Eat, Pray, Cringe
elizabeth gilbert’s pointless self-cancellation perpetuates a destructive trend toward censorship in publishing, but also hints at a hopeful vibe shift
Following a backlash so mild it hadn’t even cracked Twitter, Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, initiated a dramatic, public self-cancellation, and removed her latest ‘offending’ work from publication. The crime? Her unreleased novel, which followed a family’s struggle against Soviet communism in the 1930s, was set in Russia, which a small group of actual crazy people on the internet apparently believe forbidden. Gilbert’s was a wild act of self-censorship, which set a dangerous precedent. But mostly… nobody cared, and it was all kind of just embarrassing. Vibe shift? Confirmed.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and author of five novels; her most recent book, You Must Remember This, was released in January. Today she guests for Pirate Wires with a dip into the Gilbert “scandal” that nearly wasn’t, and definitely didn’t need to be.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-cancellation video is, among other things, an ambitious exercise in genre-mixing: the whispering, intimate tone of a TikTok confessional, the stark lighting of a hostage video, and the camera angle of your boomer parents FaceTiming from an iPad that’s perched on the coffee table. Gilbert leans into the camera, her blonde hair tumbling around her face, a pair of comically oversized orange glasses perched high on her nose.
“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… that is set in Russia,” she says. “And I want to say that I have heard these messages and I have read these messages and I respect them… It is not the time for this book to be published.”
Until this week, Elizabeth Gilbert was best known as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir about finding her bliss (and her appetite) in a post-divorce odyssey through Italy, India, and Bali. Now, she’s the unwitting harbinger of what appears to be a massive vibe shift within the literary community, and perhaps in the culture at large.
Gilbert’s upcoming novel, The Snow Forest, was set in 1930s Siberia — which as we all know is part of Russia, which as we all know is the headquarters of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing and execrable war against Ukraine. As is so often the case when it comes to publishing controversies, this fourth-degree connection between American author and Russian imperialist wasn’t a big deal until, suddenly, it was: over the weekend, The Snow Forest was trashed on the book review site Goodreads in an organized campaign by people who took exception to Gilbert’s choice of setting. As of this writing, the book has 174 reviews and 533 ratings, every single one of them one star, and most employing eerily similar language that suggests the existence of a form letter lurking behind the scenes. (Chief among the claims is that Gilbert's book, which was not slated for release until February 2024 and which absolutely none of its critics have read, is guilty of “romanticizing” Russia.)
This type of coordinated effort to torpedo a book before it’s ever been published is a familiar specter in the literary community, whose most influential members are often both extremely online and extremely prone to jumping aboard whichever ostensibly-progressive bandwagon is gathering steam at any given moment. In the world of young adult (YA) fiction, where this type of pressure campaign was invented and refined, a single outraged tweet or post could kick off a maelstrom of righteous indignation, one often amplified by authors themselves. There’s a bucket-of-crabs dynamic to these controversies; in YA, previously-unknown authors could gain a boost in visibility by aligning themselves with cancellation-happy influencers (or, for that matter, take out a competitor by way of seeding rumors that their book was politically incorrect). Unsurprisingly, one of the top Goodreads critics of Gilbert appears to be an author of fantasy novels herself.