Eat, Pray, Cancel: Was it ok for Elizabeth Gilbert to pull novel set in Russia?

Modern tactics of damnatio memoriae, the Roman practice of condemning the memory of an enemy
Photo by Yosuke Ota on Unsplash

As a writer and a journalist I have to say that Elizabeth Gilbert’s decisive pulling of her new novel strikes me as simply outrageous.

If you aren’t au fait with the story it’s as follows. In early June, the American author of the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, announced the publication of her new novel The Snow Forest. Barely a week later, Ms Gilbert posted a video on Twitter cancelling the book. She said it was a gesture of respect and described receiving “an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers… about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now – any book, no matter what the subject of it is – that is set in Russia”.

The novel, incidentally, is set in Siberia and revolves around people who have retreated from civilisation.

Ms Gilbert concluded as follows: “It is not the time for this book to be published. And I do 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.”

But here’s the question or rather several questions: Is a novel set in Russia adding to the “harm” experienced by Ukrainians? If so, how is it adding to the “harm”? Is it just that it’s immensely painful for Ukrainians to hear or read any depictions of Russia even as the war grinds on?


But in that case, here are two other questions: Does that mean Russia should be cancelled in every way? Should it be turned it into the place that must  not be named?

Just to put these questions in context, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel has said Ms Gilbert’s decision was both “well-intended” and “wrongheaded.”

We’ll look at the concept of damnatio memoriae next and after that, explore modern tactics of condemning the memory of a tyrant, a traitor or any other perceived enemy.