Thursday, April 18, 2024

‘Eat Pray Love’ author Elizabeth Gilbert backtracks on ‘regrettable’ decision to set new novel in Russia, cancels book entirely

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Author Elizabeth Gilbert is delaying publication of a novel she had set in Russia, saying she had received an outpouring of “anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain” from Ukrainian readers. The head of PEN America, the free expression organization, called the decision “regrettable.”

Gilbert’s “The Snow Forest,” set in Siberia during the Soviet era and billed as “a dramatic story of one wild and mysterious girl in a pristine wilderness, and of the mystical connection between humans and the natural world,” had been scheduled to come out next February.

It has received hundreds of one-star reviews on the online reader site Goodreads. Many denounced the novel — which has yet to come out even in advance editions — as insensitive and a whitewash of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“It is not the time for this book to be published,” Gilbert said in a video message posted Monday on social media. “And I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced, and who are continuing to experience, grievous and extreme harm.”

A spokesperson for Gilbert at Riverhead Books confirmed the novel was being postponed indefinitely, but otherwise declined comment.

Since the Russian invasion began in February 2022, the creative community has wrestlied with how to respond. Stephen King and Linwood Barclay are among the writers who have said they would not renew Russian rights to their work, while the prize-winning Bulgarian novelist Georgi Gospodinov has said he wants his current book, “Time Shelter,” read in Russian because of its anti-Putin theme.

Books based in Russia have continued to be published, whether or not they’re issued in Russia. A mystery novel published last week, Paul Goldberg’s “The Dissident,” is set in Moscow in the 1970s.

Gilbert’s action is unusual because she went beyond boycotting Russia and withdrew the book altogether.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel issued a statement Monday saying Gilbert’s decision was “well-intended,” but also “wrongheaded.”

“The timing of the uproar, right after Gilbert announced the forthcoming publication, makes clear that those objecting have not yet had a chance to read or judge the work itself,” Nossel said. “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. 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.”

Gilbert, best known for her million-selling memoir “Eat Pray Love,” said in announcing the new book recently that it was inspired by the spread of the coronavirus. In a video posted last week, she said she had lived in isolation during the pandemic and came to love it and “crave even deeper silence.” Trying to imagine how far one could remove herself from the modern world, she remembered a magazine article about a family that hid in the Siberian wilderness for half a century.

“The Snow Forest” tells of a girl of “great spiritual and creative talent raised far, far, far from everything that we call normal,” Gilbert said.

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