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Big Think Interview With Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestselling novels Everything Is Illuminated, named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Here I Am, and a book of non-fiction, Eating Animals. Foer was one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire's "Best and Brightest." Foer was also included in The New Yorker magazine's "20 Under 40" list of writers. Foer attended Princeton University in New Jersey, where he studied Philosophy. It was while at Princeton that Foer was able to take an introductory writing course under the tutelage of novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Oates noted Foer's talent at an early stage, informing him that he had "that most important of writerly qualities, energy." Of Oates, Foer later said:
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestselling novels Everything Is Illuminated, named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Here I Am, and a book of non-fiction, Eating Animals. Foer was one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire's "Best and Brightest." Foer was also included in The New Yorker magazine's "20 Under 40" list of writers.
Foer attended Princeton University in New Jersey, where he studied Philosophy. It was while at Princeton that Foer was able to take an introductory writing course under the tutelage of novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Oates noted Foer's talent at an early stage, informing him that he had "that most important of writerly qualities, energy." Of Oates, Foer later said:"She was the first person to ever make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way. And my life really changed after that."
Jonathan Safran Foer: My name is Jonathan Safran Foer. I'm usually a novelist, but I'm here to talk about a book of non-fiction about eating animals.
Question: How do narratives we tell ourselves affect our relationship to food?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, you know, it might not have been true five years ago, it probably wasn’t true 10 years ago or 15 years ago, but now, most people have some sense of what the factory farm system is. They might not know the breadth of it, that it’s 99% of all of the meat that’s sold in the supermarkets and restaurants. And they might not know that the, sort of, environmental destruction that results from it. And they might not even know of the extent of the animal cruelty or the human health effects. But if you ask most people, you know; do you think most meat comes from a place you’d like to visit or not? They would say, probably not. Probably not a good thing.
And every day we’re given more and more reasons to worry about where our food comes from. Right now there’s an egg recall, half a billion eggs. There’s been e-coli tainted beef a number of times in the last couple of years, people are dying from it. We now know very, very firmly that animal agriculture is the number one cause of global warming, and yet very few people, including people who are normally quite political and quite moral and moralizing, talk about it. And even fewer people act on their concerns about where food comes from. And I think it’s because food is not just fact and it’s not just reason; it’s culture, it’s personal identity, it’s what our parents and our grandparents fed us. How we think of ourselves, how we want to think of ourselves, and it’s always attached to some kind of a story. And that confuses things. The Thanksgiving turkey confuses things. The Christmas ham confuses things. Every family has its own version.
But what we need is a different way of talking about meat that is itself a story. It’s not an argument or a work of journalism, but something that involves this messiness of being human beings and that is what I tried to do with this book.
Question: What responsibilities do we each have a modern individuals?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well I think different people feel these responsibilities differently. So somebody who is very active in environmental causes might think about meat in a way that’s different than an animal lover or a pet lover would. And that person might feel about meat differently than a doctor would. But what we can say is that Greenpeace doesn’t serve meat anymore at of its functions, Al Gore has advocated eating less meat. The United Nations has said that animal agriculture is one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem on the planet. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Disease Control has said that we need to stop raising animals in the way that we are because it’s making antibiotics less effective and also propagating Swine Flu and Avian flu and anyone who knows anything about how animals are treated is repulsed by it. It doesn’t take being an animal lover. I myself am not an animal lover. I don’t particularly care for chickens to be honest, or cows or pigs. But there are some things that are sort of below the line of very basic human decency and the farm system that we have is.
Question: Could we really feed the nearly 7 billion people on earth without factory farming?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well the argument is sometimes made that factory farming feeds the world and it’s not only untrue, it’s the opposite of the truth. It takes seven calories of food input into an animal to produce one calorie of food output. It’s an extraordinarily inefficient way to produce food.
