A little over five years ago, Rolf Potts zipped up his backpack, turned in his key for the hotel room where he'd been holed up on Thailand's Kra Isthmus, and headed back to the United States. The Kansas native, whose new book Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer will be published this month by Travelers' Tales, was heading home after several years of traveling in and around Asia. He spent much of that time working on an award-winning column for Salon, publishing articles in magazines such as National Geographic Adventure and Condé Nast Traveler, and becoming a rising star in the world of travel writing, an increasingly popular genre supported by a growing number of titles on the newsstand.
But not long after he came back to the United States, Potts started to notice that other travel writers working in the genre would turn around and disparage it, a few rejecting the title of "travel writer" outright. In serious literary circles, it seemed, being a travel writer was like admitting you played Dungeons and Dragons or loved REO Speedwagon. At writers conferences, it was called a "trivial genre."
"It was a long infancy for me," says Potts. "I didn't realize that there's sometimes a stigma attached to travel writing. I started traveling around Asia in 1998 and I didn't go home for any substantial amount of time until 2003. I was just this guy sitting in cheap hotels writing stories."
Distanced from American culture, Potts hadn't heard of the "Me and husband Ken" school of travel writing, a derogatory description coined by Tom Swick, author of Unquiet Days at Home in Poland (Ticknor & Fields, 1991); he hadn't paid attention to the kind of writing that Slate writer Jack Schafer later called "standard travel section crap that could have been composed by the local chamber of commerce."
Potts was just trying to write good literary narratives about his travels. He'd been out in the world and struggled to make sense of his experiences, and now he was writing about how the world was changing and how it was changing us. He wasn't the first to try his hand at it.
"I think that tradition goes a long way back," says Jim Benning, editor of WorldHum, the literary travel-writing Web site where Potts is a contributing editor. "People like Hemingway had a huge influence on young writers, with the idea that you go out and have an experience of the world to get your material."