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Does Sick Sell? Travel Writing from the Gut

By Marcy Gordon

Are young Americans pushing the limits of acceptable journalistic content just for the potential shock value? It may look that way if you have read any of the new wave of travel scribes posting dispatches from distant lands. The forefathers of the modern travel writing genre, Richard Halliburton, H. V. Morton and Sir Richard Burton, set out in search of a specific story that in turn yielded insight to a greater aspect of themselves or some universal truth. But now a new generation of travel writers seems to be firmly planted in its own point of view and experience regardless of the surroundings. “It’s all about me!” is the battle cry – and it’s selling. A perfect example is the best-selling women’s travel humor series edited by Jennifer Leo – a thirty-something with a penchant for the risqué and slightly perverted side of things. Her underwear-titled anthologies (Sand in My Bra, Whose Panties Are These? and The Thong Also Rises) are collections of women’s travel stories that range from a simple dream trip gone wrong, to misadventures that straddle the line between casual introspection and a startling array of bodily dysfunctions.

Both sexes appear to be inspired by the ubiquitous gross-out humor of the broadcast media, thus we get a whole collection of stories that border on the grotesque. Big names like Tim Cahill and Laurie Notario are grouped with lesser-knowns, but the formula for many is the same. Where can I go to get my self into the most unexpected or outrageous situation? Since there is less of a chance to discover something truly new in the world these days, writers must pull something out of thin air to differentiate themselves and often do so by plumbing the intensely personal aspects of their journey with a disturbing amount of detail. Yet oddly enough, the results have the effect of a train wreck – one is mesmerized by the spectacle.

With the proliferation of travel blogs and instant updates accessible from around the world, the craft has become more Mac-Nuggeted by virtue of its immediate nature. It’s often superficial navel gazing for the marketing appeal of it all than a thoughtful reflection back into a time and place. Instead of running with the bulls in Pamplona the new breed travel writer is more likely to write of dashing to the loo with the runs after drinking too many Red Bulls.

Travelers’ Tales publisher James O’Reilly feels the travelogue market has gone through a re-birth of sorts with more titles and anthologies than ever competing for space on the shelves. “It seems that after the tech bubble burst every ex-dot-com kid took their severance pay and hit the road. Now the stories are coming in and many of them are quite good. We try to give a variety of voices the chance to be heard from the seasoned writer to the fledgling scribbler. We don’t intentionally go for the gross but we don’t shy away from it either and sometimes the funniest things are quite sick,” claims O’Reilly.