On June 12, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert announced that her forthcoming novel The Snow Forest, slated to be published by Riverhead in February 2024, will not be released as scheduled due to backlash from Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian internet users over the novel's Russian setting. The book, which was added to the the Penguin Random House website on June 6, has since been deleted.
"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—any book, no matter what the subject is—that is set in Russia," Gilbert said in a video message posted to Twitter. "As a result, I'm making a course correction, and I am removing the book from its publication schedule. It is not the time for this book to be published." All pre-orders, she said, would be refunded.
The weekend prior to her announcement, more than 500 people rated the book with one-star on the book review platform Goodreads, with nearly a third of them also leaving critical reviews. Large swaths of the reviews included concerns that the novel would "romanticize" Russia. "While Russia is shelling and destroying Ukraine in 2023, writers continue to romanticize Russia? Shame!" wrote one user. Many comments were not specific to the book, with one-star rater simply declaring, "I hated, hate and will always hate russians [sic]." Many commenters' usernames were written in Cyrillic.
The outpouring of criticism is an example of what has become known as "review bombing," in which Goodreads users mount a coordinated effort to inundate a book's Goodreads page with negative reviews. However, the outcry over The Snow Forest is somewhat unique as it took place pre-publication, and was therefore based not on the book's content but its premise.
According to the publisher's descriptive copy on Goodreads, the novel takes place in the 1930s and 1980s, and is set "in a remote, high-altitude corner of Siberia." It follows a family of religious fundamentalists who, per Gilbert's video message, "made a decision to remove themselves from society to resist the Soviet government and to try and defend nature against industrialization."
"I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and are continuing to experience grievance and extreme harm," Gilbert said, "so that is the choice that I have made."
Criticism of Gilbert's decision swiftly followed, with many authors, writers, and literary critics extremely concerned by the precedent that it set. On Twitter, authors such as Isaac Butler, Sarah Rose Etter, Gretchen Felker-Martin, Olga Grushin, Lincoln Michel, and Matt Taibbi expressed their outrage and frustration; the Atlantic repudiated Gilbert's "wrongheaded attempt to help the Ukrainian cause."
In a statement, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel acknowledged that the decision was "well-intentioned" but "regrettable." Nossel went on to urge Gilbert to reconsider:
"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. 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. The publication of a novel set in Russia should not be cast as an act exacerbating oppression.... We hope Gilbert might reconsider and we urge others to rally around the on-time publication of her book, and the principle that literature and creativity must not become a casualty of war.”
However, some, including the Authors Guild, backed Gilbert's decision. In a statement, the Authors Guild affirmed that "every author should have to right to decide when and how they want to publish their work." The statement continued:
"It’s a personal choice, and since words have power, Elizabeth Gilbert absolutely has the right to decide how and when her words should best be used. Some Americans believe it is a stretch to be so upset about a book set in Siberia a century ago seemingly detached from the current regime or crisis wrought by Putin, but Gilbert heard and empathized with the pain of her readers in Ukraine, and we respect her decision that she does not want to bring more harm to her Ukrainian readers."
It is unclear if or when The Snow Forest will be published.