I first read Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There: Travels Around Europe when it was first released in 1991. At that age I had a teenager’s omnivorous attitude to books, in that if was made of paper, promised to hold my attention for more than half an hour and take my mind off my HIDEOUS life and UTTERLY EMBARRASSING parents then I would pick it up. I recall that some parts of Bryson’s book I found so funny that I snorted hot Milo out of my nose, all over my Fido Dido nightie.
These were the years of small bookstores and affordable paperbacks; of photocopied zines and newsletters; and before, yes, the internet as we know and use it. It’s hard to imagine a time when most information was accessed via the Dewy Decimal system and the microfiche, but back then (draws on pipe and strokes impressive beard) you read what floated past.
This week I was in the mood for a light read, and picked up a second-hand copy of Neither Here Nor There. It has not lasted the distance for many reasons. So it is with a far more jaundiced – and well-travelled – eye, I ask myself why such a book would be laughed off the slush pile of a publisher in 2012.
These days, Bryson is known for his excellent non-fiction such as A Short History of Nearly Everything and charming/cuddly personality as much as his gentle meanders around Western countries. In Neither Here Nor There, one of his earlier bestsellers, he retraces his student meanderings around Europe with a friend – and there you have it, the premise of the entire book.
For such an accomplished writer, this travel book is marked by a conspicuous paucity of language. Meals are ‘expensive’, vistas are ‘stunning’, and the weather is ‘dismal’. Most sections begin with a phrase like “I returned to the hotel, showered lavishly, changed, and returned back to the town;” sentences that make you wonder why people have turned up to writers’ festivals en masse to hear Bryson speak for over two decades. Like one of his ‘meandering strolls’, Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There reads less like a book and more a repetitive email from an old friend.
But this is not why I think he’d receive more rejection letters than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance today. There’s lots of other lazily-edited, cliché-ridden and flat-out sexist crud on the bestseller shelves. The publishing industry is now a completely different beast – and it’s one that wouldn’t tolerate, nay, be able to afford what Bryson is putting down.
As there’s many more ways to glean information, there are also more ways to see your name in print. Book publishing has become far more cutthroat, and while that doesn’t necessarily equate to better content, it does mean that the most marketable stories – usually the ones that are higher, bigger, or the most heart-rending – are the ones that’ll get a toehold. This ‘extreme’ travel genre just wasn’t around 20 years ago.
Branching out from the ‘white guy dazed in foreign parts’ genre, I’ll call it something like the ‘travels round Africa with a steam calliope, my ex-wife and a dead lemur’ genre, and is favoured by the kind of person who’ll walk and blog for two years (usually for charity) then spend the next five years talking about it. On the road, I’ve discovered these people are thick on the ground. (This sounds like a pointed dig but it’s largely at myself: in 2000 I half-wrote a travel memoir named West Africa on One Bra, and it contained all the whining, poor sentence construction and pointless personal asides you’d expect from a fledgling writer. Thank goodness for everyone that e-publishing wasn’t a big thing back then.)
On that note, self-publishing is no longer the gruesome historical society-ish domain of Comic Sans lovers it once was. It is now a way for legitimate writers who are serious enough about writing and savvy enough about marketing to promote their story in an industry where only a literary agent will get you through to an editor.
Torre De Roche’s self-published Swept was snapped up last year by three major publishers and a film production company, and will be re-released in 2013 as Love With A Chance Of Drowning. In its original format, her novel about sailing with a new lover across the Pacific was a) as polished and well crafted as any book from a professional publisher and b) promoted with all the marketing nous of an experienced designer. It is a book that would not have got up in the publishing and media environment of Neither Here Nor There. It has an engaging hook; Bryson’s does not.
A decent premise must now be forcefully pushed through by individual writers: no longer editors and publishers. The era of armchair tourism, a time when the Travel section of the newspaper was a delight to unfurl, has now gone. Most bylines tell you that the writer was a guest of so-and-so, although you don’t need to be told that by the style and presentation of content. While a PR release was once something scanned for background information, now it is the main event.
There’s no need for us to plow through endless anecdotes of Bryson battling staff at the Thomas Cook office – a million free online sources have already told us not to bring cash at all. From the price and smell of an overnight train to Moscow to how to get a room in Paris in the high season, we already know what awaits us on our international adventures.
With much of the earth covered by bloggers with more Gore-Tex than the population of Everest base camp and more earnest insights than an ashram graduate, it’s a tough sell to get your ideas out there. Let’s face it, in the time since Neither Here Nor There was hastily scribbled down, there’s just so much better stuff out there to read.