Many hard working editors simply don’t have the time, resources or the managerial directive to read large quantities of submitted material. What might be wrong with the industry if editors can’t or won’t read, or limit their reading to established players, or a stable of approved writers that only fit the parameters of the editorial calendar? It is far easier to fill a story slotted for x promotion or y feature with someone who knows just what the editor wants but that is not the same thing as delivering good travel writing to the public. It is, rather, filling a particular corporate need.
Some of the greatest stories I have uncovered and enjoyed have been sent to me out of the blue. If I relied simply on query letters or a stable of approved veterans, I might never have come into contact with those writers and missed out on some truly great travel writing. Some of these stories have, of course, found their way into the annual Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing anthologies and as the intake editor, so to speak, for these books, I also tend to read some awful travel writing. So you take the good with the bad, but the gems sorted from the detritus of good intentions, and experiences that take place all over the map, makes it all worthwhile.
The more I’ve reflected the more I’ve come to feel that most magazine and newspaper travel writing is just window dressing for the selling of advertising. How else to explain the creeping blandness that characterizes so many travel articles? The bigger names in travel writing, whose writing is truly excellent, seems to serve only to bring in additional readers for the purpose of seeing more advertising—not as any kind of exercise in support of the encouragement of good writing.
This is not a new observation but as I thought about some of the non-responses I have received over the years and I am sure many other writers have received from editors regarding queries or stories submitted for established calls, the linkage of non-reading and the kind of excellence that one associates with top-notch travel writing seems marked.
What seems particularly appalling to me is that many of the publications owned by self-avowed liberal corporations or well-heeled owner publishers who consider themselves social activists are among the worst offenders. They appear only to think of newspaper and magazine travel sections in terms of dollars and profitability, rather than in terms of literary or social excellence. Where is the support for the Arts that these champions of a whole range of social issues seem to overlook when consulting with sharp-eyed accountants who care little or nothing for anything that does not provide an immediate contribution to the bottom line? Have any of them ever stopped to consider why some Japanese corporations have two-hundred- and even five-hundred-year business plans?
Editors take their cues from management and if management is only concerned with grunting out copy that serves corporate needs but does not seek to expand the terrain of excellence, then editors will act accordingly. So what I am suggesting is that the problem is not so much with editors as with moral leadership in publishing. Let me give you a sideways example that points in the direction of the kind of moral imperative that I’m attempting to illustrate. I am painting with a broad brush but the same kind of hypocrisy, for example, that balks at the use of four letter words on book covers and yet sees nothing wrong with the most obscene material inside a relatively innocuous cover, is illustrative of the problem as a whole. Publishers and distributors have few genuine, moral concerns about content but are most definitely concerned about the perception of browsing readers who might be offended by book covers or certain socially unacceptable words. The point being that it is only a monetary and not a moral concern. Likewise, the notion of excellent writing in terms of stories told, dramas unfolded, adventures recounted and lessons learned as a requirement for good story telling seems to be an afterthought in the designing of editorial calendars.
Clearly there are some publications that are driven by bite-sized information and quick glosses and there is nothing wrong with that. However, without a penchant for telling stories that have meaning and relevance for the hearts and souls of readers what you end up with are flat or tired recollections of visits to locations that have all the charm of a post office. Worse, there is a cheerleader undertone to some travel writing that is simply site propaganda. Capturing the heart and soul of a location with a bit of history, not just gleaned from brochures, and weaving in the way that experiences lead to personal change makes a place come alive. That kind of writing is an art and the current economic climate for travel writing in magazines and newspapers simply does not support that artistry.
The moral dimension of how things are and how they should be in America, alluded to recently by Barack and Michelle Obama (and many conservatives for that matter) is a realm outside the jingle of shekels and repetitive mantras about the bottom line. The moral dimension, i.e., how things should be as opposed to how they are, needs to be invoked a more often in regards to literary excellence in travel writing, book reviewing and any other area that is part of the creative and driving edge of modern literature. As Elizabeth Drew, former correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker noted: “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.”
How might we live more intensely through reading and writing and deliver on the unstated premise of excellence that writing lends itself to? What might make this a greater possibility rather than a declining option for SATW members? Editors and readers might also ask, what should be as opposed to the current state of what is? One of the virtues described by Aristotle is the virtue of magnificence, i.e., the ability and will to expend funds both in the private and public realm for the purpose of enabling magnificent and worthy projects. Might I suggest that our corporate leaders in the publishing world consider magnificence the next time they consult the bottom line? The full funding of book review and travel sections might be just such an exercise in magnificence.
We have been so overcome by the politics of scarcity that we forget that this kind of financial niggardliness is directly opposed to the virtue of magnificence. How about the politics of abundance? That is real liberalism, not the current whining about inequity that always looks to the government rather than the private sector to lead the way. Imagine what someone like Richard Branson of Virgin might do with travel sections…think Patron, think full funding for travel writing in magazines and newspapers. What would this do to our industry if we were able to move in this direction? I raise these issues because they can help us define ourselves, who we want to be and where we would like our industry to go. If I seem a tad cranky—well I am. I’ve watched budgets and opportunities shrink over the past 15 years.
At Travelers’ Tales/Solas House we have tried to imbibe the spirit of literary excellence and magnificence since our founding in 1993. We have won over 40 literary awards. Consequently, we try to support writing that we think is wonderful and possibly life-changing because we believe that it is important to support new writers and established writers alike. Has it been profitable? Not always and definitely not so in today’s current financial climate.
We are involved in this kind of publishing not only because it is, in a sense, the right thing to do but because magnificence and liberalism (in the sense of generosity) invite us to act in this way. We are dedicated to this business because we live more intensely by getting involved with writers, their journeys and their dreams and aspirations. And really, it is a lot of fun. Think of it as a kind of leadership from the bottom up.
Sean O’Reilly is director of special sales and editor-at-large for Travelers’ Tales. He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor with a degree in Psychology. Author of the groundbreaking book on men’s behavior, How to Manage Your DICK, he is also the inventor of a safety device known as Johnny Upright. Widely traveled, he most recently completed a journey through China, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. He lives in Virginia with his wife and six children.