gall and gumption

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Winnebago of the Mind

Years ago I wrote a story that opened with this lede: “Television brought the Grand Canyon to American living rooms. Now the recreational vehicle industry brings American living rooms, occupants and television sets, to the Grand Canyon.”

This travel adventure writer, Rolf Potts, discovers that “travel adventure writing” is actually part of the luxury goods marketing industry.

I'd spent much of the previous three years adventuring through the distant corners of the Asian continent, but this experience had put me at a weird disadvantage in reporting the story. "You're giving us too much geography," my editor would tell me every time I submitted a new list of destination summaries. Readers of Major American Adventure-Travel Magazines, he told me, didn't want to read about journeys that were obscure or complicated; they wanted exotic challenges wherein they might test — or, at least, imagine themselves testing — the extremes of human experience.

For weeks, I had trouble understanding exactly what this meant, and my increasingly irritated editor returned my story drafts marked with comments like, "Is there a helicopter service that can get you there faster?" and, "Would you recommend some cutting-edge outerwear for this kind of trek?" and, "Can you think of any celebrities who've visited the region recently?” In time, I discerned that adventure itself was far less important to the magazine than creating a romanticized sense of adventure — preferably with recommendations on where to buy a cappuccino and a Swedish massage afterwards. The Major American Adventure-Travel Magazine, it seemed, wanted me to create a tantalizing recipe for the exotic and the unexpected, but only the kind of "unexpected" that could be planned in advance and completed in less than three weeks.


But it is funny, the “extremes of human experience” turns out to be an upmarket version of touring in a Winnebago. And then the extreme experiences are basically sensations, since that’s what you can have in a week at some extreme resort. “Adventure travel” of the glossy magazine type is not going to make you into Ibn Battuta. But the sales pitch is what makes it so funny, it’s so egregiously fawning on the imaginary reader: You are tough and pure, nature boy/girl, you are the sort of person who hangs by one hand from the face of a cliff, you sit on mountaintops all alone with your laptop writing poetry, beautiful poetry, you look fabulous in Spandex, you need a Big Expensive SUV to take you to those wide open spaces where you will have deep thoughts, perhaps think up some new kind of backpack buckle or something useful to humanity like that! And African children love you!

In real life it is more like, “Lewis Lapham goes parasailing in Belize.”

I’m sympathetic with Potts, but I cynically also wonder, didn’t he read the magazine? One might equally have asked the editor, “Didn’t you read the sort of thing that Potts writes?” Well, I need to blame somebody. And I guess I’m inclined to blame the editor because the dispute between him and Potts is finally about artistic values. And I prefer Potts' values. I do not find that the world is in danger of being overrun by friendly and humane curiosity about the lives of others.

The non-advertising space of any publication has always been susceptible to encroachments from advertisers. Even in my small experience running those papers in St. Kitts there were advertisers who were always trying to sneak into the news hole and complaining about not getting free space for their press releases. Advertisers who bought full-page ads and who owned a near monopoly in their market, would complain that we weren’t giving them enough free press. It was as if somebody bought half a pound of Camembert cheese at the marked price and then kept hanging around the counter demanding to know why they only got half a pound of cheese at the marked price, why didn’t they get three-quarters of a pound for the price of half a pound. Why did we run the government’s news for free and charge them, etc.? That editors and publishers have capitulated I also do not doubt. Win some, lose some. But it does seem to me that at the minimum an editor was supposed to know the difference, and if he or she was forced into tolerating an encroachment it would be done eyes wide open. What is strange about the adventure travel writer story is that it seems to me that the idea of content has become completely integrated with the idea of marketing. Not marketing the content itself (i.e., write your story about the rain forest so someone will want to read it), but marketing stuff -- massages, luggage, resorts, sunglasses, resortwear, swimming with dolphins, whatever. What is promoted is what can be packaged and sold. Well, granted, a lot of livelihoods depend on the marketing of tourism products.

Moreover, the people who have the kind of money to go on these exotic travel adventures don’t have a lot of time. To spend months on the edge of Burma you can’t have another business to run. Fair enough, you know? And then, maybe travel magazines are a sort of window-shopping vehicle for the tourism industry, which has, you know, an enormous marketing apparatus. So I can’t entirely blame the magazines. Is this what people really want? I don’t know. For myself, I’ve always had rather mixed feelings about tourism. I grew up in Jamaica, my grandparents had a hotel in Montego Bay, and I always felt rather superior to the tourist kids who came to stay. What they paid to visit belonged to us. Not just the hotel, but most of Jamaica, where at that time there was a lot less tourism development than there is now, and where we were free to go to all sorts of places that were just open and a bit wild. I don't want it all turned into an amusement park. When I was a child I went to places that were scary because the unmediated past was right at my feet -- picking sea grapes in the old yellow-fever cemetery just outside Port Royal, sliding down the floor of the old armory that got tilted in the great earthquake and then just stayed that way. The idea of everything being packaged up for consumers of the tourism product is depressing to me, even when I recognize that tourism supplies jobs and training, and even preserves certain natural and historic resources. I try not to travel as a tourist. When I travel my imagination runs away with me, I start imagining my ideal life there and then I want to get busy at it. I want to settle in and have a little routine (half an hour writing in the morning, or reading, or drawing, or something combined with intense people-watching), be part of it, not someone wandering through it and staring at things for a certain prescribed amount of time. I want to get lost and I want to talk with people, regular people, about real stuff like work and politics and prices or their plans for their kids. Or I want to go explore some nature. My usual vision of doing these things is of me alone. The feeling of being part of a group of sightseers or adventure-seekers, being buckled into our seats by Winston, lord. No no no. Except one day I’m going to go on one of them there painting holidays.

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