From The Best American Travel Writing, 2017:
"Paul Theroux once wrote: 'The job of the travel writer is to go far and wide, make voluminous notes, and tell the truth. There is immense drudgery in the job. But the book ought to live, and if it is truthful, it ought to be prescient without making predictions.'
In 1998, Theroux published Riding the Iron Rooster, a travel book about a year he spent riding trains in China, accompanied by a Communist Party bureaucrat. At the time, China was closed to foreigners, and in Theroux's book, he was extremely critical of the country, painting an unflattering portrait of a dull, cynical, ugly place. There are pages and pages of dialogue with young people complaining about the government and government officials complaining about students. 'I hated sightseeing in China,' Theroux wrote, 'I felt the Chinese hid behind their rebuilt ruins so that no one could look closely at their lives.'
Riding the Iron Rooster was attacked by critics for being ungenerous and impolite. Mark Salzman, in a New York Times review, insisted that Theroux had drawn conclusions that 'don't ring true.' Salzman wrote, 'More often than not, he is passing judgment on China rather than describing it, all from a very limited perspective.The result is an opinionated, petty, and incomplete portrait of that country.' Less than a year after that, the Tiananeman Square massacre occurred, setting off the complex chain of events that ushered forth the contemporary China we now know. With those events in hindsight, someone who now reads Riding the Iron Rooster is more likely to see the book as an example of what the best sort of travel writing can reveal."
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I always felt I was (at last!!) hearing the truth about places, reading his dour and detailed work. When I finished reading most of his books, I vowed never to go there (Tonga! Fiji! The "Z" countries of Africa!! AWFUL places where very bad things happened!!) At his least cynical and most upbeat, his work still gave one pause. They were not 'tourism pieces,' that's for sure!
But I did appreciate his honesty. Grumpy, but honest. He wrote a novel about Honolulu that I liked a lot, actually.
I may reread that one to see if I still do....
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Created: March 26, 2018English