Last week, best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert announced she would be indefinitely postponing the release of her upcoming novel The Snow Forest amid backlash over the book's Russian setting. The fictional story, set in Siberia in the 1930s, follows a family attempting to resist the Soviet government by removing themselves from society. Its February 2024 publication date, just before the two-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, sparked intense criticism that Gilbert and her publisher were being insensitive by promoting a book set in Russia at this time.
Within days of The Snow Forest being announced, it received hundreds of one-star reviews on Goodreads from people who had not read the book but objected to its subject matter. Gilbert said she had received many emotional reactions from Ukrainian readers in particular, expressing feelings of anger, sorrow and pain that she would release a book set in Russia right now. On Monday, Gilbert posted a video stating she did not want to "add any harm" and so had decided to postpone the novel indefinitely until a later, undetermined date.
The backlash highlights the ongoing debate about how to handle Russian arts and culture while the war in Ukraine continues. Many institutions have sought to distance themselves from Russian artists and writers, including those critical of Putin's regime. The question has broadened to whether works set in Russia should be published at all currently. While Gilbert stressed her desire not to cause further pain to Ukrainians, some in the literary community criticized her decision as self-censorship and expressed concern about the precedent it could set.
The Line Between Sensitivity and Censorship
On one hand, Gilbert's choice reflects sensitivity to the feelings of Ukrainians who have experienced tremendous suffering since Russia's invasion. As she noted, hearing from Ukrainian readers directly affected by the war convinced her now was not the appropriate time for her book. Some argue during an ongoing crisis involving Russia, promoting art and literature set there can appear insensitive or implicitly condoning. Just as public pressure has led some institutions to distance themselves from Russian cultural works lately, Gilbert reacted to similar outrage over her novel.
However, many worry this kind of self-censorship could enable broader censorship and stifle artistic freedom. While an author might choose to delay a book for any reason, the social media outrage and calls for The Snow Forest's cancellation based solely on its setting troubled free speech advocates. They warn that authors may increasingly feel forced to avoid certain subjects, contexts or portrayals out of fear of similar backlash. Some organizations urged Gilbert to proceed with her planned publication rather than let online criticism dictate her choices.
There are also concerns that outrage on social media does not necessarily reflect broader public opinion or the views of all Ukrainians. A vocal minority on platforms like Goodreads may create a distorted perception of objections to a work. Some argue that rather than withdraw the book, continuing as planned would uphold the principle that readers can make their own choices about whether to read a work, regardless of its content or context. Self-censorship also inevitably raises difficult questions about where to draw the line.
For instance, films and novels set in modern day Russia or portraying Russian protagonists positively appear unlikely to generate comparable controversy currently. Works like spy thrillers casting Russians as villains seem acceptable as well. Outrage so far focuses primarily on humanizing historical or literary portrayals of Russian society and culture. However, some question where the line should be drawn once calls for avoiding specific settings or characters begin. These concerns illuminate the complex tension between respecting current sensitivities and enabling possible censorship.
Navigating Sensitive Topics
For authors like Gilbert writing on complex topics tied to current crises, there are no easy solutions. Well-meaning creators may unexpectedly find themselves the subject of intense criticism once their work is publicized. Social media amplifies a small number of voices, making it hard to distinguish genuine widely shared objections from distortions created by a vocal minority. Outrage can spread rapidly online whether or not it reflects most people's views.
Gilbert clearly acted with good intentions based on direct feedback from Ukrainian readers. But the backlash and her decision also raise difficult questions. As some pointed out, no location will be immune from historical or future atrocities. If authors avoid writing books set anywhere some may currently deem objectionable, literary freedom suffers. Yet dismissing all criticism as unjustified censorship can also seem callous during times of conflict.
There are no perfect solutions, but perhaps a principled, nuanced approach can help navigate these tensions. Artists should thoughtfully consider criticisms of their work, while also adhering to their own conscience. Outrage justified or not will occur, but not all calls for cancelling art need be heeded. If historical context and artistic merit justify a work despite controversy, it may be worth weathering criticism. But proceeding tactfully and compassionately remains important. Engaging with upset communities may be preferable to dismissing all dissent as censorship. If delaying publication seems the most ethical option, creators should not face condemnation for self-censorship. By recognising complexity, perhaps authors can publish meaningful art without detachment from human suffering.
Elizabeth Gilbert's choice highlights crucial debates about art, ethics and free speech. It underscores the need for nuance in judging works tied to complex real-world contexts. Perhaps some thoughtful reflection on all sides could lead to healthier discourse moving forward. But the line between sensitivity and censorship likely remains subjective and situational. As this controversy shows, there are no perfect answers when navigating the intersection of art and morality.
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