Because it is “set in Russia,” Penguin Random House decided to shelve the next novel by Elizabeth Gilbert.
A group of people in 20th-century Siberia who wanted to “resist the Soviet government” was the initial focus of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Snow Forest. Gilbert has supposedly decided to cancel herself or her next book in response to “an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers.”
She said she is “changing directions” and pulling the book from its planned release date. This is not the right moment to release this book. She doesn’t want to “add more suffering” to the lives of suffering people.
Even though Pyotr Tchaikovsky passed away in 1893, the Ukrainian government has long urged Western countries to undertake a “cultural boycott” against Russia. Despite being set in the middle of the past century in Siberia, the novel More than 500 users on Goodreads have criticized the Snow Forest.
Ukrainians fighting a defensive struggle against Vladimir Putin’s brutal onslaught may feel even more anguish from the book’s Russian setting.
There is no reason to believe Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t a caring and compassionate human being who would never intentionally harm individuals who have endured so much already.
To situate a story in a country engaged in a horrible imperial war is not an endorsement of that war. Nothing would be left to write about if we banned the cultural products of nations currently invading or had previously attacked other countries.
The Gilbert ruling is irrational, and it sets a troubling precedent.
Understanding what it is to be human is a central theme in literature. Pretending that our books are set in a paradise on Earth inhabited by angels would be dishonest. When our writers have an idea for a story, do they need to poll our readers to see whether they are interested in reading it?
Given the ongoing effort being made throughout the political spectrum, both on the right and the left, to control and sanitize what we read and teach, the suppression of Elizabeth Gilbert’s unpublished work is less unexpected than it should be. Campaigns like the one waged against The Snow Forest are made more accessible by social media, picking easy targets like books and authors to stifle free speech and set limits on what may be said.
The power of the masses seems to be intoxicating.