Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, is facing criticism after deciding to withdraw her upcoming book, The Snow Forest, from publication, due to controversy over its Russian setting. Though the plot of the book itself in no way concerns the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, being set in Siberia in the 1930s and 1980s, the book was ‘review-bombed’ with one-star ratings on Goodreads by Ukranian users and supporters following its announcement. One reviewer complained: “While Russia is shelling and destroying Ukraine in 2023, writers continue to romanticize Russia? Shame!”
In an Instagram video posted on 12 June, Gilbert stated that the “outpouring” of “anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain” she’d received from Ukrainian fans had moved her to “make a course correction” and delay the book’s publication. “It is not the time for this book to be published,” Gilbert said, adding that she did “not wish to add any harm” to the Ukrainian people through her writing.
However, Gilbert’s decision to withdraw the book was not uncontroversial. PEN America, a non-profit organisation dedicated to defending freedom of expression, described the move as “well-intended” but “wrong-headed” and urged the author to “reconsider”. “The choice of whether to read Gilbert’s book lies with readers themselves,” the organisation said in an official statement, “and those who are troubled by it must be free to voice their views.”
Gilbert’s fellow writers jumped on the bandwagon via Twitter. Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood suggested: “Why not release it as a fundraiser for #Ukraine?”, while Roxanne Gay (most famous for her collection of essays entitled Bad Feminist) called for Goodreads to institute a “mechanism” to prevent future “one-star attacks”. Jerusalem Prize winner Joyce Carol Oates prompted an angry backlash from Ukrainian Twitter users when she responded to a tweet saying “boycotters don’t read anyway” with: “Of course they don’t read! […] they weren’t going to buy the book anyway, & possibly don’t buy anyone’s books, ever.”
An article in The Atlantic described the book’s withdrawal as “transgress[ing] the first principles of the Ukrainian cause” and effectively summed up the crux of the debate when they accused Gilbert of “abnegat[ing] her responsibilities as a writer”.
The question raised is, of course, do writers have a responsibility to their readers? Does the very act of writing a book entitle people to read it? At which point in the writing process does a writer’s work stop being theirs and become public property?
Whether any individual agrees or disagrees with the idea that it would be inappropriate to publish The Snow Forest in the current climate, until it is published and released to the public, the novel is Gilbert’s property to do with as she wishes
Writers from The Guardian, The Times and The Spectator have raised concerns that Gilbert’s heel turn in the face of negative press is a sign that free speech is at risk. However, every event in this story so far is a direct result of people exercising their right to free expression.
Gilbert had a legal right to write her book. Goodreads commenters had a right to express their negative reaction to the book’s setting (it is worth noting that, within Russia, public criticism of the war is currently punishable by up to five years imprisonment or a 300,000 ruble fine). And Gilbert, in response, has a full right to withdraw the book from publication. Whether any individual agrees or disagrees with the idea that it would be inappropriate to publish The Snow Forest in the current climate, until it is published and released to the public, the novel is Gilbert’s property to do with as she wishes. The question posed by Gilbert’s critics is whether she should have this right, or whether it conflicts with the rights of her readers.
A similar story played out in 2020, when The Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria announced that he would no longer be voicing his famous character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, due to accusations of racism. Though characterised by many, including Simpsons show-runner Al Jean and Monty Python star John Cleese, as a result of “cancel culture”, Azaria insisted that the decision to move on from the character was his own. In an interview with the New York Times, he explained that “it just didn’t feel right” to continue after the criticism. In particular, he was moved after reading about a shop clerk who was violently attacked by people who yelled “Apu” at him. “I think if I had any doubts at that point… I got the answer. Apu had become a slur,” Azaria said.
If Azaria’s quitting raised concerns about free speech, then they should surely have been centred on Hari Kondabolu, whose documentary, The Problem with Apu, first brought the discussion about Apu and racism into the public consciousness. Despite Kondabolu’s claims that he never asked for the character to be removed from The Simpsons cast, he still received death threats for voicing his opinion so publicly. Yet all discussion about censorship in relation to the ‘Apu debate’ focused on Azaria’s character.
Many concerns about The Snow Forest‘s withdrawal in particular seem to be less focused on Gilbert’s own right to choose, and more on the possibility of less popular and powerful authors feeling pressured to make the same choice as a result
Free speech in the UK is defined as “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. It excludes hate speech and direct threats of violence, but not negative reviews.
Critics of the cases surrounding Gilbert and Azaria, however, suggest that some limitation to the critical free speech of others, especially when directed at controversial art and media, should be applied so as to prevent the online dogpiling or ‘cancelling’ of creators. As a concept, the argument echoes philosopher Karl Popper’s famous ‘paradox of tolerance’, the theory that a truly tolerant society can only exist if intolerant ideas are not tolerated.
Many concerns about The Snow Forest‘s withdrawal in particular seem to be less focused on Gilbert’s own right to choose, and more on the possibility of less popular and powerful authors feeling pressured to make the same choice as a result. Author Leigh Stein described the move as “set[ting] a dangerous precedent for authors who lack her wealth, career stability, and clout”.
This fear is not entirely without merit. In 2017 a Vulture article by Kat Rosenfield, investigating the dramatic backlash to The Black Witch (a young adult fantasy novel, later a New York Times bestseller) due to accusations of racism on Twitter, found that several authors and reviewers would only consent to be interviewed anonymously. One blogger claimed that she would be “blackballed” if word got out that she was involved with the article. Several sources expressed “fear of financial damage and abuse”, and Rosenfield herself faced harassment.
Despite claiming to stand for the rights and free speech of authors everywhere, the one thing that Gilbert’s critics seem not to understand is that she does not owe them a book
Publishers interviewed, however, expressed significantly less concern, with one unnamed ‘big five’ publisher saying: “There’s no such thing as bad press […] at some point people will buy it just to take a look at it so they can join the critical parade.” Rosenfield noted that, while ‘review-bombing’ was hugely impactful in the online sphere of Book Twitter, the general book-buying public often remained oblivious. She described the debates as being “confined to a handful of internet teapots where a few angry voices can seem thunderously loud”. Perhaps the main thing that separates The Black Witch from The Snow Forest is that, being written by a more famous writer (and aimed at an older audience), the thunderous voices it attracts are imbued with much more importance.
Fundamentally, however, there is only one voice in the conversation that actually matters.
Despite claiming to stand for the rights and free speech of authors everywhere, the one thing that Gilbert’s critics seem not to understand is that she does not owe them a book. Until The Snow Forest is published and formally released to the public, Gilbert’s rights as the author trump those of any reader, for the same reason that breaking into somebody’s home to read their private diary would not be protected under free speech laws.
Gilbert hath given and now she hath taken away. And a world where authors are not free to change their minds about their writing may well be a world where they become too anxious to write at all.