Elizabeth Gilbert < Cormac McCarthy (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Airbnb)

June 16, 2023   5 mins

This week has brought mixed news for beleaguered Ukrainians. Their army’s counteroffensive is taking a heavy toll on its own troops; there have been damaging missile strikes on the cities of Kryvyi Rih and Odesa; the breach in the Nova Khakova dam continues to cause chaos. In better news, however, the American author of Eat, Pray, Love has withdrawn her next book from publication.

The novel in question, The Snow Forest, is set in Siberia, and is now postponed indefinitely in the name of the Ukrainian people. In a video made by its author Elizabeth Gilbert to explain her decision, she explained she did “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”.

Upon hearing this, my first thought was that surely this book can’t be that bad. A memoirist and compulsive advice-giver as well as a novelist, Gilbert writes chatty, candid prose with an emphasis on spiritual matters. She frequently extols the virtue of bravery and curiosity and is prone to aphorisms: “Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat”; “Stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be”. Though the peppy writing style tends to set my teeth on edge, thousands of female readers apparently adore her.

It turns out, though, that the supposed harm that Gilbert describes in her video refers to the act of simply creating any sympathetic Russian character in fiction whatsoever, at least while the war is still happening. Thanks to her decision, the poor souls huddling in bomb-blasted apartments in Kyiv or Odesa will at least be spared the additional trauma of exposure to the inspiring story of an “extraordinary family who managed to hide in the Siberian wilderness for half a century without any human contact”, including “an extraordinary girl born into that world, a girl of great spiritual and creative talent, raised far, far away from what we call normal”.

As methods of protest against the war go, this gesture of Gilbert’s is surely up there with the least effective of them. It arguably outdoes cancellations of Russian artists, the removal of Russian classical music from repertoires, the pouring of vodka down drains, and the boycotting of Russian Twists during workouts. In terms of inanity, it may even beat the proposed rebranding of the White Russian cocktail to the “White Ukrainian” —  a suggestion made last year by a bar owner in Kansas City which, on further reflection, would seem to hinder things rather than help.

In reality, though, the most pressing harm the author had in mind when making her video was presumably to her own bank balance. Russia invaded Ukraine a year and a half ago. Gilbert has had ample time since then to reconsider her chosen theme. Yet it seems she noticed the supposedly devastating flaw only after the book’s public announcement, when readers’ websites such as Goodreads were being flooded with angry-sounding criticism.

Said one “Olga Rudnitska”: “Maybe, Elizabeth, you should’ve spent your pandemic time reading about all the Russian terror. Sad that after 15 months of invasion you still think that book about poor Russian family is a great choice.” Instead of laughing off such weirdly over-familiar snark as the product of people who have spent too long on the internet, Gilbert positively leapt into the unseemly role prescribed for her by these scolding voices — that of a repentant junior, gratefully receiving a lesson from her betters. Which is quite ironic, coming from the author of a book entitled Big Magic: How To Live A Creative Life, and Let Go Of Your Fear.

It’s perhaps not surprising when a self-help guru turns out not to follow her own lessons in practice. But it is genuinely sad to find a novelist as apparently accomplished as Gilbert misrepresenting fiction as governed by some strange guilt-by-association principle — acting as if, at any time, a work’s importance and value might be cancelled out by more pressing priorities in the real world.

This seems a culpable failure of nerve for a writer of stories. Fictions might be mostly made up, but they are still capable of conveying important truths obliquely — truths, moreover, that can easily be obscured from more everyday thinking, once jingoistic emotions and herd behaviours gain control. Call me a lily-livered literary humanist, but it seems to me that the waging of a bitter and costly war is a very good moment to start featuring complex characters from the regions concerned, represented in interesting and unexpected ways. Indeed, now seems exactly the right time to imaginatively open Russia up to readers, countering the profoundly stupid pressure from others to reduce an enormous country with millions of inhabitants into a single, distaste-filled, dehumanised thought.

Either way, in capitulating so easily, Gilbert has now set a precedent. She has signalled to internet critics that she is effectively their puppet, to be pushed around wherever their current source of negative affect takes her. And in doing so, she has made it even harder for the next author to stand up to those many online voices short on literary understanding, and long on venom and projection. Or more precisely, she has made it harder for the next female author to do so.

For the truth is that sensitivity readers, trigger warnings and censoring attempts are mostly directed towards publishing for women and children, rather than publishing for men. It’s chick-lit not prick-lit that tends to be treated as something to be morally perfected, and each week seems to throw up a new example. This week, it was also the turn of Nancy Mitford’s comic romance The Pursuit of Love, now published with the pious declaration that the text contains “prejudices” which were “wrong then” and which are also “wrong today”.

Most of these prejudices are presumed to belong to the character of Uncle Matthew, a gloriously xenophobic old buffer in a near-permanent tizz about frightful “Huns”, “frogs”, “aesthetes” and “sewers”. Perhaps if his preferred object of rage had been the godawful Russkis, the book’s modern sensitivity readers might have looked upon it more kindly.

Throughout her career, Gilbert has been a frequent resident on Oprah’s couch. And as it happens, another former visitor has also been in the news this week, albeit one who occupies a very different literary niche. Cormac McCarthy, who died on Tuesday, often wrote about inconceivable savagery between humans, observing it pitilessly with an eye to the aesthetic and elegiac. It’s quite funny to consider what trigger warnings might accompany his magnum opus Blood Meridian. Would the scalping, throat-cutting, and live castrations be the main problems? Or would it be the baby-bashing, horse-torturing and puppy-drowning?

Even in today’s febrile context, it’s hard to imagine the sensitivity readers coming for McCarthy — mainly because he is a man, most of his intended readers are men, and his subject matter couldn’t be more stereotypically manly (deserts, ranch-hands, nuclear apocalypses, and so on). The prospects for cancellation just don’t look promising enough. It’s only worth the effort of publicly trying to chastise someone when they look vulnerable to it in the first place — and in fact, if they aren’t vulnerable, it becomes positively foolish to attempt it, because in that case it’s you that ends up as the pariah and not them. It’s true that now he is dead, the sensitivity readers just might come for McCarthy anyway, but only because death is always something of an emasculation.

Meanwhile, in highly feminised literary worlds populated with romcoms, tearjerkers, historical novels, and fiction for young adults or children, it’s a different story altogether. Women mostly rule these realms, where “oh my god, I can’t believe you actually said that” is a familiar currency, as is retracting, apologising, and overexplaining nervously in response. With these basic facts in place, the field is clear for small-minded, loud-voiced bullies to take the spoils — as they have done in recent times in the UK, both with poet Kate Clanchy and children’s author Rachel Rooney.

But if we collectively stopped giving internet bullies the power, they wouldn’t have any. In my own preferred version of a more inspiring world, no women author or other female creative would ever have to make a retraction of their work again, or publicly apologise for anything at all. But if that’s too much of a pipe dream, then I think we should at least all commit to mocking any prominent authors with apologetic tendencies, until they start apologising for previous apologies in a panicked recursive spiral. I really think this strategy could be a gamechanger. I might even write a self-help book about it.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.