Walking A Thin Line

I have read a fair amount of travel books, many of which purport to be books of humor, and I have found it to be one of those areas where the writer tends to walk a thin line between insulting themselves or others to an unpleasant and awkward degree or making the reader jealous of his or her travels.  Reading travel humor is one of those activities that reveals a great deal of information about ourselves relative to the writer.  Can we relate to the perspective of the writer?  Does the writer’s humor touch our funny bone at least a little?  Is there a proper balance between sarcasm and wonder that expresses the joy of travel as well as the frustrations when things don’t go well?  I have found that speaking personally, I don’t tend to find much cause for being envious of others.  I have traveled enough that even when I read essays or books by people who have traveled more or traveled differently, I don’t feel a consuming sense of envy about their experiences.  Rather, I tend to think what sort of potential travels I would like to do in the future if time and resources permit.

Why is travel writing such a tricky genre?  For one, it consists of the framing of situations and experiences in such a way that it demonstrates the character of the writer and seeks to convey a complex set of emotions to the reader.  There is an expectation that the writer has gone somewhere that is intriguing and has experienced something that is worth telling.  The reader is then placed in the spot of deciding whether or not the place or experience was worth writing about.  At times writers are seeking not only to convey travel experiences to the reader but also put other people down, be it the people of a particular place (this happens a lot in travel writings about the United States), or be it different types of travel writers who the writer disagrees with.  Often travel writing carries with it a sense of polemic that makes it hard to appreciate when one does not share the same sort of assumptions and worldview as the author.  Likewise, an author may go on a quest for something that the reader cannot relate to, thus making the mock heroic tone of the writing go flat.

Once one has written someone, it is impossible to know for sure exactly who will read it.  Perhaps no one will; some things, many things, have been written that no one has picked up or downloaded and read and responded to.  There are other books and essays that are read by people who clearly do not appreciate it, and who the author has never thought of writing to.  When we write a letter, we have some idea in mind of the specific person we are writing to and what we want to say, but even here we can be misunderstand and even here other people may read and interpret what has been written beyond the intentions of the author.  At times this can mean that a writer who thought one was writing to a niche audience was instead reaching a mass audience, most likely because a book led to an appearance on NPR or because an essay was anthologized in a popular series.  And a writer can feel a great deal of pleasure about having reached more people, while at the same time being concerned about the way that writing will be responded to by people who are outside of a certain target audience that shares the concern and perspective of the author.

It must be admitted that this is not an issue with travel writing alone.  Much critical writing about books and music and movies depends both on the context of a work (especially when seen with others) and the particular worldview of the writer.  Most writings come with some sort of agenda attached to them–and we are to be considered fortunate when this agenda is open and honest rather than hidden or denied.  That said, even though many other writing genres require a delicate balance between different approaches, few genres of writing possess the pitfalls of travel humor.  After all, it is a straightforward thing to tell an honest story of one’s travels from the quirky but authentic point of view of the writer, as crazy things are always happening when one is in unfamiliar territory and not entirely sure of the rules on the ground.  Even so, such writing may not aim at being funny, and the desire to make others laugh can often distort the authenticity of what we have to say, and lead to false assumptions about what it is about our travel writing that makes others laugh.  The dogged determination of someone looking for kow soy on their birthday may be humorous, but a more obvious attempt at humor may look like pandering and may fail to hit the target.  Such is the risk of aiming at humor.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Walking A Thin Line

  1. Catharine E. Martin says:

    The easiest places to joke about travel are during the crazy transfers, going through customs or funny experiences during the flights. It’s much more difficult to gauge humor in one’s experiences in other countries, because what may seem silly or funny in one culture may be offensive, demeaning, or simply misunderstood in another. The humor may not even register for those not used to traveling. Like you said, it’s important to remain truthful and, at the same time, let the laugh lines register. I would consider the time I ran to the other end of the Orlando airport carrying a black and white TV set (my carry-on) to catch the connecting flight (I just made it!) as humorous, because it creates quite a visual. Phew!

    • Yes, I would agree that a black and white television makes for a humorous carry on in a story. For some people, the carrying of canes or musical instruments would be funny, whereas that would be a fairly ordinary example of travel for me. Indeed, the whole subject of what one brings on a plane or in one’s luggage can potentially be funny. But being honest without being offensive can be a very difficult task.

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