Lionel Shriver‘s new novel gives substantial space to a resort on a remote island she once visited. During her trip, the same resort let her stay there for free. Is this a problem?
The London Times thinks so: A story notes that she visited Pemba Island for a Times travel story last year, and later used that trip as fodder for So Much for That, set to publish in March:
[Shriver] has broken new ground by getting a holiday company and a resort to fund her research for her new novel, So Much for That.
Those who turn to the acknowledgments section buried at the back of the book, which is published in March, will find her thank-you note for the hospitality at the resort.
As is often the case, the travel piece doesn’t mention that the Times covered her travel expenses or that she got her room gratis. (The more authoritative version of the story on Lexis-Nexis notes that she “travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours Travel,” but doesn’t make clear who covered what.) The acknowledgments page of So Much for That—which, being located at the back of the book, isn’t so very hard to find—is vague as well. She thanks the owners of Fundu Lagoon, a resort on Pemba Island, for “enabling me to be obscenely pampered with sundowners, coconut curries, and lemon-grass oil massages all under the hilariously respectable guise of ‘research.'”
“Pemba is mentioned every few pages while Fundu Lagoon gets eight direct mentions, even down to the price of the superior suite,” the Times writer notes. This is true enough, though it skews Shriver’s intentions. (What follows in the remainder of this paragraph likely qualifies as a spoiler, though this particular plot point isn’t hard to guess early on, the event is signaled well in advance, and it doesn’t qualify as the most shocking or provocative event to take place in the tail end of the novel. Not by a long shot.) To read the Times story is to think that Shriver has written a travel brochure for Pemba Island and its sole resort. But if her message were reduced to a slogan, it’d be something like: “Pemba: A pretty good place to take your loved ones to die, if they can handle the long, nerve-wracking effort to get there. And you’ll be busting your ass if you decide to stay.”
The resort is indeed described as sumptuous, but the role of the resort itself is minor compared to the main reason why the characters are there: Because it can be a torment to live in a country where corporations make it difficult to be a decent citizen and a decent person at the same. It can be easier to fulfill the American Dream in a third-world country, Shriver argues, than in the United States of America. And even then, living well means plenty of physical labor. Nobody’s getting lemon-grass oil massages by the novel’s end.
Shriver responded to the Times critique a few days later in the Guardian. She mostly reacts to the snippy tone of the piece, but the key point is this: “Fundu Lagoon allowed a free stay, as it does for any travel writer…. Fundu never offered me anything in exchange for a mention in my novel.” Those would have been excellent sentences to include in the acknowledgments, if only to defuse criticism like the Times‘ in advance. Given the option to disclose or not disclose such things, disclosure is always the better option; certainly, it would be disappointing to learn that she had arranged a pay-for-play deal with the resort. But then, the book she wrote probably would’ve been quite different; it would’ve been a story about a fantasy resort, when what she wrote is a story about what you have to do when the fantasy-resort life is something you can’t hope to afford.
(h/t Edward Champion, via Twitter)