It’s hard to quite capture the irony of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert cancelling her novel about Russians living under. . . Stalinism.
Gilbert claims to have done this in order to placate Ukrainians upset that her new book, The Snow Forest, is set in Siberia, but her self-cancellation is reminiscent of all those who kowtowed to The Orthodoxy in Stalinist Russia and, to an extent, Russia today. Her over-the-top apology, her hypersensitivity to invisible critics, her fear of saying anything someone might object to—all of it echoes the craven prostrations of the Communist Party cog, the apparat, the writer-puppet who toes whatever line they’re told to toe. (The great Soviet writers, like Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, grasped that one could not be a writer and a writer in good standing with the vlast—or power—at the same time.)
It’s especially galling given that Gilbert has a sizable Russian audience. Eat, Pray, Love—like The Devil Wears Prada and Sex in the City—made a big splash in Russia when it came out in the aughts. (A 2016 poll found that a large proportion of Russian women would like Miranda Priestly to be their boss.) The Russian translation of the audio version of Gilbert’s City of Girls, a 2019 novel about 1940s New York, soared to the Top Three on Storytel, an audiobook service comparable to Audible that is especially popular in Russia.
Of course, the cyber-censors would have curbed access to The Snow Forest, but it would have eventually tunneled its way to the iPhones and tablets of young Russian women. It would have reminded them of another Russia mirrored in the lives of those who refuse to conform—think Yuri Zhivago or Ivan Denisovich. It would have moved things in the right direction.
If only Gilbert—lovingly dissected below by Kat Rosenfield—had managed to summon her inner Solzhenitsyn. We’re very happy to publish it below thanks to our friends at Pirate Wires, where this originally appeared. —Peter Savodnik
Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-cancellation video is, among other things, an ambitious exercise in genre-mixing: the whispering, intimate tone of a TikTok confessional, the stark lighting of a hostage video, and the camera angle of your Boomer parents FaceTiming from an iPad that’s perched on the coffee table. Gilbert leans into the camera, her blonde hair tumbling around her face, a pair of comically oversized orange glasses perched high on her nose.
“Over the course of this weekend, I have received an enormous massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers, expressing anger, sorrow, disappointment, and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now. . . that is set in Russia,” she says. “And I want to say that I have heard these messages, read these messages, and I respect them. . . . It is not the time for this book to be published.”
Until this week, Elizabeth Gilbert was best known as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir about finding her bliss (and her appetite) in a post-divorce odyssey through Italy, India, and Bali. Now, she’s the unwitting harbinger of what appears to be a seismic change within the literary community, and perhaps in the culture at large.
Gilbert’s upcoming novel, The Snow Forest, was set in 1930s Siberia—which, as we all know, is part of Russia, which, as we all know, is the headquarters of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing and execrable war against Ukraine. As is so often the case when it comes to publishing controversies, this fourth-degree connection between American author and Russian imperialist wasn’t a big deal until, suddenly, it was: over the weekend, The Snow Forest was trashed on the book review site Goodreads in an organized campaign by people who took exception to Gilbert’s choice of setting.
As of this writing, the book has 174 reviews and 533 ratings, every single one of them one star, and most employing eerily similar language that suggests the existence of a form letter lurking behind the scenes. (Chief among the claims on the page, which has now been removed, is that Gilbert’s book, which was not slated for release until February 2024 and absolutely none of its critics have read, is guilty of “romanticizing” Russia.)
This type of coordinated effort to torpedo a book before it’s ever been published is a familiar specter in the literary community, whose most influential members are often both extremely online and extremely prone to jumping aboard whichever ostensibly progressive bandwagon is gathering steam at any given moment.
In the world of young adult (YA) fiction, where this type of pressure campaign was invented and refined, a single outraged tweet or post could kick off a maelstrom of righteous indignation, one often amplified by authors themselves. There’s a bucket-of-crabs dynamic to these controversies; in YA, previously unknown authors could gain a boost in visibility by aligning themselves with cancellation-happy influencers (or, for that matter, take out a competitor by way of seeding rumors that their book was politically incorrect). Unsurprisingly, one of the top Goodreads critics of Gilbert appears to be an author of fantasy novels herself.
Gilbert, too, was following a template with her apology, a standard protocol for literary self-cancellation. Within the past five years, authors withdrawing their books over allegations of nebulous harm have become a familiar spectacle.
