Transcending the Navel and Other Thoughts on Quality Control

Sat, September 09, 2006

First person travel writing often walks a fine line between navel-gazing and “journalism” - the former being an easy rut to fall into given that travel can be a very personal, transformative experience.  I find the genre to be uneven. One could argue that if publication is your goal (which it certainly needn’t be) there’s some obligation to either be a strong writer or be adding some relevant ideas to the already saturated media-sphere. I’ve often thought published travel writing founders under this kind of scrutiny—and of all genres—gets a wide berth on quality. I guess stories can bounce along on their outrageous antics (scaling peaks, attacked by barracudas etc.) and skirt editorial filters. (Whoa—here come the emails saying what a crappy travel writer I am. Okay fire-away. I’ve strapped on my titanium insult deflector/ego protector mask).

Anyway, all this is to say I was pleased to review Charles Montgomery’s The Shark God (having nothing to do with sharks by the way) in a recent NYTBR. Positively poochy with history and anthropology, the book tells the story of a guy who goes to explore the South Pacific—the archipelago his missionary great grandfather sailed off to evangelize nearly a hundred years ago. Montgomery starts out looking for ‘heathens,’ and magic and is appropriately horrified at great grampa, and his cohorts’, legacies. But he ends up excavating deeper, more thoughtful themes such as 1) how to get faith without being suckered, and 2) the power of myth (slightly different from Moyers).

Speaking of writing from the road, we’ll be doing a NZ South Island writing workshop this winter. And some of our favorite reads in this genre come from the fine anthologies in the Adventura imprint of Seal Press.

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