Jan Morris resists the label of “travel writer”, according to her long-time agent, Derek Johns, because she rarely goes on journeys: “her writings [have] generally involved going to a place (usually a city) checking into a hotel, and then simply staying put and observing the scene”. She has, though, graciously accepted awards for travel writing when she has been judged to have won them.
Bruce Chatwin had difficulties with the same label. Chatwin died 30 years ago last week (January 18), and mention of the anniversary on Twitter directed me to an interview on the website Five Books with his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare. Shakespeare says:
[Chatwin] was furious when The Songlines was nominated for the Thomas Cook Travel Award, and demanded that his publisher withdraw it. ‘The journey it describes is an invented journey, it is not a travel book in the generally accepted sense.’ Indeed, The Songlines was published as a novel. But even that was a misnomer.
He was a storyteller first. ‘I’ve always loved telling stories,’ he told Colin Thubron. ‘It’s telling stories for what it’s worth. Everyone says: “Are you writing a novel?” No, I’m writing a story and I do rather insist that things must be called stories. That seems to me to be what they are. I don’t quite know the meaning of the word novel.’ And in telling stories, he didn’t care so much if they were true or false, only if they were good. For Chatwin, a good story was also in a real sense a true story. I like to say that he didn’t tell a half-truth, but a truth and a half.