On Monday morning, author Elizabeth Gilbert posted a video to her social media accounts announcing that she was pulling her newest book, The Snow Forest, from the publishing calendar. The historical novel, which centers around a family in the 1930s that finds refuge from the Soviet government in the woods of Siberia, received backlash online from Ukrainian readers who criticized her for publishing a book set in Russia amid the Russian war in Ukraine.
“Over the course of this weekend, 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,” Gilbert said in the video, in which she also noted that all pre-orders would be refunded. “I want to say that I have heard these messages and read these messages, and I respect them. As a result, I’m making a course correction, and I’m removing the book from its publication schedule. It is not the time for this book to be published. And I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and who are all continuing to experience grievous and extreme harm.”
Following a request for comment from TIME, Gilbert declined to speak on the issue further.
Gilbert’s announcement, however, sparked additional discourse online, with some questioning what the consequences of her decision would be for writers and others in publishing in the future.
Here’s what you should know about the controversy over Elizabeth Gilbert pushing back the publication of her novel, The Snow Forest.
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Why Elizabeth Gilbert pulled her book
Gilbert announced the publication of The Snow Forest early last week, with a scheduled release date of Feb. 13, 2024—nearly two years since Russia first invaded Ukraine. Following the initial announcement, the book became the target of review bombing, a practice where online users post multiple negative reviews on social media and review sites, which has increasingly become a problem for authors. In Gilbert’s case, the book was targeted on the book review site Goodreads, where it received hundreds of one-star reviews that slammed Gilbert for using Russia as a setting and featuring Russian characters.
On the Monday morning following the book’s publishing announcement, Gilbert took to social media to share that the book would be pulled from the calendar indefinitely, noting that she had personally heard and read the messages from Ukrainian readers, and stating that “it is not the time for this book to be published.” She said she would be focusing on other book projects in the meantime.
Following the announcement, Gilbert’s decision was met with both support and criticism. One commenter on her Instagram post thanked her for pushing back the book and defended her decision to naysayers. “It’s easy to judge when you haven’t experienced war and genocide from a neighboring country. . . ANY mention of anything Russian right now is a huge trigger for any Ukrainian,” the user wrote, going on to describe atrocities that Ukrainians have endured since the start of the war. “Then you see that one of your favorite authors wants to release a story that is set in Russia, that is about Russian people, that [romanticizes] Russian culture. It’s beyond painful and unfair.”
Others online critiqued Gilbert’s decision to pull the book, arguing that it could set a dangerous precedent for other writers in the future or contribute to censorship.
What this could mean for controversial books in the future
Gilbert’s announcement sparked discourse online about the precedent her decision might set for controversial books in the future. Some pointed out the dangers of attempting to limit what authors can write about, while some were dismayed that the book’s publication was canceled seemingly due to review bombing, without any critique of the book’s actual content. Others pointed to how the decision spoke volumes about privilege, noting that while Gilbert, an established and best-selling author with a large following, could afford to push back her book’s release date, there are many who could not financially or professionally afford to do so.
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement that she hoped Gilbert would reconsider her decision and publish the book as originally scheduled, calling the author’s choice “regrettable.”
“Ukrainians have suffered immeasurably, and Gilbert’s decision in the face of online outcry from her Ukrainian readers is well-intended,” she said. “But the idea that, in wartime, creativity and artistic expression should be preemptively shut down to avoid somehow compounding harms caused by military aggression is wrongheaded.”
Nossel lamented the timing of Gilbert’s announcement and the fact that those who decried its publication could not have had a chance to read it. “The publication of a novel set in Russia should not be cast as an act exacerbating oppression. Fiction and culture are essential to supporting mutual understanding and unleashing empathy,” she said. “The choice of whether to read Gilbert’s book lies with readers themselves, and those who are troubled by it must be free to voice their views.”
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