David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing” should be required reading for both travel writers and advertisers. Here’s why.

I JUST FINISHED rereading David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and was reminded how revolutionary this story is, how much context it provides, both in terms of travel narrative and the travel industry in general. Going on two decades since publication, it still seems like a futuristic form of travel writing.

With this story as an illustration, I’d like to address the following points:

      (a) There is an insane gap between the kinds of media that sophisticated readers (or to advertisers: potential consumers) are looking for, and the lame PR releases and insipid hotel / restaurant reviews beaten to death by most travel publishers and their advertisers.
      (b) The answer for closing that gap isn’t that complicated: as always, we need ass-kicking stories and media.
      (c) With the right model (which we’ll examine below), and by simple brand association, everyone benefits: readers get entertaining and meaningful stories; trip sponsors get real and meaningful exposure of products and services; writers, photographers, and filmmakers get real and meaningful assignments.

    “A Supposedly Fun Thing” and new school travel writing

    For those who haven’t read it, “A Supposedly Fun Thing” originally ran in Harper’s as “Shipping Out” in 1996. You can read it here in Harper’s archives.

    In the piece itself, DFW explains:

    From 11 to 18 March 1995 I, voluntarily and for pay [from Harper’s] underwent a 7-Night Caribbean (7NC) Cruise on board the m.v.Zenith, a 47,255-ton ship owned by Celebrity Cruises Inc., one of the over twenty cruise lines that currently operate out of south Florida.

    DFW reports on literally everything — from intricacies of passengers’ and crew-members’ behavior to technical aspects of the ship’s towel service and vacuum sewage system — in encyclopedic, almost acid trip-like detail.

    The overall theme though, what DFW keeps orbiting around as he tests out deck chairs and water pressure, is the psychology of a 7NC Cruise as a kind of postmodern “product.”

    With a few minor niche-adaptive variations, the 7NC Luxury Cruise is essentially generic. All of the Megalines offer the same basic product. This product is not a service or a set of services. It’s not even so much a good time (though it quickly becomes clear that one of the big jobs of the Cruise Director and his staff is to keep reassuring everybody that everybody’s having a good time). It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product — it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb “to pamper.”

    It’s interesting to note that DFW’s narration is itself postmodern (or what I tend to think about more as simply “new school”) in that he’s constantly self-aware and transparent about his story also being a “product,” a paid assignment from Harper’s. In fact there’s nothing in the whole story he’s not radically and fearlessly transparent about, which seems to be precisely what trip sponsors (and strangely, most travel writers) are scared shitless of.

    Commercialism and colonialism

    The lack of transparency in most travel writing is unsettling because so often it leads to a kind of colonialism. This can take the form of objectification, stereotyping, and/or appropriations of the very cultures the writer is attempting to report on. Instead of speaking about the writer’s personal experience, the non-transparent narrator often (and often unwittingly) speaks “for” the people he visits. Here are some common patterns:

    • viewing places simply as products or commodities
    • objectifying people and cultures as if they were some kind of tourist “offering”
    • looking at places as “destinations” without any kind of historical context
    • reducing characters in a story into cardboard cutouts

    Take for example this bit of prose from one of this week’s feature stories at a well-known “indie-traveler” website:

    There’s something about the colors of the Caribbean Sea that can hold your gaze until your eyes sting. Add sugar white sands, palms perfect for slinging up a hammock and water sports galore and you have all the trappings of a great indie travel destination..at least in principle. The reality of many of the Caribbean islands is that big hotel development has scarred the beachfronts, bringing designer price tags and creating a package travel haven that most indie travelers would jet-ski a mile from.

    Fear not. If your inner-Christopher Columbus craves discovery without the cost and the crowds, it’s still possible. You just have to approach the Caribbean from another side – Central America.

    What’s lacking here is transparency. Who is the narrator? What’s he or she doing here? What is his or her connection to the place? Who are the characters? Who is this “inner-Christopher Columbus”?

    In “A Supposedly Fun Thing” there’s not one character — no matter how minor — reduced to scenery or cast as some kind of tableau for the narrator’s actions. Instead everyone who crosses DFW’s path is essentially immortalized. There’s Petra the cabin steward. There’s the 12-Aft Towel Guy. There’s Father DeSandre, the ship’s parson. There’s Winston, the Official Cruise Deejay and Ping Pong Pro. There’s Captain Nico. There are fellow passenger eccentrics such as “Captain Video.” There’s DFW’s tablemates, including his favorite, Trudy.