Now, it’s true that there are some landscapes in the world and some you know, communities where meat really is the only option, and I would not argue against that at all, but that’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about the meat industry. We’re talking about McDonald’s. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about Burger King, we’re talking about airport food, we’re talking about supermarket meat, Tyson’s, Smithfield, and this is food that is not only not going to hungry people, but in a very direct way is injuring the Third World. Absolutely raping Brazil, you know, the number one cause of deforestation of the world, number one cause of the loss of biodiversity. And the way the subsidy structure works makes it almost impossible for, for example, countries in Africa to produce their own food.
So we can absolutely eliminate animals from the equation. They are not necessarily the most important part of this conversation. If what you care about is hungry people eating, then that in and of itself is a very good reason to reject factory-farmed animal products.
Question: How do farm subsidies exacerbate the factory farm problem?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, there’s a farm subsidy structure now that encourages us or encourages farmers I should say, to feed corn to cows. Now, corn is not a food that they’re naturally able to digest. This is why virtually all cows in the country are on antibiotics and other kinds of special drug additives in their feed. Ironically, one might say, cows naturally digest grass, which is a food that humans can’t naturally digest. So instead we’re feeding them something, corn and soy, that you know, could go into human mouths.
Vegetarians are often made fun of for eating a lot of tofu, but 98% of the soy crop in the world goes to cows; to feeding livestock. So, in any case, we have now created an economic system which is very advantageous to feed animals unnaturally, house them unnaturally, and raise genetic stocks that are destined for illness. And the small farmers, who are really the heroes of my book, farmers at places like Niman Ranch, farmers like Frank Reese at Good Shepard, farmers like Paul Willis, are at a severe economic disadvantage for doing things the right way; for being environmentally responsible; for treating their animals like animals rather than like rocks or pieces of wood.
Question: Is the farming situation as bad in other countries, or is this a uniquely American invention?
Jonathan Safran Foer: The factory farm is an American invention, but it’s a global problem. So in German, for example, 98% of the meat that they consume comes from factory farms. It’s 99% in America. In England, it’s about 95%. So there are differences. And some of the differences are very important. The European Union has been much more progressive with food laws than the United States. But there’s no reason to be hopeful and unfortunately China and India are now changing their eating habits and their farming techniques to resemble the United States. And if the Chinese and Indians eat like Americans do, and everything else in the world holds constant, if the population holds constant, we’re going to have to farm twice as many animals as we do now. That will be 100 billion animals every year.
Question: If consumers felt the real costs that go into making a Happy Meal, would they change the way they eat?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, I don’t think the externalities need to be felt by the consumer, but by the corporations. So there was a study, actually after I published my book that tried to quantify the environmental costs of a 50-cent hamburger, fast food hamburger. Putting the human health costs, putting aside the question of animal welfare, and the number they came up with was $200 per 50 cent burger. It’s not a hypothetical, it’s not an imaginary number—that’s what it actually costs.
You know, it’s the number one cost of global warming; in fact, a recent study has suggested that it’s responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than everything else in the world put together and as the U.N. has said, it’s one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem in the world, locally and globally. So we are paying for this. And you’re right, it’s spread out and there’s a distance between consumers and this cost. When we go to the cash register, it sure seems cheap.
So there are people in this country who don’t have access to alternatives, who live in what are called "urban food deserts." And ask them to eat differently is unfair. We have to ask people to change according to their abilities. So most people watching this, I imagine, are able to find other kinds of food.
Now, it’s true that buying good meat is dramatically more expensive then buying cheap meat. But always the cheapest way to eat is vegetarian and always the healthiest way to eat is vegetarian and always the most environmentally sustainable or sensitive way to eat is vegetarian. And people should peruse a menu the next time you’re in a restaurant and look at what the least expensive options are and they’re almost certainly going to be vegetarian options.
