Elizabeth Gilbert – the author of the chick-lit classic Eat, Pray, Love – announced last week that the publication of her new novel, The Snow Forest, will be delayed indefinitely.
More than 500 people used Goodreads to condemn the novel – crucially without having read it. It is grossly insensitive, so the (mostly anonymous) Goodreaders argue, that Gilbert has chosen to publish a book set in Russia and about Russian people in the midst of the war in Ukraine. Never mind that the book is set in the 20th century (long before the invention of Vladimir Putin); never mind that the story is about a family who actually resisted the Soviet Union. Russia equals bad. Computer says no.
To be a Goodreader today, then, has a double meaning. You are supposedly a good, as in capable, reader, but also a good, as in virtuous, one. So eager are these readers to make the world a better place, and to rid it of evil, that they expect writers to play their part too. And if they don’t, if writers dare write about prohibited subjects (such as Russia), off with their books!
The Snow Forest is not the only book to face the Goodreads guillotine. In 2019 the young adult novel A Place for Wolves by Kosoko Jackson was withdrawn from publication after a Goodreads backlash. Reviewers objected to the book’s use of genocide as a backdrop for romance. Even Jackson, with his previous experience as a sensitivity reader, did not survive the mob. The Goodreader is a crusader, bent on cleaning up our dirty world one book at a time.
Gilbert is a journalist and an author who has sold millions of books in many different languages. She has described the way she became a writer as similar to the way other people become “monks or nuns”. Gilbert once told the Daily Beast that she had no “Germanic Romantic” idea of losing herself in her work. Quite right. The behind-the-scenes life of a writer, I’ve often thought, is best described as squirrel-work. You spend most of your time reading, selecting small nuts of text and burying them for later use. Often these nuts stay in the ground for some time before they are needed.
What’s happened, and what is happening to Gilbert, makes me reach for a shovel, to excavate one of those kernels. In 1965 the American writer Eudora Welty wrote an essay called “Must the Novelist Crusade?”. Welty wrote that we must remember that the crusader and the novelist are on “opposite sides”. The purpose of fiction for the crusader is to advance right-thinking arguments. Conversely, the purpose of fiction for the novelist is simply to depict life as it really is.
The decision made by Gilbert and her publishers to pull The Snow Child undermines this useful distinction. By shelving her novel, Gilbert assented to the idea that novels ought to do more than just confront life and try to capture its messiness. Instead, Gilbert gave weight to the corrosive notion that only books which further certain causes, or offer clear-cut arguments, are worthy of publication. It is her obligation as a novelist to oppose the crusaders, not to kowtow to them.
Particularly a novelist like Gilbert, with millions of readers (and dollars) on her side. The material pressures on her are less than those which faced, and continue to face, JK Rowling. She did not have to bury her work because 500 people told her to do so. How many great novels would we have if they were paraded before a court of 500 before they were published? Would we have much Joyce, or Rushdie, or Nabokov? (Or Judy Blume, or DH Lawrence, or Alice Walker?)
This should be quite straightforward: writing a novel set in Russia is nothing like condoning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
If the novelists lose the will to fight – and fighting here is indivisible from the best writerly qualities: noticing and thinking and grinding things out – then the Goodreaders gain even more power to decide what books live and die. We will all lose if that happens. For, as Whelty argued, all “right-thinking” novels are alike. Thoughtless conformity is the enemy of writing.