AN OLD JOURNALISM PROFESSOR of mine who may have read too many Hemingway impersonators once solemnly informed me that short travel pieces—very short ones—were the truest test of fine writing. Real writers, he suggested, were the ones who could squeeze the essence of a place down into a tight little nub of a paragraph, a sentence, maybe only a clause. A word or two. This advice sounded at the time like the kind of considered wisdom that makes sense; but later of course I realized that it didn’t. Later I realized it was just wrong. Because if you can squeeze the essence of a place down into a couple of lines, either the place is Las Vegas or your sense of where you’ve been and what you’ve seen is so vapid, so translucent, it’s worthless.
Unfortunately, this really bad advice, with a lot of help from the Internet, has turned into a national mantra. My professor would be pleased. More and more writers these days are writing in puny sound bites that aren’t even bite-sized, encouraged by the notion, and maybe the reality, that this is the way most readers read. It’s what we’re becoming accustomed to and what we’re increasingly accepting as the norm. The going standard for travel journalists writing a destination piece now, in fact, has nothing to do with locating the essence of anything at all. It has more to do with sizing up the shiny look of a place and selling it in a primal PR grunt that approximates carnival barker prose. (Paris? Glossy. London? Swinging. Amsterdam? Grrr. Vegas? Cha Ching. Dubai? Da best.) The goal is to avoid scaring the reader with too much actual text, and if the quick word picture of the place needs some plumping, what gets added are lists, and lists of lists. The occasional dead zones that don’t contain lists get plugged with savvy hipsterisms (“What’s in? Mancations”), sidebars, photos that don’t just frame the words but swamp them, and, on the Internet, a lot of cherry-picked (i.e., plagiarized) quotes and nuggets from other travel pieces that are reformatted into a dizzying, disconnected heap of misinformation.