Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Elizabeth Gilbert had “an important announcement” to make. In a Twitter video, the Eat Pray Love memoirist – looking authorial in statement glasses and a bold-print blouse – explained that last week, she’d alerted readers that her new novel, The Snow Forest, would appear in February, 2024. Then, over the weekend, many of her “Ukrainian readers” shared their “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.”
Her forthcoming book is forthcoming no more. “It is not the time,” she said.
I have not read The Snow Forest. Nor, it would appear, have the Goodreads reviewers – over 170 of them, with commenting now turned off – so mad at its existence that they have given the book a one-star (lowest-possible) rating. Ms. Gilbert’s Ukrainian “readers” (Goodreads is ostensibly for those who have actually read the books they review, but no one checks) accuse her of “romanticizing Russians,” seemingly on the basis of the book being set in mid-20th-century Russia. The concern seems not to be the book itself, but whether it’s really a good look, at a time when Russia is engaged in ongoing aggression in Ukraine. A reviewer named Oksana calls it, “The worst timing in the history of worst timings.”
Bad reviews sting, even when they have the air of a bot campaign. That said, Ms. Gilbert should have ignored the pile-on. If she felt the need to make a statement, it could have been that her book is fiction, set in a Russia of a different time, and not a statement of support for Vladimir Putin. She could have supported Ukrainians’ fury while pointing out that it was, in this case, misdirected. She might have even insisted upon the inherent separation of novels from the news cycle.
I realize this is not the way of the publishing industry, which is a business, and not a pure celebration of Art. Publishers of fiction consider whether there’s timely relevance to a topic, or, conversely, whether we’re in a moment when a particular subject would put off audiences. Bookstore windows showcase works whose themes are in keeping with whatever the concern is of the moment, or whatever the awareness month happens to be.
But authors are not obligated to contribute to this awareness-month-ification. While fiction does relate to the times and places where written, no matter where set, it is not, and logistically cannot be, real-time commentary on the news.
Ms. Gilbert is not the first fiction writer to respond to criticism by pulling a book from publication. But a couple of things distinguish this literary scandal from other self-cancellations. One is Ms. Gilbert’s level of success. Eat Pray Love, her 2006 memoir, was turned into a 2010 Julia Roberts movie. This suggests that she’d have had leverage in standing up to critics. If even she capitulates, what hope does a less established writer have?
The other is that the people Ms. Gilbert offended are not generally viewed as marginalized. Yes, Ukrainians face oppression, but this faux pas will not be received as revealing some hidden truth about an author being racist, ableist or otherwise bigoted.
If incidents in which a book is panned out of existence before it even exists are not more common, it’s because, at every level of publishing, efforts are in place to prevent the creation of offensive content. Published authors emerge not from garrets, but from creative writing graduate programs, where they’re inculcated in the sensitivities of the day. Prepublication, they may seek out sensitivity readers, low-rung quasi-editors who vet the manuscript to see if it could plausibly offend members of an identity group to which the author does not belong.
In the last decade or so, a sensitivity lens came to dominate arts criticism, and, to some extent, regular people’s experiences of books and the arts more broadly. This is the context for the Brooklyn Museum’s new Picasso exhibit, co-curated by comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose aim is to remind museum-goers that Picasso was sexist. That the exhibit, “It’s Pablo-matic,” was panned by The New York Times suggests that some are tired of looking at art solely in terms of offensiveness.
Every artist, no matter their identity categories, is human, and therefore problematic. So why not dismiss the very idea of inoffensive art, not in favour of aggressively offensive works, but so that art can return to its proper role, as a way of making meaning out of the human experience? It means taking a risk on novels that cannot be featured as part of an awareness-month promotional cycle. But it might be worth it.