Question: How does the food industry manipulate language to deceive the consumer?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well the industry is incredibly manipulative. They recognize that people care about these things. Cage-free and free-range eggs are not the fastest growing sector in the food industry in America. And it’s not because the egg distributors have a good conscience and suddenly want to try to promote these alternative methods. It’s because people recognize that putting cages—chickens in a cage so small that they can’t turn around or flap their wings—they recognize that it’s not right. It’s not right for reasons that are really self-evident. And so even though this food doesn’t taste any better, even though this food isn’t any better for our health, people are buying it. And not just in Berkeley and not just in New York. They’re buying it everywhere in the country.
So the problem is that this extraordinarily manipulative and deceitful industry has found ways to take advantage of our concern. To ask us to pay more money for something that is in fact, not better at all. So in the case of eggs, for example, free range eggs, you know, you’ve probably seen "free range eggs" in every supermarket you’ve been in, in the last year or two. They’re everywhere. You’ve probably even seen them on menus. Free range is not legally defined. The U.S.D.A. doesn’t define "free range" when it comes to eggs. It means nothing. You could keep 100 hens in your toilet and sell their eggs as free range. Legally. And ask people to pay more money. So this should make people angry. You know, it makes me angry; it makes everybody I’ve told about it angry.
"Cage-free" is defined, but only in the most literal sense; they’re literally not in a cage. It doesn’t mean you can’t have 60,000 of them in a windowless shed pressed body to body. So what we need is some very clear legal terminology that is enforced. And we need to get those totally deceitful pictures off of the packaging. You know, when was the last time you saw a windowless shed on a pack of eggs? Never. You see a farm or maybe a farmer with a pitchfork or hay or grass or a barn. And it’s total crap. It has absolutely no correspondence to reality.
Question: Aside from the idea of “table fellowship,” is there anything else you and Michael Pollan disagree over?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well I think Michael Pollan is not only the most important, but the most sensible food writer, perhaps in American history. And it’s true that I disagree with him about certain things, but in the general scheme of things, extraordinarily small.
So as you were suggesting, one thing I disagree with him about is this notion of table fellowship, which basically states that there’s a good that comes from eating with other people. Eating what they make. I completely agree. The question is; how valuable is that? And is there anything that’s more valuable than that? And also, if you were going to be a conscientious eater, you know, Michael Pollan advocates eating an ethical meat, meat that comes from small farms. How does that figure into table fellowship? So let’s say somebody invites you over for dinner and you say, “I’d love to come. In advance let me tell you, I’m a vegetarian.” You know, in 2010 that’s not a shocking statement and it’s almost never a statement that requires explanation. Most people say, all right, fine. And they cook something else. Maybe it’s not what they had in mind, maybe it will require them to open a cookbook to figure out what they can make as an alternative, but really by no measure is it a big deal.
If you say instead, “Thanks so much, I’d love to come. Just so you know, I only eat meat that isn’t factory farmed.” You know, that comes from small farms, family farms. That all of a sudden really does create a situation and you’re going to have to probably send the person to a different link to different websites just so they can figure out what you’re talking about and then instruct them where to buy this food, which is almost certainly going to be much more expensive then what they were going to prepare. So if the question is table fellowship and this notion of the social bonds that are forged across a table, to me it seems the thing that promotes the most table fellowship is just being upfront about vegetarianism.
And the other thing I would say is, there might be some discomforts that we have to face, you know. It may be that there are going to be situations that we don’t eat the food that someone’s cooking, and it might be that the conversation that surrounds that decision that will inspire a fight or an argument at least. But I think we’re past the point of hiding behind politeness or discomfort. You know, we’re looking at a future of skyscrapers filled with animals. We’re looking at a future of an ocean with no wild fish. Fishery scientists say that in the year 2048, if we continue to fish like we are now and consume fish like we do now, there won’t be wild fish. And that sounds like a precise number. It’s not 2050, it’s 2048. It’s because it’s based on very precise calculations. We know that antibiotics won’t be useful for us in the future if we continue feeding animals 25 million pounds of antibiotics a year while humans only get 3 million pounds. Now this is not a future that we want and it’s only going to be avoided if we take a stand.
