This week, writer Elizabeth Gilbert pulled her upcoming February 2024 novel, THE SNOW FOREST, from publication. In a moving vlog post (I saw it on Instagram), she explained that, over the weekend, she had heard from many devastated readers in Ukraine who could not understand why she would publish a book set in Russia in this time of war.
The story is a novelized version of the real-life Russian Lykov family, who fled to Siberia in the 1930s in the face of religious persecution. They were discovered by a helicopter pilot in 1978. One daughter survives.
Wow. What a compelling story for the historical-minded writer and reader. Unfortunately, now that the book has been pulled from publication, I can’t find extended descriptions of it. It’s even gone from the PenguinRandomhouse website.
I have thoughts and feelings about Gilbert’s cancellation/publication postponement. As a thinking human, I can only imagine how upsetting it would be to see a writer and publishers profit from a story set in a country that has lately murdered (and continues to murder) thousands of my fellow citizens/residents. If Russia were currently pounding the US with bombs, and occupying our cities, I would not be happy to see, say, someone from a US-allied country releasing a book set in Russia. Profit makes it complicated. Emotion makes it nearly impossible to approach.
A writer like Gilbert is in a unique position. She’s one of a handful of internationally known writers who has built real trust with her readers. She’s exposed her life and deepest personal challenges to both cruel criticism and fabulous acclaim. She has inspired so many people to make their lives bigger, more intentional, and happier. Her book, BIG MAGIC, and the connected podcast had a hugely positive effect on me. A writer tells stories to readers. The reader completes the writer’s story by listening to it. Without readers, a story is a pile of dormant words on a page, or bytes in an audio file. Gilbert’s words are entwined with millions of lives. Of course she would be deeply affected by the anger and sadness of the people who complete her work.
As a writer, I can’t help but think about the chilling effect of this book cancellation on every aspect of the publishing industry. I think about the writers I know whose work is set all over the world, in many different time periods. We are talking about a historical work of fiction whose protagonists were fighting against the same government that is devastating Ukraine. (Not now Soviet, of course, but the same repressive party.) But even if it were a story about contemporary Russians who are conflicted about, or even currently working against the Ukraine invasion, should a book about them be cancelled?
Fiction allows us to explore the world in ways that non-fiction can’t. It can give us paradigm shifts that let us approach difficult subjects without fear. The historical writers I know are a curious, generally fearless bunch. They find the beauty and the warts and make it all real for us at an emotional level.
Was it really necessary for Gilbert to pull this book? I can’t know her heart, or what might have happened if she hadn’t. Might she have been cancelled if she’d released THE SNOW FOREST in February, near the anniversary of the war? Every writer self-censors every time they sit down with the page. Where do we draw the line? From a financial standpoint, this may have been an easy choice for Gilbert. It would not be so easy for a writer who has spent years writing a book in anticipation of it paying for her kids’ college or her mortgage. Writing is speech, and the fear of cancellation is chilling in dozens of ways. Principles ain’t cheap. Whose principles define us?
That’s a question with as many answers as there are people. I don’t envy Elizabeth Gilbert her painful situation. I also don’t envy the printers, distributors, writers, editors, advertisers, booksellers, and, of course, readers, who find themselves at this difficult place, more and more often.