“Get Paid to Travel the World for Free” — That Is, If You Are Novelist Ann Patchett

We don’t typically cover the business of travel writing here at The Vacation Gals. (We leave that to smart pals like Trisha Miller of Travel Writers Exchange). But when a travel writer says something that gets our britches in a twist, it’s hard not to pipe up and comment in more than 140 characters.

Novelist Ann Patchett — who wrote bestselling, award-winning Bel Canto — asks in an online Wall Street Journal piece, “Did I Kill Gourmet Magazine?” That ambiguous title did nothing to prepare me for the 650 boastful, attention-seeking, arrogant (thanks @ShannaQuinn for that appropriate adjective) words that followed.

Patchett describes her 10 years covering travel at Gourmet magazine, which folded in 2009 after 68 years in print. During this time she enjoyed a lavish expense account, courtesy of her editor Bill Sertl (rhymes with turtle, but more on that later).

In the article, she details how she was able to write about whatever she wanted — and got editor Sertl to send her wherever she wanted to go, paying for amenities and services that were questionably related to the topic she asked to cover.

A few quotes from Ann Patchett’s recent opinion piece on WSJ.com:

For 10 golden years they picked up the tab while I ate at the best restaurants and laid down my head on the highest thread-count sheets. I never saw a bill.

…when I had a particularly endless stretch of house guests, I told Sertl I would like to check into a very fine hotel alone and not leave the premises for a week. He thought this was a terrific pitch.

For my 40th birthday I asked rather petulantly to be sent somewhere nice. There was a new resort opening in Antigua that needed to be reviewed. I was just the reporter for the job.

Re-reading these quotes, I just want to scream (in my nicest PG-13 voice), “WHAT THE HECK?”

Am I envious on Patchett’s 10-year-long gravy train? Absolutely. But beyond being absolutely green with envy — who wouldn’t want to have yearly vacations paid for by a “nothing’s too good for you my dear” client? — I am just shocked and incredulous that she’d put these words on a screen. And in the Wall Street Journal, no less. (I’m not sure the motivation behind the the WSJ even publishing such a piece. If it’s eyeballs and controversy, they got it.)

Why, Ms. Patchett, are you telling me these stories of travel-writing grandeur? Are you trying to be funny when you write, “Did I think about the fact that I was bankrupting the magazine?” You’re not funny to me, who cobbles together freelance travel-writing work from dozens of clients in an effort to help put food on my family’s table. And you’re not funny to the hundreds of other freelance writers who are also lamenting the demise of good-paying magazines in recent years.

I’m guessing you’re not funny to S.I. Newhouse Jr., who lost hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars printing Gourmet while extravagant expenses like yours drove the magazine into the ground. But now that I think about it, perhaps Newhouse got what he deserved. After all, it was Newhouse who hired the publisher who hired an editor-in-chief who hired an editor who not only okayed such luxurious expenses, but even trivial ones, like a $6 live turtle, saved by Patchett from the soup pot in the Amazon. (According to Patchett, Sertl said, “You may expense any animal that rhymes with the name of your editor.” Give me a break  — could any of you, fellow travel writers, imagine asking your editor to pay you back after saving the life of a turtle while on assignment? Now imagine yourself as a successful novelist, who certainly doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck, writing bestselling books. Really silly, right?)

I’m guessing that Patchett wrote the WSJ article to comment on magazine writing in its no-holds-barred heyday. Indeed, travel writers at large are disappointed we aren’t commanding the same pay-per-word print assignments we did three years ago, but do you, Ms. Patchett, really need to brag about what used to be?

I’m also thinking that Patchett wrote the WSJ piece since she has another book coming out next year. Still, it’s a little early to start the online buzz for a forthcoming novel. On the flip side, why wait until a year after Gourmet‘s shuttering? Wasn’t she bummed about her sugar-daddy travel-writing outlet last fall?

But my biggest beef with Patchett is her overall tone. She could have written a humorous piece about the state of the current travel-writing industry without making all of us other hardworking travel writers look bad. Trust me, we’re not all as entitled (thanks @NYCityMama for another great adjective).

Nor would we all expense our travel-writing clients for a $6 turtle.


Travel-writing community: I’ve sounded off — now it’s your turn. On Twitter, you’ve called Patchett cocky (@NathanKam) and boastful (@SpencerSpellman). Got anything else to say? Are you not as offended as I am?

Better yet, Ann Patchett, can you explain the motivation behind writing such a piece? I’m guessing you monitor Google Alerts of your name — would love firsthand insight.

