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.