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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Travel writing v novel writing and the works of Sybille Bedford

As I am enjoying reading Sybille Bedford's travelogue, A Visit to Don Otavio (1953) and consider, on friend's recommendation, that I read her first novel, A Legacy, thinking for a moment about differences between travel writing and literary fiction (which is almost exclusively what I read). Travel, like memoir, is a little different from other nonfiction in that it tends to have a narrative arc, a strong narrative voice, and a strong emphasis on character and setting; all of these characteristics make travel writing much like fiction-writing - i.e., more "novelistic." But of course our enjoyment of travel writing depends on our acceptance that the people, places, and events related are true and accurate. Also, our enjoyment depends to a lesser extent on our familiarity with the subject matter; for example, we might prefer to engage with a travelogue about a place we've visited (or lived, or live), and in a sense compare notes and impressions over the course of the reading. Or, conversely, we may engage in travel writing that pushes the level of exotica - writing about places we've never been and would never go, armchair traveling (the kinds of books that my friend Rory Nugent writes, for ex.). So as I read Bedford's account of her travels part of my enjoyment is in knowing that the hardships (and beauty) she describes is a true experiences; if A Visit to Don Otavio were a novel it would not stand up as well, or at all - and parts of it would defy belief of course. (The famous quip that if we were to put this in a novel nobody would believe it - novels in a way have to be more "credible" than nonfiction.) This phenomenon played out in public about a decade ago with the "memoir" A Thousand Little Pieces that was quickly exposed as a fabrication; in fact, the writer had submitted his work for publication and an editor suggested he "rework" it as a memoir. But once the truth was out the work was pointless and uninteresting - the demands of fiction, the need to create character and plot, are much higher than for nonfiction (which partially explains my reading preferences). Bedford's work is great on its own terms - an almost perfect piece of travel writing, funny, informative, insightful, dramatic, exotic. Whether her skills as an observer and raconteur can make her a great or even a good novelist is another question; I'll probably try to find the answer.

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