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Elizabeth Gilbert, Author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ Pulls New Book Set In Russia

The best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert said Monday that she had indefinitely delayed the publication of her upcoming book after she was criticized online for writing a novel set in Russia.

The move comes as publishers and institutions struggle with how to handle Russian art and literature as the war in Ukraine rages on. The uproar that drove Gilbert’s decision to pull her novel, which is set in 20th century Siberia, suggests that the debate has broadened to include the question of how the country should be represented in fiction.

“I have received an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers,” Gilbert said in a video posted on Instagram, “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 of it is — that is set in Russia.”

She continued: “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.”

The publication of the book, “The Snow Forest,” was announced last week and had been scheduled for Feb. 13, 2024, shortly before the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The novel follows a Russian family that has removed themselves from society in the 1930s to try to resist the Soviet government. By Monday, the book had amassed hundreds of one-star reviews on the website Goodreads, with commenters on that website and on Instagram condemning the book’s Russian setting and characters.

Gilbert is a best-selling and acclaimed author whose memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” has sold millions of copies worldwide and been adapted into a movie staring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. But even for a writer whose work is so well known, a surge of negative attention could be harmful to sales.

A representative for Gilbert’s publisher, Riverhead Books, said that Gilbert had no further comment. She also confirmed that the novel is being delayed indefinitely, and that no decision has been made about whether it will be revised.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, arts institutions have sought to distance themselves from Russian artists and writers — in some cases, even from dissidents. In May, during PEN America’s World Voices Festival, participating Ukrainian writers objected to a panel featuring Russian writers, leading to a disagreement about how to proceed and the cancellation of the panel. (Both of the Russian writers on the canceled panel, the journalist Ilia Veniavkin and the novelist Anna Nemzer, had left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.)

Last year, the Metropolitan Opera in New York cut ties with the superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who had previously expressed support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who denounced the invasion, had his concert tour in Canada canceled last year. The Bolshoi Ballet lost touring engagements in Madrid and London.

Still, even with the ongoing public pressure that institutions face to steer clear of Russian artists and art works, it is striking that an American author is facing a backlash for setting a novel in historical Russia.

Other recent and forthcoming novels set in Russia or featuring Russian characters seem to have, so far, escaped similar scrutiny or calls for cancellation. Paul Goldberg’s new novel, “The Dissident,” which centers on a group of Soviet dissidents in Moscow in the 1970s, received an enthusiastic review this month in The Washington Post, which “praised the novel’s fervor, black humor and an infectious zest for Russian culture.” In October, Other Press is releasing “Wizard of the Kremlin,” a novel in translation by the Italian and Swiss writer Giuliano da Empoli that features a fictionalized President Putin.

And Russia has long been a popular backdrop for thrillers and spy fiction, though in those genres Russians are frequently cast as villains. Later this year, Simon & Schuster plans to publish Anna Pitoniak’s novel “The Helsinki Affair,” a thriller about a C.I.A. officer who gets a tip from a Russian defector about a planned assassination and uncovers a conspiracy.

Reactions to Gilbert’s decision were mixed, with some applauding her sensitivity to an ongoing international crisis, and many others, particularly in the literary world, expressing bafflement and concern about the consequences of pressuring novelists to avoid certain subjects and settings.

In a statement, Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive, urged Gilbert to release her book as planned.

“The publication of a novel set in Russia should not be cast as an act exacerbating oppression,” she said. “The choice of whether to read Gilbert’s book lies with readers themselves, and those who are troubled by it must be free to voice their views.”

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