May 29, 2024

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Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, is pulling off a new batch of books in Russia

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, is pulling off a new batch of books in Russia

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert said Monday she is indefinitely delaying the publication of her next book after she was criticized online for writing a novel set in Russia.

The move comes as publishers and institutions grapple with how to handle Russian art and literature as war rages on in Ukraine. The uproar that led to Gilbert’s decision to withdraw her novel, which is set in 20th-century Siberia, suggests that the debate has broadened to include the question of how the country is represented in fiction.

“I’ve had an overwhelming, massive outpouring of feedback and feedback from Ukrainian readers,” Gilbert said in a video posted to Instagram, expressing anger, sadness, disappointment and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now — any book, no matter what it is about — This is in Russia.

She continued, “It is not time for this book to be published. Nor do I want to do any harm to a group of people who have already suffered and who continue to suffer massive and severe harm.”

The publication of “The Snow Forest” was announced last week and was scheduled for publication on February 13, 2024, shortly before the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The novel follows a Russian family who distance themselves from society in the 1930s in an effort to resist the Soviet government.

By Monday, the book had accumulated hundreds of one-star reviews on the site Goodreads, with commenters on this site and on Instagram crediting the book’s Russian setting and characters. But when Gilbert announced her decision to withdraw the book, many in the literary world responded with bewilderment and concern at what they saw as self-censorship.

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Author Rebecca MacKay wrote on Twitter: “Apparently, wherever you set your novel, you’d better hope in hell by publication date (usually about a year after it’s delivered) this place isn’t bad stuff, or that you’re personally complicit in it.”

Gilbert is a bestselling and bestselling author whose memoir, Eat, Pray, Love has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. A representative for Gilbert’s publisher, Riverhead Books, said Gilbert had no further comment. She also confirmed that the novel is being delayed indefinitely, and that no decision has been made on whether it will be reviewed.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, art institutions have sought to distance themselves from Russian artists and writers—in some cases, even from dissidents. In May, during PEN America’s Global Voices Festival, the participating Ukrainian writers objected to a panel featuring Russian writers, which led to a disagreement over how to proceed and the panel’s cancellation. (Both Russian writers on the canceled board, journalist Ilya Veniavkin and novelist Anna Nemzerleft Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine).

Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Opera severed ties with star Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who had previously expressed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who has denounced the invasion, had his concert tour in Canada last year canceled. The Bolshoi Ballet lost engagements on tours in Madrid and London.

However, even with the ongoing public pressure faced by institutions to turn away from Russian artists and artwork, it is remarkable that an American author is facing such backlash for setting a novel in historical Russia.

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Other recent and upcoming novels set in Russia or featuring Russian characters seem to have so far escaped similar scrutiny or calls for cancellation. Paul Goldberg’s new novel, Dissident, which centers on a group of Soviet dissidents in 1970s Moscow, has received critical acclaim. review This month in The Washington Post, which “praised the novel’s fervor, dark humor and infectious enthusiasm for Russian culture.” In October, Other Press will release The Wizard of the Kremlin, a translated novel by Italian and Swiss writer Giuliano da Empoli that features fictional President Putin.

Russia has long been a popular backdrop for thrillers and spy novels, although in these genres Russians are often seen as villains. Later this year, Simon & Schuster plans to publish Anna Petuniak’s novel The Helsinki Affair, a thriller about a CIA officer who receives information from a Russian defector about a planned assassination and uncovers a plot.

Reactions to Gilbert’s decision were initially mixed, with some praising its sensitivity to an ongoing international crisis, and others expressing concern about the consequences of pressuring novelists to avoid certain subjects and settings.

By early Monday afternoon, backlash escalated to the backslash on social media, with many critics lashing out at Gilbert, and others berating Gilbert herself for giving in to pressure.

The episode also sparked renewed criticism of Goodreads, which allows users to leave reviews of books well in advance of their publication date, without having read the book, and has sometimes served as a launching pad for online campaigns against authors.

Some literary and free-speech organizations have seen the novel’s controversy—the latest example of how a social media backlog can hamper a book’s publishing—as a cautionary tale.

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Society of Authors chief executive Marie Rasenberger said the organization supported Gilbert’s right to make decisions about when her book should be published, but also expressed concern about authors feeling increasingly vulnerable to online pressure campaigns.

“We don’t think authors should be pressured not to publish their books,” Rasenberger said. “The most complicated issue with this era is that authors are told they can’t write about certain topics.”

Other organizations warned that the criticism of the novel, and Gilbert’s response, set an alarming precedent, and urged them to release their novel as originally planned.

“Publishing a novel set in Russia should not be seen as an act that exacerbates oppression,” Susan Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said in a statement. “The choice to read Gilbert’s book rests with the readers themselves, and those who have trouble reading Gilbert’s book should be free to express their opinions.”