Trippers' tales

Fortune Hotel: Twisted Travel Stories

Sarah Champion (editor) <em>Hamish Hamilton, 310pp, £9.99</

Who was it that said the worst thing about travelling was meeting other tourists? Whoever it was, they pinpointed what makes travel writing such treacherous terrain: if the roving raconteur is interested only in charting original, and therefore solitary, experiences, they risk alienating their audience and running out of original experiences to pursue, such is the global infestation of tourists. This is the impasse at which much modern travel writing stands: the aloof, jodhpur-wearing colonialists may be well behind us, but so, too, is their sense of first-time discovery. All that the best contemporary travel writers seem to offer, in their attempt to rekindle it, is an enervating emphasis on gimmickry - hitching round Ireland with a fridge, elephant-trekking round the Andes, mountain-biking round Nepal, and so on.

It is against these contrivances that Sarah Champion, anthologist of the "chemical generation", seems to be reacting in Fortune Hotel, a collection of "twisted" travel tales from a blend of "chemical generation" writers (Nicholas Blincoe, Howard Marks, Douglas Coupland, Simon Lewis) and more literary Penguin-Hamish names (Martyn Bedford, Will Self, Toby Litt, William Sutcliffe). As with Champion's previous books - the "rave" anthologies Disco Biscuits and Disco 2000, and the "fresh" collection of Irish writing, Shenanigans - this book strives to assert a commonality among its audience's multifarious experiences.

Despite the solitary and arbitrary nature of travelling, common themes shine through: couples go on holiday in vain attempts to heal their relationships; characters fail either to lose or find themselves and end up questioning why they embarked in the first place; drugs are bought and sold at a cost to the communities they pass through. Travel isn't the all-rewarding experience it promises to be, but it is an available one.

This book may be thumbing a lift on the back of Alex Garland's The Beach, just as Disco Biscuits was sharing an E with Irvine Welsh's work, but there is considerably more diversity this time round. From the stomach-turning nausea of Martyn Bedford's pan-Indian drug dealing, to Will Self's philosophical musings on European homogeneity, it spans a broad and varied landscape. Douglas Coupland's elegy to a soulless Chile turns the standard failings of travel writing on their head: for once, the tourist understands the cultural realities more clearly than the locals. Simon Lewis's superb "Justified and Ancient" parodies the "worldly" hash-dealing backpacker and simultaneously laments the new cynicism his trade brings.

Champion is highly successful at remixing her generation's collective leisure experience and then selling it back to us (shifting over 58,000 copies of Disco Biscuits and 30,000 copies of Disco 2000). Whatever you make of their quality, they have, in their small way, helped transform the twentysomething reading market, disproving long-held publishing beliefs along the way: short fiction can sell, and the postgraduate years don't have to be a dry patch in our reading lives.

Champion's success, however, also disproves the idea that twentysomethings possess the slightest sense of adventure in their reading habits. If the only books they can be enticed to buy are those marketed as celebrations of what they know already - fictionalised nostalgia trips consolidating old experiences, rather than exploring new ones - they won't be disappointed when publishers start filling their zeitgeist collections with "exactly what it says on the tin".

The insistence of these anthologies on dismissing whole traditions of writing up until the current generation is also rather worrying. By failing to mention the long history of literary drug-dabbling (from Coleridge to Tennessee Williams) and dismissing out of hand the entire catalogue of travel writing before Howard Marks' dreadful Mr Nice, this book may strike a favourably irreverent chord with the too-cool-for-books yoof populace, but it also denies them any avenues of exploration beyond these pages. How valuable are another 50,000 sales in a previously unyielding target group if this is the only book they buy?

Ra Page is the editor of another cynically marketed short-fiction collection, "The City Life Book of Manchester Short Stories" (due out in November from Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?