Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bryson Stumbles On The Appalachian Trail

There's a big difference between a bestselling travel book and a great travel book. No work illustrates this better than Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods. The book was immensely popular for two reasons: fans of his folksy humor and his other works were salivating for the next offering, plus the Appalachian Trail is a must-read subject for many people who feel they should learn about this part of the American landscape if not someday hike it themselves.

So, Bryson's project was set up for huge success. He only needed to deliver a quality product. Yet, at that step in the writer's journey, he apparently slipped on some bear scat and fell off a cliff. The book began enjoyably enough. Bryson used his wilderness unpreparedness to make his epic trek relatable to couch potatoes as well as nature lovers. He also used data about the Appalachian Trail to create a sense of its vast length and significance. Thus, he made the trip seem both accessible and important.

However, these same dual points came back to bite him in the butt, like the fangs of a trailside rattlesnake. He and his clueless hiking buddy took carefree unpreparedness to extremes that call his judgement into question. Imagine two middle-aged pot-bellies swaggering thru a long, difficult continental crossing they comprehend only about as much as a gas-station-map allows. Add on cheap, poorly-rigged camping gear filled with copious amounts of heavy, drousying and dehydrating junk food. Apparently, Bryson did expect a simple walk in the woods when he pitched the book idea to his publisher. He was wrong.

From the start, the trek was slowed by physical challenges (taking breaks and detours nearly as often as steps) and mental challenges (using data more like filler for a book that needs to be finished than take-home treasures from an inquisitive quest). Whatever miscalculation led to the gap between the promise of the book's introduction and the letdown of the book's conclusion isn't the issue. If Bill was unable to walk the walk (in terms of physical energy for the hike, mental energy for the subject, and possibly even time to finish), he shouldn't have talked the talk. Instead, he abandoned the foot-journey midway, drove to some car-accessible spots on the uncovered route, downloaded more trivia without much attempt to weave it into literature, then sent his publisher an inferior creation.

I'm not judging Bill as a person. I have no idea whether he spent the publisher's advance on his grandmother's surgery or on cocaine snorts off a stripper's thigh. I simply want his book to serve the highest purpose it can. This work serves best as a case study in why we authors shouldn't flood the market with books that aren't the best we can do.

Writers who don't want their masterpieces to be lost in the sunken wreckage of an overloaded publishing industry must try not to produce too much of the excess cargo themselves. Just as publishers have obligations to authors, writers have obligations to readers. If a dearly-loved and richly-paid travel author like Bill Bryson should avoid launching a dud, how much more should less-known writers avoid establishing their reputations with shoddy work. Don't we all want to read books that represent an artist's greatest potential?

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't picked up that book, and I think I'll refrain from it. In terms of what he spent his money on... probably not granny's surgery. I'd think the cocaine snorts makes more sense.

    I've been on some of the northern stretches of the trail myself.