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The Elizabeth Gilbert Mess
A new low
I’m not one to readily opine on cultural debates. I have my moments when I’ll share, and try to state where I land on various tussles over “cancel” culture or “woke” or what’s happening in the newsrooms or on campus. I believe, fundamentally, in the First Amendment, and strong free speech protections. I believe in a culture that safeguards free speech, one where the informal default is more speech, not less. In recent years, I’ve become quite rankled with the contention that since First Amendment rights are applied in a governmental sphere, private speech should enjoy no serious defense, that it’s fine if a corporation or an actor in academia engages in censorship. I find both the Left and Right have, in most cases, only a passing regard for the value of freely shared speech in a democratic society. Of late, conservatives have embraced the free speech mantle, but they will have no defense for the speech from leftists they don’t like. If a student on campus is against Israel and delivers a speech, a public university should be defunded, in their estimation. And the Left, of course, has long retreated from its ACLU roots, with the organization transmogrified into yet another alphabet advocacy group.
As you might have heard, the author Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, wanted to be a liberal in good standing. To do so, she announced she wouldn’t be publishing her next novel, which is set in Siberia. Her Ukrainian readers were upset, you understand, because this novel, which apparently takes place during the existence of the Soviet Union, dared to use Russia as a setting when Russia is in the midst of invading Ukraine. “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.”
“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.”
It is not the time, you see. When the war concludes, perhaps, novels can be written about Russia again. But only Russia must be condemned. If your novel takes place in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands—all places that have propagated, at some point in history, mass atrocities, enslaving and murdering across the world—you may carry on. Most nations on Earth have blood on their hands somewhere (indigenous populations exterminated, ethnic and religious minorities virulently oppressed) so it might be safer, in the long run, to not publish novels at all. As an American author, I may now have to advocate for the cessation of all American fiction. That’s the only way we’ll all be safe.
The Gilbert episode would be amusing if there weren’t people who thought she did the right thing. Ten years ago, it would all read like parody. Today, the coverage is solemn and straight-faced. In the last century, anti-German and anti-Russian hysteria led sauerkraut to be renamed “liberty” cabbage and the Cincinnati Reds baseball team to play as the “Redlegs.” From afar, we diagnose these events for what they were—xenophobic moral panics—but in the present they acquire a savage logic. Vladimir Putin is a tyrant, after all. Shouldn’t we boycott the nation he commands? Shouldn’t the 145 million-odd people under his yoke all pay a collective price? By that same logic, the Iraq War should have led to the censure of 300 million Americans, including Gilbert. Perhaps she’ll mail back her royalty checks.
There is a greater horror here, and that’s what this all might mean for the arts in this country. American culture, from the high to the low, has always had a pulsing streak of philistinism. The low goes without saying, and it’s a reality I ultimately forgive—many people work way too hard and have too many distractions to properly appreciate a novel or a painting. It’s high philistinism that will forever infuriate. The Acela class that reads three books a year, two of them about Trump, and believes there isn’t much of an intellectual or even moral difference between binge TV and Don DeLillo. It’s the class of liberal that is most uncomfortable with nuance, that hunts, childlike, for wherever white knights might be. It’s the individual who believes art and politics must be fused, just as the fascists wanted; if the art is not serving the cause, then the art must be discarded, erased. Ukraine, now, is that cause; the war itself is at a horrific stalemate, with antecedents that are far more fraught than they might seem to the conventional American news consumer. If Ukraine is elevating their own fascists and anti-Semites—and punishing free media—should it, too, be on the list of nations where novels can no longer take place?
The answer, in our own democracy, should be obvious enough. Art, to succeed, cannot serve as public relations or propaganda. It does not exist to be “good” for the Ukrainians, the Russians, the Democrats, the Republicans, or whatever cause you may hold dear. It exists to challenge, to illuminate, to bear us, as humans, to depths and heights we may not otherwise be able to access. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” time for a novel. In two years, if Ukraine has won or Ukraine has lost, it will make no more sense to write a work of fiction set in Russia than it does today. That’s because there is no “sense,” either, a concept that does not belong to art. And if it does, it ceases to be art at all—it becomes a press release, a talking point. Gilbert may consider herself more a businesswoman, anyway. When branding is paramount, a public relations pivot becomes indistinguishable from the art itself. Gilbert must sort herself onto the correct side. Now she can go on in peace, without the pesky one-star Goodreads reviews.
Will other writers, in the future, follow suit? If Gilbert, a millionaire, will bow to the online froth, will others do the same? Most likely, they will seek to avert such an episode altogether and self-censor. A far less famous writer, mulling a novel or short story about Russians, will shelve it for safer terrain, and hope the political mood eventually shifts. This is what happened during the first and second Red Scares, when anti-communist mania ruined thousands of American lives and crippled generations of artists. The writer today must feverishly check the news reports—is Ukraine making progress in the famed counter-offensive? Must we support indefinite American military aid to the Ukrainians, at the risk of a nuclear confrontation, so novels with Russian themes can be published anew? The writer eats and the writer prays. What a strange country this is.