In 2019, fantasy author Amélie Wen Zhao cancelled her novel Blood Heir over allegations the book was racist. That same year, Kosoko Jackson withdrew his debut novel from publication after critics complained that its Kosovo-set gay love story “centered” Americans and trivialized genocide. In 2020, Ember Days author Alexandra Duncan withdrew her book from publication after another author, who had not read it, took exception to its cover tagline (yes, really).
For a community of ostensibly creative people, the literary world has a remarkable fondness for groveling displays of conformity: authors who self-cancelled were almost invariably applauded for their courage and sensitivity. For a time, there was even a thriving little cottage industry of anti-anti-cancel culture pundits, energetically assuring concerned audiences that there was nothing to see here. At the peak of the outrage, self-anointed debunking expert Michael Hobbes announced that Alexandra Duncan had simply “received criticism on the concept of an unpublished manuscript and decided not to publish it,” while Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic simpered that Zhao and Jackson’s “decision to suspend their debuts was entirely voluntary and entirely their own.”
As such, there was no reason to think that Gilbert’s announcement would not be similarly celebrated. Yet, right away, this one just hit differently. Commentators immediately compared it to the histrionic moment in 2003 when the Congressional cafeteria renamed French fries “freedom fries” after France declined to support the American invasion of Iraq. PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel released a statement calling Gilbert’s decision “regrettable,” saying, “literature and creativity must not become a casualty of war.” And fellow writers were no less dismayed: as acts of moral grandstanding go, this one had disturbing repercussions. Elizabeth Gilbert, whose net worth is estimated upward of $20 million, might not have thought much about the financial hit she would take by cancelling her book, but for most writers, this sets a precedent that is not just economically ruinous but completely untenable in the glacially paced world of publishing. As author Rebecca Makkai tweeted, “So apparently: Wherever you set your novel, you’d better hope to hell that by publication date (usually about a year after you turned it in) that place isn’t up to bad things, or you are personally complicit in them.”
Perhaps most tellingly, this was a bridge too far even for some of the most diligent defenders of similar, previous incidents. “The Russian people are human beings,” wrote Osita Nwanevu on Twitter. “Stories can and should be told about them. They are not reducible to the actions of their present government. This stuff over the last year has been pretty unsettling, honestly.”
In hindsight, the desire to support Ukraine by cancelling all things Russian was always poised to be an inflection point in this particular culture war. That unsettling element identified by Nwanevu was there from the start, an uneasy sense of something being set in motion that would not be easily stopped. If anti-Russian sentiment has crystallized to the point where vodka, an inanimate object, must be held accountable for its country of origin, then where exactly does it end? Do we sacrifice Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chagall? What about Russian hats, Russian dressing, the breed of cat known as a Russian Blue? Do we boycott the ballet? Trash our souvenir matryoshka dolls? Digitally censor The Big Lebowski lest Ukrainians be harmed by the Dude’s drink of preference?
That someone, someday, would take the anti-Russian cultural crusade too far was probably inevitable; the only question was where the line would be drawn. As it turns out, declaring Russia off-limits even as a fictional setting—a place you dare not go even in your own imagination—was too much, even for the scolds among us.
Here, one must feel at least a little bit sorry for Gilbert: if she thought she was doing something here, and it seems she did, getting roasted by PEN America was surely not the result she had in mind. Indeed, in the cold light of day, her video registers less as a brave and thoughtful act of altruism than as a very particular brand of cringe: a plea for relevance by a 53-year-old white woman LARPing as a 22-year-old keyboard warrior, trying too late to find her footing in a culture already in decline. (“I’m not a regular Karen, I’m a cool Karen!”)
But beneath the secondhand embarrassment is an especially rich layer of irony, given Gilbert’s own oeuvre. After all, this is a woman whose entire brand was built on flouting convention, subverting expectations, carving her own path through the world without apology, and inspiring other women to do the same. In Big Magic, her best-selling self-help book for creators, she advised her readers to cultivate what she describes as “the good kind of arrogance,” a brash and ballsy commitment to creative freedom: “believing that you are allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”
That woman, who wrote so boldly about voice and vision, is not recognizable in Gilbert’s cancellation video. Perhaps she’s gone for good. But if it’s unfortunate that Elizabeth Gilbert no longer has the courage of her convictions when it comes to writing imaginatively, wildly, and unapologetically, what a relief to see—at last—that other people do.
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