Ever since reading Eat, Pray, Love, I have been one of your biggest fans. In your nonfiction books and novels, you always managed to connect with, inspire and delight the reader.
Several years ago, I flew to Italy for a writing conference largely because you were one of the scheduled speakers. (See accompanying photo for proof). You did not disappoint. You led a memorable workshop in which you instructed us to write letters to ourselves from our Fear, Enchantment, and Persistence. Imagine, we were told, that it is nighttime and, somewhere in a farmhouse, members of a family — the different parts of ourselves — are gathered around the kitchen table, and each one is given a chance to be heard. It was a powerful exercise and many of the mostly female participants found themselves sobbing. Even me, the cynic. You told us that it was okay to feel scared and unworthy, especially when seeking a creative life. And you confided that you often wrote those same letters, expressing your darkest fears of going broke or never writing something good again. I came to see you as a good mother sitting alongside me as I wrote, which is why I feel especially let down now.
Earlier this month, we Gilbert groupies were thrilled to read that your newest novel would be released next February. The Snow Forest was about some orphans in mid-20th century Siberia and, like tens of thousands of others, I eagerly awaited its arrival. But a few days later, you made an online announcement equivalent in shock to the one in which you revealed that you were divorcing from your second husband of Eat, Pray, Love fame because you had fallen in love with your best female friend: you had decided to pull The Snow Forest. The decision was a response to an outpouring of protest from Ukrainians, reportedly upset that the novel would romanticize Russia during a time when their country was being invaded.
This was all, to use a Siberian-inspired metaphor, thin gruel for such a flagrant act of self-censorship. According to your own description, The Snow Forest was about “a group of individuals who made a decision to remove themselves from society to resist the Soviet government and to try to defend nature against industrialization.” In short, it was a novel that was critical of the Soviet government. Not exactly a Leni Riefenstahl biopic about Hitler.
Your self-censorship was one of the most insidious examples of a climate in which the arts, especially book-writing, has become increasingly politicized. Authors are lambasted for writing about ethnic groups other than their own. And in a move that hit close to home, Irish novelist Sally Rooney blithely refused to have her novel, Beautiful World, Where are You? translated into Hebrew, because of her opposition to the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, without suffering any major blowback.
But like everything else you’ve done, Liz, this self-censorship really was exceptional, which is why it has received blowback.
“Do we sacrifice Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chagall?” Kat Rosenfeld asked in a Free Press article. “What about Russian hats? Russian dressing?”
And, as novelist Rebecca Makkai pointed out, “So apparently: Wherever you set your novel, you’d better hope to hell that by publication date (usually about a year after you turned it in), that place isn’t up to bad things, or you are personally complicit in them.”
There were better ways this could have been handled, Liz. You could have donated proceeds from the book to the Ukrainian cause. You could have used your words, those amazing words, to condemn the politicization of the arts.
What upset me most about all this, Liz, is that all this proves you’re a bit of a fraud. These are harsh words, but hear me out. We all read about how you had a dark night of the soul stretched out on the bathroom floor of your marital home which led to the decision to leave the marriage and make the trips that vaunted you from middling to superstar author. We loved your free spirit, your willingness to buck convention and your message to everyone: you too can do this! You had us write letters from our Fear because you told us that through this, we could conquer those fears. But, unfortunately, you didn’t do the same.
But don’t worry, Liz, you may have lost me as a groupie, but not as a reader. I won’t use any of this as an excuse not to buy your books. Because despite all this, you’re still a first-rate artist. I can make the distinction between this political act and writing. Too bad you can’t do the same.