10 Responses to ““Get Paid to Travel the World for Free” — That Is, If You Are Novelist Ann Patchett”

  1. 1
    Carol says:

    What can I say that we both haven’t already? I am happy to see that so many of those who I so admire in this field are on fire with this. It just all seems so unbelievable. If this is truly an effort to promote her new novel, I sure as hell, I mean, heck, won’t be buying it!


  2. 2
    pam says:

    The WSJ story is too long by about 90%. “I used to have an awesome gig, now it’s gone.” Um, okay then! There’s some quality reporting right there! Glory days, well, they’ll pass you by. Thanks, Bruce.

    I think Patchett sounds vain and kind of vapid, and it’s funny how much she comes across as that cartoon blob character in the “I want to be a travel writer” animation that made the rounds last week. But I’m not particularly offended by the piece.

    It’s interesting that Patchett’s editor was in on the joke, that says volumes. In a day when it’s a scramble to get 15 dollars for 400 words, Patchett seems more out of touch than anything else. Yawn.

  3. 3

    I just clicked over and read the article and I hardly have words to describe my complete and utter disgust. I travel the world perpetually in search of images and stories to bring my readers. To do so I have had to walk away from my home and (with the exception of a few personal mementos put in storage) whittle my personal possessions down to what can fit in a backpack and a 22″ suitcase. I do this all on my own dime and constantly struggle to make ends meet. I’ve gone through most of my personal savings over the past four years as I built a travel blog that, finally, is starting to pay my way. Yet to stay on the road I still have to stay at budget hostels for $10 per night that provide a free breakfast, and limit myself to one other meal per day.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I love what I do. But when I read something like this and think about the current controversy over whether travel bloggers should accept comp stays at hotels or free entry into attractions, it just toasts my butt! In what way does that differ from the magazine-subsidized all-expenses paid lifestyle that Ann Patchett lived? The only difference is who paid the bills. If the high-brow travel writers who are fueling this controversy had to make it on their own, I suspect the discussion would end abruptly. And shame on Patchett for her lack of ethics and conscience, so aptly conveyed by the blithely unconcerned tone of her article.

  4. 4
    Quent says:

    I would like to go sailing with you in the Caribbean. Can you ask one of your editors to pay for that?

    —Loving Husband

  5. 5
    jessiev says:

    ugh. somehow, i am not loving her books anymore. arrogant is the key word. thanks for the heads up. hopefully it won’t ruin the image of travel writers for the public. sigh.

  6. 6
    Traci says:

    When she checked into that fab Antigua hotel, I wonder if she asked the front desk staff, “Don’t you know who I AM?”

    I think she’s outed herself, and I’m betting (hoping) she’s not going to get such plum assignments in the future.

  7. 7

    If the intent was to buzz her forthcoming novel, I think she missed the mark tremendously. She’s generated ire, not book sales.

  8. 8
    Sharlene says:

    Well obviously I am doing this all wrong. My editors have never sent me down the Amazon or sailing in the Caribbean and they certainly haven’t paid for any turtles. My kids have really been driving me up the wall and I would highly appreciate a week in a Bel Air hotel. I’m just saying….

    Now excuse me while I spend every spare minute I have to write for a few piddly bucks….

  9. 9
    Tim L. says:

    I can’t get too bothered about this really. It’s a snapshot of a mostly bygone era already, the same way you read about the decadence of Studio 54 or Apple Records (the latter having an office with regularly refilled bowls of hash in each office). Or when you watch Mad Men and go “Hey, my dad’s office didn’t have all that free booze and hookers on call for clients. No fair!

    I once worked for a record company that hired a private Lear Jet to fly a bunch of us 20-something managers to a concert in a city three hours away. The funny part—it wasn’t even our label’s band! When times are good, companies spend lavishly. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the party’s in full swing, you get to have a blast. Eventually the party has to end, or in this case, the parents came home and shut it down.

    You can bet the money blown on Patchett’s adventures pales in comparison to what the editors and execs on staff were spending. And one big NYC media bash can cost more than all her trips added together ran. This is why it’s important to own things of value rather than being a pen for hire. Most of the money goes to the suits who write the checks.

  10. 10

    As I mention on my paper-pencil-pen.blogspot.com post, “Ann Patchett incites a riot,” I agree with Tim. It appears I am one of the few commentators who didn’t take offense to her tone. I enjoyed the comic glimpse of the heyday and its absurdity. Please don’t call me names.

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