Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why Don't Editor's Read?

Why Don’t Editors Read?

“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”
--Albert Camus

As a working editor for Traveler's Tales/Solas House and SATW contest judge (adventure travel category) who reads close to two thousand written submissions a year, I have observed, either rightly or wrongly, that many travel editors may not able to read a good many of the queries and submissions that come their way. Far fewer again may have the time to read already written articles germane to their calls for new material or books relevant to their particular interests.

Time and resources are a perennial problem but it does beg the question: what might be wrong with the industry if editors can't or won't read, or limit their reading to only established players or a stable of approved writers that fit the parameters of the editorial calendar? Some of the greatest stories I have uncovered and enjoyed have been sent to me out of the blue. If I relied simply on query letters, I might never have bothered to contact those writers and missed out on some truly great travel writing. Some of these stories have, of course, found their way into our Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing anthologies and as the intake editor, so to speak, for these books, I also tend to read some awful travel writing. So you take the good with the bad but the gems sorted from the detritus of good intentions, and experiences that take place all over the map, makes it all worthwhile.

The more I’ve reflected about the matter and please, all hard working editors who really make the effort to read everything that is sent to them, forgive me for the slam, the more I began to suspect that in reality, most magazine and newspaper travel writing is purely window dressing for the selling of advertising. How else to explain the kind of creeping blandness that characterizes so many travel articles? The bigger names in travel writing, whose writing is truly excellent, seems to serve only to bring in additional readers for the purpose of seeing more advertising—not it would seem as any kind of exercise in support of good writing.

Now this is not a particularly new observation but as I thought about some of the non-responses I have received over the years and I am sure many other writers have received from editors regarding queries or stories submitted for established calls, the linkage of non-reading and the kind of excellence that one associates with top-notch travel writing seems marked.

What seems particularly appalling is that many of the publications owned by self-avowed liberal corporations or well-heeled owner publishers who consider themselves life-long social activists are among the worst offenders, when it comes to thinking of newspaper and magazine travel sections simply in terms of dollars and profitability or the lack thereof, rather than in terms of literary or social excellence. Where is the support for the Arts that these champions of a whole range of questionable social issues seem to somehow overlook when consulting with sharp-eyed accountants who care little or nothing for anything that does not provide an immediate contribution to the bottom line? The sad fact is that there appears to be a lot of lip service paid to support for reading and academics out in the world of education (as long as it stays out there and doesn’t get too personal) but not within the corporate world as it might affect actual business practices.

Now, of course, I am painting with a broad brush but the same kind of hypocrisy that balks at the use of four letter words on book covers and yet sees nothing wrong with the most obscene material inside a relatively innocuous cover, is illustrative of the problem as a whole. Publishers and distributors have few genuine, moral concerns about content but are most definitely concerned about the perception of browsing readers who might be offended by cover content. The point being that it is only a monetary and not a moral concern.

Why on earth might I bring this up in a diatribe about the dearth of good travel writing in publications that should be more concerned about excellence than they appear to be? The moral dimension of how things are and how they should be in America, alluded to recently by Barack and Michelle Obama is a realm outside the jingle of shekels. The moral dimension, i.e., how things should be as opposed to how they are needs to be invoked a little more often in regards to literary excellence in travel writing, book reviewing and any other area that is part of the creative and driving edge of modern literature. As Elizabeth Drew, former correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker noted: “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.”

How might we live more intensely through reading and writing? What might make this a greater possibility rather than a declining option for SATW members? Readers might also ask, what should be as opposed to the current state of what is? One of the virtues described by Aristotle is the virtue of magnificence, i.e., the ability and will to expend funds both in the private and public realm for the purpose of enabling magnificent and worthy projects. Might I suggest that our corporate leaders in the publishing world consider magnificence the next time they consult the bottom line? The full funding of book review and travel sections might be just such an exercise in magnificence. We have been so overcome by the politics of scarcity that we forget that this kind of financial niggardliness is directly opposed to the virtue of magnificence. How about the politics of abundance? That is real liberalism, not the current whining about inequity that always looks to the government rather than the private sector to lead the way.

At Travelers’ Tales/Solas House* we have imbibed this spirit of magnificence since our founding in 1993. We only support writing that we think is wonderful and possibly life-changing because we believe that it is important to support new writers and established writers alike. Has it been profitable? Not always and definitely not so in today’s current financial climate. So why do we continue to publish books like Marco Polo Didn’t Go There by uber vagabond Rolf Potts, A Sense of Place by Michael Shapiro as well as A Mile in Her Boots by Jennifer Bove and The World is a Kitchen by Susan Brady? Why our fascination with humorous and informative additions such as Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline by Brian David Bruns and the completely off-the-wall, A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean by Gary Buslik? We are involved in this kind of publishing not only because it is, in a sense, the right thing to do but because magnificence and liberalism (in the sense of generosity) invite us to act in this way. We* are dedicated to this business because we live more intensely by getting involved with writers and their dreams and aspirations. And really, it is a lot of fun.

*Travelers' Tales got its start in 1993 when travel writers James O'Reilly and Larry Habegger teamed up with writer and publisher (and James's brother and owner of OReilly Media) Tim O'Reilly to produce a new kind of travel book, one that would paint a portrait of a country through the experiences of many travelers. Through true stories, these books would give readers a depth of understanding that can only come from people who have been there. Reading each book would be like sitting in a cafe filled with fellow travelers swapping tales about the place you're headed next - you come out changed, and eager for more. Over time, this basic premise has been expanded to include a variety of anthologies, travel advice books, and single-author narratives. Headquartered in Palo Alto, California, Travelers' Tales currently has more than 100 titles in print, and publishes approximately 6-8 titles per year.

*The opinions in this article are mine alone and while they may be shared in part or whole by other members of our staff, I feel compelled, in all fairness, to issue this standard disclaimer.

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