Question: Do you prefer the process of writing either fiction or non-fiction?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well they’re totally different in every way. The thing that I value most about fiction is how free it is. That anytime there’s something that I want to pursue, I can. If I become curious about something or, you know, something catches my fancy or seems interesting, I just do it. I follow it. There’s no question about usefulness or unnecessary destination and with non-fiction I always felt bound, both to reality, you know, my book has something like I don’t know, 80 pages of footnotes, but also to a conversation I wanted to have.
So every morning I woke up when I was writing "Eating Animals," I knew what I was going to work on. Every morning when I wake up to write fiction, even if I’m at the end of a book, I in a very fundamental way, don’t know what I’m going to work on. Each subsequent sentence feels like a mystery or possibility anyway. So, I was grateful to have that certainty of sort of a line of thought that I was pursuing, but it was also very difficult because I felt so constrained.
Question: What’s your creative process for fiction? Where do you begin?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, I begin with nothing and I unfortunately usually end with nothing in terms of the day-to-day process, but you know, it’s just a blank page. I’ve never had characters before I started writing. I’ve never had a moral. I’ve never had a story to tell. I’ve never had some voice that I found and wanted to share. Auden, the poet, said, “I look at what I write so I can see what I think.” And that’s been very true for me in my process. I don’t have a thought that I then try to articulate. It’s only through the act of writing that I try to find my own thoughts. So, it can be quite scary because you know, it’s... there’s a kind of faith, I guess, that you have to have either in yourself or in the process that something good will come from filling blank pages.
And it very, very often doesn’t feel that way, but every now and then you stumble upon something. Some idea which you didn’t know you had, or a feeling that you didn’t know that you had. And there’s nothing like that revelation and I don’t know of anywhere else in life to find it.
Question: What’s the hardest part about writing fiction?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Zadie Smith wrote an essay about humor in The New Yorker, and she talked about the experience of going out with a bunch of stand up comedians after a show. They went to a bar and she said they were asking each other, was it funny? Was it funny? Was it funny when I held off on the punch line for that extra second? Was it funny when I pointed at that guy in the audience? Was it funny when I delivered that joke with a straight face? And she said, you know, they’re neurotic and it’s crazy and very annoying. It just "was it funny?," “was it funny?” But as a writer she felt jealous of them because at least they knew what the question was.
And that’s the hardest thing about writing. You don’t even know what good would be. You know, is a good book an entertaining one? Probably not alone, otherwise, you know, Danielle Steele might be the greatest author that ever lived. Is a good book one that conveys some kind of moral imagination? Probably not. Is it one that is artful? Well, it’s hard to even know what that means, but there are very, very artful books that very few people can ever get into. Is it to be funny; is it to be sad; is it to be new; is it to be familiar; is it to describe life as people now live it; or is it to do just the opposite? You know, there isn’t any one answer, but the scary thing is that there might not be any answer. And investing all of your days toward a question that might not have an answer or that might not have an answer that you would ever had access to, is very scary. And that’s the hardest thing about writing.
Question: Do you think your novels, which rely on many uniquely novelistic devices, translate well into film?
Jonathan Safran Foer: You know, I can only say, I’m not the best person to answer that question. I can only say what I like and don’t like. And then I’m a terrible person to answer the question because it’s so emotionally complicated. You know, I wrote my books as books. I didn’t write them a screenplay. I wrote them as book because I thought that was the form the story should take. And I wrote them as I did because I thought that was exactly the way they should be. Anything else is not what I would have chosen.
That having been said, you know, when Liev Schreiber made a film of "Everything is Illuminated," I really relinquished all control and opinions because they weren’t going to be helpful. The best adaptation, film adaptation, of a book is not the most faithful one at all. Or at least it’s not the one that’s faithful to the text. It’s probably the one that’s faithful to what the text is referring to. So you know, it’s like if you saw a portrait of somebody you thought was very beautiful, you wouldn’t want to ideally spend the rest of your life with the portrait, you’d want to spend it with the person. So I think when Liev made that film, he was trying to make a film about what the book was about.
