When it comes to literature, I’m an Orwellian.
And no, I’m not referring to 1984 or Animal Farm, two perfectly fine novels that are the sum total of what most American schoolkids know about the English language’s pre-eminent essayist, George Orwell.
I’m talking the Great Master’s definition of good and bad writing in his landmark essay “Politics and the English Language.”
Orwell’s prime enemy was vagueness, dullness, and cliché. In his formulation, either you’re choosing language or language chooses you. Or as Orwell puts it:
Modern writing at its worst does not consist of picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images to make their meaning clearer. It consists of gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by somebody else.
The above also happens to be an accurate description of travel writing at its worst. A casual stroll down TripAdvisor Lane turns up several typical clichés of the genre. Just as day follows night, so too are opportunities “unique,” gems “cultural,” cares “left at the door,” drinks “cool,” rooms “clean and comfortable,” etc. etc.
In Orwell’s own travel writing, he would often act out his theories by purposefully contrasting precisely observed and vague, formulaic travel writing. For example, in his reminiscence of an adventure in colonial India, “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell draws a memorably horrific portrait of an Indian man crushed by an elephant: “He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me by the way, that the dead look peaceful.)”
The humanity of this passage creates a vivid contrast with an earlier intentionally cliché description — Indian natives as “a sea of yellow faces” — which enacts the racism inherent in lazy writing.
Similarly, in his essay “Marrakech,” Orwell begins by describing Morocco in telling detail, such as a corpse passing a restaurant where “the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.” Moments later, he parodies the vagueness of the privileged tourist mindset: “The people have brown faces… Are they really the same flesh as yourself?”
Later, Orwell unmasks his true purpose: “In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything but the human beings… where the human beings have brown skins their poverty is simply not noticed.”
His lesson here is that good travel writers must push through their vague, cliché, and even racist presuppositions about a foreign place. Instead, by relying on their senses, they can see their subject clearly.
The trouble is, Orwell’s approach takes a writer only so far. In both the essays above, when Orwell trains his powerful and sensitive eye on Indians and Moroccans, he sees… the reflections of white men in their eyes. His essays give adroit impressions of a radical humanitarian from England earnestly doing his best to imagine how he is being viewed by an Other. Yet Orwell misses a deep sense of what the lives of those Others are like when there are no white men for them to look at. It’s as if there’s no point in their lives when dark-skinned natives are not thinking of themselves in relation to privileged white-skinned visitors.
I fear the question that the Great Master isn’t asking is: Can you trust that you’re really seeing what you’re seeing? In other words, just because you see something, does that mean it’s there?
It’s easy to sympathize with Orwell’s good intentions and powerfully stated message. And in fact, the “I was there and this is what I experienced approach” is a standard trope of travel writers, particularly young travel writers.
But truly perceptive travel writing requires a more complex perspective, yo-yoing back and forth between what is perceived by the senses and what is learned through the work of intellect, between direct experience and secondary research.
The travel writer who relies too heavily on either extreme is missing the proverbial boat.
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Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his short story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN'S HEAD (Random House), also nominated for a Violet Quill Award. His next book, a novel titled FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (Random House), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Poets and Writers, Tin House, Details, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, and the Village Voice. He has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy, as well as residencies from Yaddo and Djerassi. He has also taught writing at Columbia University, NYU, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.
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