    I honestly don’t know why travel writers (and let’s throw in travel bloggers as well) fail to bring other characters into their stories in a transparent way. Part of it might be a basic lack of journalistic training, the reporter’s 101 of getting names, dates, titles, facts. Or it might be they’re just afraid of pissing people off – worried about “biting the hand that feeds them” if they actually state for the record how, for example, the hotel manager was a super prick, or that their six nights at the premier tiger reserve was actually an unexpected look at big game trophy hunting. The most cynical part of me believes that “travel writing” and “travel blogging” have simply been codified, homogenized, partly in capitulation to what writers, editors, and publishers think advertisers want to hear.

    Whatever the root cause, the end result is that pieces like the inner-Christopher Columbus thing above sound like advertising even when they’re not. They become, as DFW calls them, “essaymercials.”

    And this is where everything begins to fail, both in terms of writing as well as, ironically, commercialization. More on that in a minute.

    Responsibility to reader vs. responsibility to sponsor

    In one of the most hilarious sections of “A Supposedly Fun Thing,” DFW reviews the narrative nonfiction piece “My Celebrity Cruise,” by writer Frank Conroy. This “essaymerical” is featured in — as DFW describes it — “Celebrity’s fiendish brochure.” Conroy’s writing is a “breathless approval” of everything about the ideal cruise experience, with “service impeccable in every aspect” and surroundings that include “bright sun, warm still air, the brilliant blue-green of the Caribbean under the vast lapis lazuli dome of the sky. ”

    But what’s insidious about the essay, as DFW explains, is the lack of transparency: it’s never mentioned how Conroy was actually paid by the company to go on the cruise and write about it.

    …Celebrity Cruises is presenting Conroy’s review of his 7NC Cruise as an essay and not a commercial. This is extremely bad. Here is the argument for why it’s bad. Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisement’s primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interest of its sponsor.

    New school readers / consumers / ads and marketing

    In my opinion, what has changed between when this essay was published (’96) and now, going on two decades (and an entire generation growing up with the Internet) later, is the “relatively high level of openness and credulity” with which a potential reader might regard anything — essay, ad, whatever it is.

    At this point, unless we’re talking about a book or magazine, everything is just one more url. We get our media and information online, and in this realm, everything is just another page to quickly scan for relevance, possibly bookmark, like, or share via social media, and then move on.

    Whether cognizant of it or not, most people (especially those under 30) who spend considerable time online are already pseudo marketing experts (oftentimes seemingly more sophisticated than your average professional marketer at an ad network.) They’re continuously constructing, refining, adding to their personal brands online via their FB profiles, their Tumblr and Twitter presences, their personal blogs. And the more savvy they are, typically the more alienated they’ll be by content that’s even vaguely commercial.

    In other words, nobody’s sharing advertorials and essaymericals. They’re irrelevant by definition. People share what’s relevant to them and real. New school marketing and advertising — people that are getting it right — aren’t trying to sell anything. They’re just creating kick-ass content that people will share.

    A great example of this is Intel and Vice’s Creator’s Project. A “global network dedicated to the celebration of creativity, culture and technology,” what it really comes down to is rad artists and musicians transparently sharing their projects without being creatively beholden to anyone. The Creator’s Project works off brand association. I’m not sure what Intel has to do with Michael Stipe or Diplo, but Intel’s profile as a brand just seems cooler via the association.

    A similar formula has worked for years at Red Bull. You could probably construe some kind of oblique connection between uber-athletes and their lifestyle enhancement vis-a-vis high-powered beverages, but my guess is that most of the Red Bull athletes get sick of drinking that shit after the first two or three cases. No matter: the drink is relevant through the culture that Red Bull creates through sick events and media.

    The “Rock Star / Pro Athlete” model for travel media

    Once you really start thinking about brand association, you realize that it doesn’t matter whether something is positively or negatively “reviewed.” What matters is that — positive or negative — it stays relevant to the audiences and brands you want associated with it.

    Here’s how this works in the case of “A Supposedly Fun Thing”: I basically abhor cruises. For whatever reason I was born “anti-pampering.” And yet, rereading “A Supposedly Fun Thing” got me thinking about cruises. It kept Celebrity Cruises, as a brand, relevant (albeit barely) for me. It made me remember their name.

    This is what the service industry around travel, as well as advertisers and publishers, need to realize: It’s not about getting a good hotel review. It’s about treating the writer as rock star, the photographer as pro athlete, the filmmaker as artist. It’s about respecting their responsibility to the reader and realizing that even if they do immortalize your hotel manager as the super prick he is, that readers will talk about this. They’ll relate your brand with balls. Or whatever it is. They’ll look at it as contributing to truth and culture. And they’ll love it for that. This is the new school.