But as I said, it’s complicated because it’s like hearing your voice on an answering machine. Just much, much stranger.
Question: How do you feel about the term “magical realism” being applied to your books?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I don’t give a lot of thought to the term, “magical realism.” I guess I don’t give a lot of thought to criticism of any kind; good or bad, you know. It’s not what I do. I think that creating fiction and understanding fiction are two very, very different things. And our culture makes the mistake of thinking they’re more similar than they are.
There’s a great old saying that a bird is not an ornithologist. You know, just because it flies doesn’t mean it can explain the physics of flight. Doesn’t even necessarily mean it chooses to fly. It just flies because it’s a bird. And I think a lot of art is produced because it’s what the maker makes. There’s really no explanation for it. And to assume that the things we produce are the result of lots of deliberate and conscious choices, I think that can be a mistake.
Question: Are there ethical concerns about writing about the Holocaust or other cultural traumas, and which books have handled them the best?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I don’t think there are any ethical concerns. I think that one can create things that are bad. You know, one can create things that are bad, should say as a work of art, but also feel morally questionable. But I don’t think those are things that one should be asking in advance of making something. In terms of the best Holocaust literature, it really all depends on what you mean by holocaust literature. I think some of the best books written about the holocaust don’t feature the holocaust at all in any explicit way. Books like "Portnoy’s Complaint," for example, or books like "Kalooki Nights," by Howard Jacobsen. These are books that take place, in the first case in America and in the second case in London, but have everything to do with the reverberations of that event even if it’s not made that explicit. So maybe those are my two answers.
Question: Did you include the visual elements in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” because you think novels should evolve towards multimedia?
Jonathan Safran Foer: No, I think the written word is perfectly sufficient. You know, it worked for Kafka and if it doesn’t work for me it’s only because I’m not good enough with the written word. I included images in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" because I thought they were appropriate for that book. I wanted to capture the exuberance of this young boy, his sort of maximal imagination, also his imaginations, desire or need to grasp at lots and lots of things. September 11th was the most visual event, probably, in human history. It was witnessed by more people than anything else ever was or has been, and I thought that there was a visual component to that event that couldn’t be separated. And when we think about September 11th, we think about the two towers, the sight of them; we think about the plane going into them, the sight of that.
So I thought images were appropriate for that book. I don’t think that they are necessary or appropriate for every book or most books.
Question: Will the form of the novel have to change to accommodate the digital age?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Of course it will change, and anybody that thinks it won’t is not thinking it through enough. The New York Times is now on the iPad, right. If The New York Times didn’t have video embedded in it, if you couldn’t link from one article to another, if you couldn’t search back issues of The Times, if they had a piece about this unbelievable shot that, you know, Rafael Nadal hit and they didn’t have a clip of it, we would say that it was being negligent. Not only that it wasn’t taking advantage of the vehicle, but that it wasn’t providing us with the news that it could and should.
And so there’s going to be a real pressure on novels when they start to be read on screens—which seems like an inevitability—to interact with the vehicle. I don’t know what that will mean. I certainly don’t know that that’s a good thing at all. There are a lot of reasons to think that it’s a bad thing. But it seems like an inevitability, and literature has always been slow. Slower than the other art forms to grapple with... technological changes, cultural changes even. You know, when you look at a book like "Freedom," Jonathan Franzen’s most recent book, there are many, many ways in which it could resemble "The Odyssey," or Shakespeare. And I think that’s one of the things that people love so much about it, and should love so much about it. But if you look at artists who are not contemporary artists who are at the sort of peak of their game or the forefront of their forms, what they have in common with artists working 100 years ago, much less a couple thousand years ago, is almost nothing. You know, music has changed so much in the last 50 years. And the visual arts are barely even recognizable as art anymore. So maybe it’s been the saving grace of literature to be so conservative, but maybe it will contribute to its death. I don’t know.
Recorded on August 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the writer.
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