Two Shelves, One Book

Not literary theory

A huge room with art... everywhere

Image does *not* capture what this establishment is like. ARTISANworks in Rochester, NY. September 2018

Reading time: 4 minutes

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July 21st at 9:22am

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People would rather eat lead paint chips than talk about literary theory.

I will not be serving up colorful flecks of poison today. I need to discuss a dilemma, though, and it brushes up against the theoretical - but only a little. I promise.

Two types, simplified

Travel literature usually sits on the smallest shelf of a bookstore. Furthermore, that shelf is divided among two kinds of writing: service and memoir.

I have always thought that a good memoir can be, for lack of a better word (and I'm sure there's a better word), service-y.

Almost everyone knows implicitly what service writing is:

  • Guidebooks
  • Feature articles in travel magazines
  • Brochures 'n' shit
  • Reviews of attractions and restaurants
  • 10 Things to Do In...

On the services portion of the shelf, you would find books like Rick Steves's Best of Spain or Goran Rodin's Verona in 1 Day.

Service pieces inform and educate. They pique interest about attractions. They sell destinations. Directly or indirectly, service pieces help millions of people make a living. They are necessary and important.

A memoir is about travelers and their observations, experiences, and growth. Two classics are Wild by Cheryl Strayed or Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar.

An outrageous shirt in different patterns and fabrics, and a bass guitar, behind plexiglass

Clothes and bass of Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, OH. Sep 2018

Clean and spare church with white walls and cream-colored pews

Interior, Cajun church, Vermilionville, Lafayette, LA. Oct 2018

Usually, guidebooks take up more of the limited shelf space than memoirs. Which is a bit disappointing. I love a good guidebook (I'm partial to Frommer's, DK Eyewitness, and Moon), but if I'm going to read travel literature, 98% of the time I want a story. I want conflict, tension, and change.

And yet... I have always thought that a good memoir can be, for lack of a better word (and I'm sure there's a better word), service-y. Reviews certainly aren't mandatory. Expository descriptions aren't, either. But travel writers can allow themselves to indulge in the wonder that is the Sistine Chapel or a meal at an intimate restaurant on the Ile Saint-Louis, and their memoir can be that much richer for it. It doesn't have to be breezy, subjective prose. It can be a clinical review.

Theory, briefly

The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin said that a novel can include and absorb other genres and remain a novel.

In Moby Dick, for example, Melville pens entire chapters devoted to natural history and zoology. Such material was not uncommon in the 19th century, thanks to the fascination readers had for all kinds of classification - biological in particular - but that does not detract from the point. History, poetry, songs, and folklore grace The Lord of the Rings. Some of Kurt Vonnegut's novels contain drawings.

All works are still novels.

In the same way, a travel memoir can contain service bits and remain a memoir.

A travel memoir can contain service bits and stay a memoir.

It doesn't work in the other direction. A service piece can't contain memoir - it feels weird. An accounting of hotels, restaurants, and attractions, of cities and countries, of parks and experiences, almost never delves into the intensely personal. It doesn't reflect on conflict and growth.

Again - this is neither criticism nor a detraction - service literature is largely sales and marketing. Commerce. Its goal is to pique the reader's interest for economic reasons.

Bringing it back to... me

My project Backseat Cities is a memoir. The first volume is the story of my travels through four mid-tier American cities:

  • Rochester, New York
  • Lafayette, Louisiana
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Cleveland, Ohio

While the content is a memoir, the premise is service-oriented: the exploration of cities semi-ignored relative to the large destinations like New York and Chicago, or small towns like Carmel, CA or Stowe, VT. I talk about restaurants and give brief reviews. I walk through museums and other attractions and describe what I see and what happens to me.

Restaurant interior in many colors, covered in stickers

Pie Hole, downtown Boise, ID. Sep 2019

I also wrestle with my expectations as a traveler. I acknowledge as honestly as possible what I look at when I visit a place. And I consider what it is to visit these cities as a middle-aged white man traveling by himself. The results surprised me occasionally.

Backseat Cities

A reader challenged me on the chapters I sent her. She said I was "between genres." I understand what she meant - hell, I just wrote a whole blog post about it - and, viewed from a certain perspective, I agree with her completely.

Having said that:

  • As I mentioned above, I believe a travel memoir is similar to the novel in that it can include other genres and remain a memoir
  • Food is such an important part of travel; is it inappropriate to give a one- or two-page review of a restaurant?

Maybe my reviews don't fit right. Perhaps those sections in Backseat Cities dangle like third limbs. So be it. But I think the memoir - both in theory and in practice - can contain reviews, even an attraction's schedule, excerpts from brochures and other service writing, etc. The book can still work, and belongs with other travel memoirs.

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