Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer is one of the most celebrated writers working in the English language today. Named among Granta’s Best Young American Writers and the New Yorker’s 20 Best Under 40, he’s one of the rising stars of a new generation of American greats. Best known for his two novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer’s first major work of non-fiction, Eating Animals, was a passionate piece of advocacy for conscious eating that changed minds and polarised audiences. In the colourful surrounds of Melbourne’s Storey Hall, he joined the Wheeler Centre’s Michael Williams in conversation.
As readers of Everything is Illuminated and Eating Animals will be well aware, Safran Foer’s grandmother looms large in his life, both as inspiration and at times a curious figure. He discusses her influence on him, including her remarks upon reading an excerpt of his first novel that it was “very nice”, but not how she would have chosen to write it. (He returns to the topic of his grandmother and the inspiration for Everything is Illuminated at the very end of the session, when an audience member asks him what he thinks about transgenerational trauma.)
It’s clear throughout the conversation that Safran Foer still feels reluctant to claim his identity as a writer. He recalls the first radio interview he ever undertook and how, via a “65-year-old black man in Trenton”, he became aware of the breadth of people to whom his writing could unwittingly relate. Even after the success of Everything is Illuminated, he says he had “no conception of [himself] as a writer”. “To me, it sounded like saying, ‘I’m a lover’. It didn’t seem like something one should say,” he argues, but admits “at a certain point it was just simply true.”
All the same, he contends that “writing is the vehicle and not the destination” and, at that, an imperfect but nonetheless thrilling one. “The ends for me are a kind of emotional experience or a kind of access to thoughts and feelings that I can’t get anywhere else,” he explains.
Safran Foer’s entry into writing was unplanned. Without wanting to be a writer, he took a writing class at university, where Joyce Carol Oates took him under her wing, encouraging and mentoring him. He remembers a comment she made before a class one day as being the moment he realised there was such a thing as “my writing”. The support he experienced under Oates, he says, is the reason he now teaches students of his own. “The difference between writers and non writers is not [that] writers are better at writing,” he later adds. “It’s that writers write.”
He confesses to being a writer whose awareness of historical and critical context is not as keen as some of his peers, who are critics as well as writers. “I don’t think in that language of literary movements,” he explains. When pressed on the question of peers, he reveals his “natural” repulsion to the idea of being a part of a literary community or cohort. “Being a writer, to me, is being individual,” he clarifies, “so thinking about it in the opposite way makes me feel uncomfortable.”
As Williams directs discussion to his second novel, Safran Foer describes his response to being accused of exploiting tragedy for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and describes how his brother’s early feedback prompted the question of whether the book was indeed about the September 11 attacks. Toward the end of the session, he shares his thoughts on the text’s filmic adaptation currently underway.
Safran Foer briefly discusses his most recent book, the postmodern Tree of Codes. The volume, rendered almost sculpturally with its intricate die-cut pages, is a reconfiguration of his favourite book: Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles.
As he has often remarked, having kids has reemphasised to the author “the stakes of life, the stakes of writing”. It reinvigorated his desire to write and infused him with a heightened sense of responsibility for his decisions. The resulting book is his widely publicised work of non-fiction, Eating Animals.
Safran Foer clearly separates Eating Animals from his other works. He explains to Williams why it’s not a work of art, but “useful”, and articulates the difference between fiction and non fiction.
He is also unconcerned with the question of whether he’s been recast as an activist since the book’s release. “I don’t care if I’m a novelist, I don’t care if I’m an activist. I care about spending my time in ways that feel meaningful to me, and ways that feel like they’re a reflection about my concerns,” he remarks. He says the point of Eating Animals was not to make people vegetarian, but simply to make the subject “harder to forget”, to urge people to ask questions and to guide them through those questions.
The New Yorker says he didn’t know much about eating animals before he started writing the book, having drifted in and out of vegetarianism for years. He now sees the term as stifling and lacking in subtlety, alienating many and imbuing others with a certain righteousness. “Obsessing over the details of identity, seeking out hypocrisy,” he states, “can feel really good… but they’re not useful.”
Instead, we should focus on the common aims and universal values we all share. “We want a world that is less violent, less cruel and more sustainable,” he offers, underlining the fact that he considers himself neither an animal lover nor an environmentalist. “Let’s be serious about those things, including our limitations,” he adds, admitting that there is “zero chance” half of the assembled audience will be vegetarian in ten years. Williams cites the example of fellow New York resident and food critic Mark Bittman, a “quintessential foodie” whom Safran Foer says is “vegan until five”. “After five, he eats whatever he wants.”
An audience member asks how Safran Foer responds to critics of vegetarianism. The writer stresses the importance of being generous with your assumptions. He cites studies suggesting some animals may in fact suffer pain more intensely than we do, and that we must acknowledge the limits of our knowledge. If we are generous in our assumptions, he says, the worst outcome is that we’ve missed some good meals. But if we err on the side of the ungenerous, we could be partaking in something truly horrible.
Jonathan Safran Foer appeared with the support of the Sydney Opera House.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of two novels - Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) - and a work of non-fiction, Eating Animals (2009).
Michael Williams joined Sydney Writers’ Festival in September 2020, as the Artistic Director navigating the post-pandemic landscape going into the 2021 festival. He has spent the past decade at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in Melbourne; as its founding Head of Programming in 2009, and then as its Director from September 2011.