video games”—well, you’re a dope. You’ve been overtrustful of your own experience. But if you say, “Well, I was only there for three days, but here’s an interesting slice of life, and it probably has no bearing on what was going on in terms of the war, but it’s part of it—a valid part of what Baghdad is at this moment”—well, that seems fair. For me this travel writing has been interesting because it makes you realize how much the information that we get via our media is predetermined by the minds of the people who report it. And I can see that in myself. You go on this trip and you have this idea. And if you don’t know enough to unclench a little, it would be very easy to miss or ignore the things that contradict your theory. In other words, you are clinging to those factoids or images that support your theory, and rejecting whatever doesn’t. It becomes circular.

Saunders also shares some interesting perspectives on travel writing in a recent interview for the Bat Segundo Show, writer Edward Champion’s series of podcast interviews with literary authors.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | November 4, 2007
Category: Travel News

One Response to “George Saunders on travel and travel writing”

  1. Tim Patterson Says:

    Agreed – Saunders is an outstanding writer. His piece on Dubai completely blew me away. Wish there was more of his stuff available online…