Being a censor is hard. You have to be constantly ready to feel offended or unsafe or abused, which is stressful, and lots of people are bound to hate you and call you nasty names like “Stalinist” or “Puritan” or “killjoy.” How much easier the purification of literature would be if writers could be moved to censor themselves in advance. At least they’ve read their own writing, which is more than can be said for people who call for those books to be withdrawn before publication on the basis of a tweet or a Goodreads post.
Sometimes, the censors get lucky. The latest writer to cancel herself is Elizabeth Gilbert, the immensely popular author of Eat, Pray, Love and other memoirs, novels, and self-help tracts. On Monday, Gilbert announced on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook that she is “making a course correction” and pulling her upcoming novel, The Snow Forest, from publication. The novel, she explains, is about a Russian family that withdraws from Soviet society in the 1930s and remains isolated for many years in Siberia. “Over the course of this weekend,” she writes, “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, any book, no matter what the subject of it is, that is set in Russia.”
You read that right: any book that is set in Russia. Perhaps especially any book set in Russia that you haven’t read.
On its now-deleted Goodreads entry, The Snow Forest had accumulated a one-star rating thanks to hundreds of negative comments, many from Ukrainians. Some typical posts:
All Russians deserve to be forgotten in the Siberian forests! As long as they bring only destruction and suffering to humanity, they do not deserve to be romanticized by their nationality in books!
The country and people being admired in this book are committing Genocide of 🇺🇦 Ukrainians as we speak. What is the point of promoting the trope of the “mysterious 🇷🇺Orc-realm soul” again?
It’s painful to hear that a lot of famous authors nowadays due to continuous invasion of russia in Ukraine still think its quite normal to cultivate and tolerate their culture. That’s disgusting. There is nothing interesting in them, nothing human. If you want to learn more about russia and it’s humans—try google ‘Bucha massacre’, Irip, Mariupol—that’s what is behind their ‘tender’ russian soul.
Elizabeth, where is the book about Hitler? Can you tell us how much fun it was for the Germans to kill children?
I’m not sure where the Orc-realm soul comes in. The publication announcement describes the book as “a dramatic story of one wild and mysterious girl in a pristine wilderness, and of the mystical connection between humans and the natural world.” To tell you the truth, it sounds rather silly to me. But since no one commenting has read the book, how do they know it romanticizes the Russian soul and admires Russia? After all, the book is about Soviet dissidents in the time of Stalin who are so horrified by their society that they hide away from other Russians for many decades.
I support Ukraine in its self-defense against the Russian invasion. I don’t understand the infatuation of a part of the left with the USSR or Putin’s Russia, or their weird claim that Russia, currently invading a sovereign nation, is anti-imperialist. I can understand why Gilbert’s Ukrainian fans would be upset about The Snow Forest, as it exists in their imaginations. But I can think of better ways for Gilbert to have responded, beginning with “I think you’ll be surprised when you actually read the book.”
As for Hitler, should people really have stopped reading German literature when the Nazis came to power, let alone any book, by anyone in the world, set in Germany—in any time period? My mother, who was Jewish, took German as a student at New Utrecht High in Brooklyn in the 1930s—did memorizing poems by Heine make her a Nazi sympathizer?
I’m not belittling the Ukrainians who attacked Gilbert. War makes people crazy, as we Americans, land of Freedom Fries and Muslim bans, ought to know. After all, in the early days of the Ukrainian invasion, some New Yorkers boycotted Russian businesses, including the Russian Samovar restaurant, which is owned by a Ukrainian, and the Metropolitan Opera dismissed Anna Netrebko, perhaps the greatest soprano of our time, because she condemned Russia’s invasion but didn’t distance herself from Putin emphatically enough for management’s taste.
None of that looks particularly intelligent in retrospect. You can empathize with the people of Ukraine—or any victims of war—without handing over your own inner compass. How can it be wise for Gilbert to give a random sample of total strangers veto power over her work—work they have not seen—and leave open the implication that other writers should do the same? Where’s her pride, her courage, her trust in readers, and her solidarity with other writers? Whatever her motives, Gilbert has added yet more pressure on writers to cancel themselves before someone does it for them. That can’t be good for writers, readers, or books.