Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism by Thomas Kohnstamm (Three Rivers Press 2008).

Drunks bore me.

I don’t like being drunk. I don’t like listening to drunks. I don’t like reading about or watching drunks. Barfly is the exception, but, if you’re going to base a screenplay on the pathetic romance of two alcoholics, you better write as well as Charles Bukowski.

Thomas Kohnstamm isn’t in that league. He doesn’t hold a candle to Bukowski or Kingsley Amis or his obvious idol, Hunter S. Thompson – authors who knew from their libations and intoxicants.

So I could have done without the first 50 pages of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? Apparently feeling the need for a framing structure, Kohnstamm’s travel memoir begins with a violent night of New York City bar hopping in the company of The Doctor, an unhinged inebriate. The Doctor plays the same role as did the attorney in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, except that the attorney was funny and the Doctor is not.

Kohnstamm eventually flew to Rio on a writing assignment from Lonely Planet, beginning his adventure in earnest. Kohnstamm’s tales of drug-dealing expats and gringo-gouging Brazilians were diverting enough while I read them, but that was several weeks ago, and, as I sit here typing, I can’t remember one of them. Travel book staples such as beach parties, dodgy companions and guesthouse hookups blend together unless the writing is exceptional, which isn’t the case here.

What I do remember is the minor controversy which publicized the book launch. As I noted when the story hit in April, Kohnstamm stated – or, perhaps more accurately, was interpreted to have stated – that he wrote Lonely Planet’s Colombia guide without visiting the country. Kohnstamm later clarified that LP had hired him to research and write a “desk update” of certain front matter in the guide (e.g., history, environment, food) and that no one had expected him to travel to Colombia.

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? isn’t about Colombia – it’s about an earlier assignment in which Lonely Planet commissioned Kohnstamm to revise its guide to the beach towns of northeastern Brazil. The coastline is about 1,000 miles long – roughly the length of the U.S. West Coast – and Lonely Planet wanted Kohnstamm to research about 60 cities in about two months.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a good deal:

If a trip to Brazil is all I really want, I’d be better off working for two or three months at Starbucks, getting its health insurance, smoking bowls every day, and then using my earnings to go to Brazil on vacation than I would be taking this job. Starbucks employees start at almost $9 per hour, plus medical and dental benefits, and the pay goes up from there. Lonely Planet, a company that sells some six million books per year and calls itself the only independent global publisher, claims that writers’ workload-versus-fee averages out to $600 per week. That would mean that working a basic forty-hour week, authors earn $15 per hour. Of course, if you read between the lines of what is expected of the writer for this project, it isn’t difficult to see that this job will take closer to every waking hour of my time, from weeks of pretrip preparation up through deadline. Of course, after the deadline there will be additional stages of edits, queries, map clarifications, and rewrites, which will tack on many extra days, if not weeks. That puts the hourly pay below minimum wage, and U.S. minimum wage is nothing nice. You can also forget about health insurance.

The situation became more complex once Kohnstamm was on the road in Brazil. On paper, the job should have been manageable, not least because Kohnstamm had a master’s degree in Latin American Studies and knew Portuguese. In reality, Kohnstamm found Lonely Planet’s demands to be overwhelming.

The more I read, the more proposed changes that I discover. The chapter introductions need to be retargeted, rewritten, improved. The boxed texts need to be replaced. The focus of the entire book needs to be recalibrated. While Lonely Planet was once aimed at backpackers, the new primary market is British and American couples who hold full-time jobs, on a two- or three-week vacation. Yet we still need to appeal to the backpacker base, and the odd top-end traveler (often the former backpacker who is now a business professional, but still likes to travel in an independent manner), meaning that I need to research and write about attractions and destinations that are appropriate for each type of travel, including different classes of hostels, resorts, B and Bs, buses, car rentals, charter flights, ride shares, and more.

Lonely Planet would like 20 percent of the coverage going to budget, 60 percent to midrange, and 20 percent to top-end. I also need to keep in mind what a solo female traveler would want, what a disabled traveler would want, what a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender traveler would want, what a vegetarian or vegan would want, and I need to be sensitive to not write with a particularly American point of view.

Kohnstamm was game, but he kept falling further behind schedule. It didn’t seem possible to personally visit every relevant hotel, restaurant, bar and tourist attraction – particularly while maintaining the spirit of Lonely Planet’s curiously worded Publisher’s Note that its writers “do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage.” Finally, Kohnstamm told himself that the Note merely prohibited an explicit quid pro quo and that, if Lonely Planet wanted the book completed in time, he would have to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

I now know that if you show up at the desk and surprise the clerk with a discount request, they may not be in a position to offer it to you, or may not know what you’re talking about. A phone call to follow up [an] email usually does the trick.

Once I am firmly ensconced in the room, I will contact the manager and ask for suggestions of restaurants and other hotels that will be of some help to me. I will delegate from there, find people who’ve been to those places and pick their brains for information. The days I spent hustling to try to make it to all of the places, to see them with my own eyes, are far away. Now the most important part of the job is determining who does and doesn’t know what they’re talking about and figuring out how I can best stretch my money to keep going until the end. The game is being played, and possibly even being won.

The question of Lonely Planet’s ethics is the most interesting aspect of the book, and Kohnstamm blows it. He doesn’t make much of an attempt to learn if other LP writers are piping it. He doesn’t explore the issue of whether LP editors are knowingly turning a blind eye. There’s no evidence that he asked LP owners Tony or Maureen Wheeler, or anyone else at the publishing house, for their side of the story.

Consequently, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? is like a watered-down drink. The flavor is there, but it’s too thin and a touch too smooth, and it doesn’t do the job.

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Anonymous Jason Bono Bonner said...

Hi, when you write, "I don't like talking to drunks," does that include when I would call at 2:30 a.m. on weeknights before you had to go to work?

also from the "did you know?" file: the French have a word for unadorned text being presenteed as parody. it is "sottisier."

10:00 AM  

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