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Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer

Written by Christina Kay Bolton
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Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, Chuck Thompson, Holt Paperbacks, Dec. 2007Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson is an exposé of the travel writing industry.  Thompson has been deeply involved in the travel writing industry and has had numerous experiences with editors not publishing his work because it was not flattering to the places he was visiting. 


In the book, he takes on the industry with a vengeance, especially the editors and publishers role in squeezing the truth out of a story.  Some of this is based on writers getting free accommodations or meals, and being expected to keep it positive to promote those places. Similarly, there is pressure from big advertisers in magazines who don’t want anything negative said about any aspect of what they represent.  Many of his experiences were firsthand from being sent various places to write about them as a travel writer. Others were from his own shot at being editor of’s short lived paper magazine.  He details the demise of Travelocity’s magazine, as well as the things he tried to do differently as editor.


Thompson rails on almost all travel writing (and travel writers) from magazines to websites to books—including the much looked-to Lonely Planet guidebooks which he devotes a whole section to trashing.  His book is quite entertaining. I enjoyed his bracing, honest and humorous style of writing, although at times his humor is overdone, repetative  and twinged with cruelty.  For instance, he compares the sagging breasts of a Thai prostitute to those of a lactating goat.


He sums up his main thesis in two sentences: “After more than a decade in the business, I’ve grown tired of coming home from the intoxicating hell of the road and leaving the most interesting material on the cutting-room floor.  The stories my friends actually pay attention to never seem to interest editors, most of them emasculated by demands to portray travel as an unbroken fantasy of on-time departures, courteous flunkies, sugar-white beaches, fascinating cities, charming locals, first-class hotels, golden days, purple nights, and, of course, ‘an exotic blend of the ancient and the modern.’”


Thompson begins the book with a few of his own travel stories that never made it into any publication – from living a lonely life in rural Japan, to being robbed in Thailand, to the way the cruise industry crushed everything authentic in his native Alaska (not to mention the massive drug scene in Alaskan politics). 


He presents some controversial positions – at times in hysterically funny ways, For instance, his stance on the Caribbean: “I find myself wondering why anyone – much less the 35 million people who go to the Caribbean each year – would blow presumably limited vacation days and budgets on a place where the definition of “paradise” is fluid enough to include sullen service, neglected hotels, and restaurants where waiting forty-five minutes for a small mango juice is considered an immense honor.”  Other popular places he thinks are overrated are Las Vegas, Florida, Graceland, and every Chinatown in any city. 

But don’t cast Thompson as a cynic about everything.  He has a number of favorite places too – Latin America, Canada, and the Philippines which he calls the “Friendliest country in the world.”  He thinks there is way too much fear about travel to Latin America. “No place needs a good PR agency more than Latin America,” he says. “For a region with so much going in its favor – food, scenery, the most hospitable locals on Earth – it has a worse reputation than the Florida Division of Elections.”


I mainly enjoyed the book, though I wished some details were left on the cutting room floor, such as what goes on in those sex clubs.  However, the book is entertaining and one of the first I have read that really goes after the travel writing establishment.


Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, Chuck Thompson, Holt Paperbacks, Dec. 2007


©Christina Kay Bolton

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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