The Place to Be – the rise of place-based writing

Recently I joined veteran travel journalist Simon Calder and ex-BBC producer Mick Webb again for their popular podcast on travel, You Should Have Been There. The topic they put to me was arresting, and one I hadn’t considered before: how do non-fictional and fictional journeys differ, in literature? Are so-called travel writing and writing about travel in novels really so different, Calder and Webb proposed, and which mode might be ‘better’?

            I’ve been thinking a lot recently about writing about place, and in fact am working on a book about this. ‘Place-based’ writing has replaced travel writing as a category, in part because of concerns about travel writing’s legitimacy, specifically its roots in colonialism. There are other, linked, suspicions about it: questions about who has the socio-economic means to travel and the clout to have their voices published, as opposed to the people who actually live in the places they write about. Travel writing has long been about means and access, one way or the other, as well as steeped in the project of translating a ‘foreign’ reality to a better-provisioned, often complacent audience.

           On the other hand, most of us are travellers, at some point in our lives. Experience is often organised around or shaped by journeys, whether physical or metaphorical. During the Coronavirus pandemic the importance of travel to our sense of well-being and our ability to learn and understand the world became starker. Place-based writing could be the bridge we need to move on, aesthetically and formally, to place place (repetition deliberate) at the centre of the story. Place-writing also has vectors into nature writing and writing about the environment. As a category its main appeal is to try to render our affinities with physical places and to capture the subjective reality of how we respond to physical locales, whether landscapes, areas, nations or notional places such as ‘home’.

            My research for the podcast sent me to my bookshelves, to scour them for examples of both travel writing and writing about travel in fiction. The worthwhile ‘travel writing’ was easy to spot. From classics by pioneering women writers (No Hurry to Get Home by Emily Hahn, West with the Night by Beryl Markham) to those who were also novelists but who excel in writing about place such as Bruce Chatwin and DH Lawrence, to under-appreciated writers such as Shiva Naipaul and his classic on travelling in east Africa, North of South, to reportage by George Orwell and Martha Gellhorn, there were plenty of examples.

          Fiction was harder. I picked out A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, for its evocations of India and the migrant Canadian experience, to modernist classics such as Death in Venice by Thomas Mann and Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, in which Venice and London supersede setting to become agents and even characters, to Paul Bowles’ commanding, spectral Sahara desert in The Sheltering Sky, to WG Sebald’s mephitic Norfolk coast in The Rings of Saturn.

         At the risk of disappointing Mick and Simon, I decided it was impossible to choose which mode of writing about so-called travel was best. But I had a more profound and useful realisation: as our awareness of climate change and the seismic footprint of our influence on the non-human world grows, place-based writing has a role in transcending genre, to become part of an intellectual and aesthetic shift toward transhumanism, in which writing migrates away from focussing solely on human experience, conflict and consciousness.

        On a dark late afternoon just before Christmas, we met to record the podcast in the quietest public hotel bar we could find, in Bloomsbury. I previewed to Mick and Simon my theory that place functions very differently in non-fiction and fiction. In writing about place, including travel writing, the journey is the destination and the purpose; the journey is everything. People read travel literature for a number of reasons – vicarious movement is certainly one of them – but the most common is, I think, to see a place through someone else’s eyes. Any good writing allows the reader to see the world anew. In fiction on the other hand, place functions as a metaphor. (Metaphor is in fact the only real difference between fiction and non-fiction, along with character.) In novels and short stories, human dilemma generates the necessary drama. Place or travel are often either a backdrop or a narrative crutch. Moving people around is a way to get something to happen or to generate dramatic heat. With place-based writing, the human consciousness, in the form of the writer and the personages they present, real, fictional or composite, share the fore-stage with place.

         The fact is, place is hard to render in writing. It is not about description, adjectives, attention to detail, observational prowess, interpretive writing, specificity, knowledge of Linnaean classification systems, botany, zoology, history, although such tactics abound in nature writing. I am not immune to the weird rapture of taxonomy. But naming is not the same as knowledge, it is only its detritus. What it takes to write about a place is to tune into its frequency. Like people, places broadcast a certain energy which is utterly unique. Drama must be excavated from place; it is there, latent, but it must be discovered. It’s a matter of focus. The animate does not have the same energy as the inanimate; one is kinetic, unstable, and the other eternal.

       During our conversation before we began recording, I mentioned a book to Mick and Simon that I admired almost above all others for its rendition of place: Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropology-memoir-travelogue masterwork. In it, he offers a masterclass in what is known in ethnographic circles as thick description.  In ‘’Part Two: Travel Notes”, over nearly ten pages Levi-Strauss documents a sunset he witnessed – or experienced, better said – in the middle of the Atlantic while travelling by ship from Marseille to Santos, Brazil:

              'At 5.40pm the sky, to the west, seemed to be cluttered with a complex structure, which was perfectly horizontal in its lower part, like the sea, and indeed one might have thought that it had become detached from the sea through some incomprehensible movement upwards from the horizon, or had been separated from it through the insertion between them of a thick, invisible layer of crystal…still higher in the sky, streaks of dappled blondness were decomposing into nonchalant twists which seemed devoid of matter and purely luminous in texture.'

           You can hear the scientific exactitude in his prose. He mixes empirical, scientific rationalism (‘perfectly horizontal’) with a sense of astonishment, even scepticism (‘incomprehensible movement upwards’) that the natural world could produce such a phenomenon. He records, with a doubtful rectitude, his enchantment:

          'Night is the beginning of a false spectacle: the sky changes from pink to green, but this is because certain clouds, without my noticing it, have become bright red and so, by contrast, make the sky seem green, although it was undoubtedly pink, but so place a pink that he shades could not withstand the extreme intensity of the new colour, which, however, had not struck me, sine the transition from gold to red causes less surprise than the transition from pink to green. And so night comes on as if by stealth.'

         Note how he records the gaps in his perception, his lapses of attentiveness, his inability to process what he sees. Unlike most contemporary nature writers, he doesn’t hesitate to admit his lack of certainty while recording the sublime experience of being stunned into incomprehension by the effortless beauty generated by nature. Note too how the twist in the cloud Lévi-Strauss sees is not delicate or wispy, but nonchalant – a human characteristic of devil-may-careness donated to a pile of vapour. We are alive in a zone of ephemerality, uncapturable, he suggests, and this transient ferocity is what distinguishes the human will from the vast arena it cannot control. Lévi-Strauss not only transports us to the nadir of a tropical afternoon at sea. He builds it, like a bricklayer, piece by piece. In his hesitant, stunned prose we are caught in the reverse thrust of the sunset’s vortex. We hear the fume of the eternal in his forensic notes, the understanding that places carry on, implacable, without us – especially wild and inaccessible places.

        Places just are, ultimately. To over-interpret them is another form of appropriation, even a colonisation of a kind. Sometimes, a writer can read, translate and render the spirit of a place. This is the task; to interpret the quality and intensity of the land, to diagnose what it is trying to tell you, but more than this, to simply listen to the frequency of its being.

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