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As someone once employed by a travel magazine, I might be expected to bridle at Chuck Thompson’s thesis that travel writers are, generally speaking, hacks so fond of the sops tossed their way by the travel industry that they are happy to toe the party line and so bereft of ability that they toe it in prose the equivalent of the glazed grins and anodyne blandishments characteristic of service in the average American supermarket. And bridle I do. But not at the slights to my integrity. Anyone who has spent any time at a travel magazine, and Thompson has been in the business for over a decade, will concede the compromises, the corners cut, the oleaginous articles that are the inevitable result of marketing departments beholden to advertisers, penny-pinching publishers, skittish editors and expendable writers. What I bridle at is Thompson’s posturing. His book, like the magazines and the industry he derides, is dishonest at its core, a not particularly artful swindle of the paying customer.
Chuck Thompson, the back cover of Smile When You’re Lying attests, is the “guy who knows the truth about travel”. In the introduction, portentously titled ‘You Deserve Better’, he describes his book as a “small effort to correct the travel industry’s bias against candour and honesty.” But Smile When You’re Lying is no cogently argued polemic, no ‘rogue’ travel writer’s cri de coeur. The promised exposé is the hook, the gimmick that makes this desultory collection of laddish anecdotes and scattershot screeds relevant and presumably publishable. The targets of Thompson’s galumphing sarcasm are inflight magazines, purple prose clichés, Lonely Planet, Paul Theroux and the “travel industry’s remorseless demand for gloss”. Surely accusing inflight magazines of lacking editorial integrity and lambasting underpaid freelancers on tight deadlines for resorting to shorthand are slim pickings for so stridently self-proclaimed an iconoclast. Much of his argument is reheated pabulum; Thomas Swick covered the same ground more elegantly, particularly the tepid tone of most travel pieces, in his essay ‘Roads Not Taken’, published nearly five years ago in the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Almost all magazines,” Thompson writes, with the zeal of a man who only ten minutes before had been shouting ‘Eureka!’ in the bath, “exist for a single purpose... to sell shit.” This insight is wrung from a swiftly aborted stint as editor in chief of Travelocity, the newsstand magazine of a popular website. Travelocity folded after a year and Thompson’s account of his time there will intrigue and likely horrify anyone with a passing interest in the workings of a magazine. It’s hard not to sympathise with Thompson, saddled with a marketing department that foists a highly paid consultant on him two weeks before the launch. The consultant, with Thompsonian acuity, announces that “sex sells”, thus persuading the marketing department to insist that a bikini-clad lovely be featured on every cover, eventually leading to a sexual harrassment lawsuit.
Smile When You’re Lying is an opportunity for Thompson to show us what travel magazine editors, and by extension their readers, have missed out on by forcing him to spin out formulaic pap. Stories of misadventures with over-the-hill Thai prostitutes, horny Japanese community college instructors and East German squatters, while entertaining enough, hardly mount a convincing case for Thompson as a saviour of contemporary travel writing. And for insincerity, stating the obvious, and pure ickiness (to use the exegetical term) no inflight magazine writer can beat this: “Travelocity limped to a doleful finale... Then came September and planes flying into buildings in New York. All at once our year of backroom politicking, legal threats and arguments about fat guys on cruise ships seemed foolish and irrelevant.” You don’t say, Chuck.
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