when did Travel Writing become boys-only?

I was perusing the Travel Writing section of Foyles today (because, of course, I should have been at home doing readings and preparing for a presentation) when I was struck by all the male authors. Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, lots of dudes named David.... and I started wondering why this genre of writing -- the adventure -- is dominated by men almost to the exclusion of women.

Worse, I started thinking about the travel books I've read or encountered that have been written by women, and it donned on me they fit into a handful of Harlequin-inspired sub-categories within the travel genre. Where men's stories are all raw adventure, hiking boots in-hand, jump-on-a-boat, ride-a-motorcycle, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants deals, women's travel stories can be.... well, I was going to say "girly," but then thought better of it. Let's say, intensely focused on the self, the home, and sex.

For example, Around the World in 80 Dates? Let's call that the Sex and the City sub-category. Under the Tuscan Sun -- if the movie is anything to go by -- is a "find yourself away from it all and, cross your fingers, love too!" book. Eat, Pray, Love straddles the "find yourself" and the "find your taste buds" categories. Then you have something like Out of Africa, which rounds things out a little, but dwells less on adventure and more on the contrived and not-so-contrived differences between the writer/European audience and the "other"/African residents, tribespeople and servants.

You can see I got myself a titch worked up. Then I came home and searched through the Chapters database for "travel" and "adventure and literary travel." Things got better from there, actually. There's more of a diversity of women's writing on travel, and it isn't all of the Sand in My Bra/humour fold or the "Paris! Men! Shopping!" genre.

Still, some questions carrying forward:

Do women who write about travel slip into the natural style of women's magazine writing because that's what women want to read about? Would we prefer to read about "a woman alone in (insert country here) overcomes cultural differences" than "a woman startlingly begins hitch-hiking through the Middle East, then hops onto a train across much of Asia, a boat across the Pacific, and a motorcycle through the Canadian west coast"?

Do popular women's travel titles simply reflect a high interest in the memoirs of those who have lived "happily ever after" in our Oprah-inspired age of "buy shit, live the dream?" And what is the male counterpart to "buy shit, live the dream" if they are busy reading travel stories about guys retracing the steps of Genghis Khan?

Finally, am I being terribly humorless about all this, and should I really set my mind to school work?


Shannon said...

OK, so I only read half of Under the Tuscan Sun, because I got bored, but the book sounds nothing like the movie. The author is already married, and it's about her and her husband setting up a home and cooking and learning to enjoy the simple life.

Still not raging adventure, but really, really not Sex in the City.

erin said...

I find your questions and observations all really interesting, and I can't help but think back to the old book club debates of "girl books/authors" and "male books/authors", across the genres. And as someone who has always leaned more towards "boy books", I'm even more intrigued. Perhaps fiction (and its cousin, travel lit) are becoming some of the last bastions of traditional sex roles. Women today are supposed to work outside the home, be aggressive in their careers, and capable of living completely independently, while men are to be more caring, in touch with their emotions, etc, etc. So perhaps the "escape" provided by literature taps into a deeper level of our primitive roles and desires that we can't fulfill in real life.