June 13, 2023 - 10:00am

Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert began writing her novel The Snow Forest when she was utterly alone in the early months of the pandemic. Her isolation, she realised, satisfied a deep longing. “What is the farthest away you could go from what we call humanity?” she wondered.

She remembered the extraordinary story of Karp Lykov and his family, who were discovered by geologists in 1978 after surviving for decades, completely cut off from all human contact, in the Siberian taiga. The family were members of an orthodox sect called Old Believers, and fled to the forest in 1936 to escape religious persecution, after Karp’s brother was shot by a Communist patrol. It’s hard to imagine how she could set her novel in any other country — when you lose Russia, you lose the Lykovs’ profound motivation to stay alive and continue practicing their faith.

In the creator economy, the relatability of an author’s brand, the size of her following, and the strength of her connection to her audience is a more powerful, reliable marketing engine than anything a publisher can provide. As part of her publicity campaign, the Eat, Pray, Love author promoted her upcoming book to her 263,000 Twitter followers, calling them “Dear Ones” before she asked them to click “Buy”. But shortly after the tweet, Gilbert announced that she had received “an enormous massive outpouring of reactions” from Ukrainian readers, upset that she would release a book set in Russia after the Ukraine invasion. Six days after sharing the preorder link, Gilbert told her audience that she is removing The Snow Forest from its publication schedule.

The idea that a novel about a family fleeing religious persecution from Communists is in any way “pro” Russia is not only absurd — it’s also the exact same argument of potential “harm” wielded by the crusading book banners in American schools. But more importantly, her self-cancellation sets a dangerous precedent for authors who lack her wealth, career stability, and clout. If writers have to participate in the creator economy to earn a living in this industry, what happens when their audience demands a product recall? A novel can take many years to write; there’s no way to predict whether you’ll sell it to a publisher, let alone predict how geopolitics will impact the public reaction to your work. If we can’t stomach novels set in countries that have dark and ugly stains on their records, I have bad news for anyone writing fiction about America.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is horrific, and their unconscionable invasion has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties. But Gilbert’s decision to postpone her novel’s publication will have no material effect whatsoever on the lives of innocent Ukrainian citizens; nor does it do anything to change the tide of public opinion, when a majority of Americans already support Ukraine in the war.

If the publishing industry becomes an arena of culture where the only works deemed worthy of public reception are the ones guaranteed to do no harm, we will become like the isolated Lykovs, whose highest form of entertainment was to describe their own dreams.

Leigh Stein is the author of the satirical novel Self Care.

Leigh Stein is the author of the satirical novel Self Care.