It’s a meaty debate for Jonathan Safran Foer

Interviewed by Rosanna Boscawen

At 33, Jonathan Safran Foer has caused quite a stir in several different circles. His first two novels, Everything is Illumintated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close divided the critics – for some they are pretentious and for others intellectually exciting. His most recent novel, Tree of Codes, is something of a work of art, a story cut from the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create a new work, though one which is rooted in and grows out of Schulz’s tale.

His excursion into the world of investigative journalism¸ Eating Animals, was first published in 2009 and is released in paperback in the UK on 27th January this year.

The book, a beautifully woven tapestry of fact and the artistry of storytelling, is a frightening glimpse at the reality of factory farming in America, strung together with a very personal approach that traces his Jewish heritage in Europe through to his young son’s future in America.

“For a long time [the meat industry] is something I have longed to be more sure about”, he explains. “I wanted to expand the conversation about meat; we need more information and better ways of talking about it”.

Safran Foer dabbled in vegetarianism throughout his youth, torn between the ethical issues of eating meat produced under inhumane conditions, and the fact that food and eating are, for people across the world, an essential part of cultural and personal identity.

The table is where old stories are recounted with a laugh or a sigh, and new ones are born. Meat is part of the food on that table, and is responsible for many of those stories, he argues. It may seem strange that Safran Foer prioritises “Storytelling” (the first and last chapters are so-titled) over issues such as the health benefits of eating meat, but to read the book is to begin to understand its significance in his life, and all our lives.

In spite of the power and value of stories, Safran Foer concludes that, knowing the facts, he can no longer justify eating meat. In his writing he is forceful, yet when talking about it he admits that “it’s difficult still” to be a vegetarian and stick to it. “People who deny that it is difficult aren’t fully honest”.

Towards the beginning of the book, he claims that it is not “a straightforward case for vegetarianism”, but rather a personal investigation, one that really got underway when he discovered he was to become a father. However, upon reaching the end, it is hard to describe it otherwise, as Safran Foer first argues for his own position, and then pushes for the reader to change his or her habits as well.

When I open the book at a random page I read such facts as “upwards of 95% of chickens become infected with E.Coli” when reared on an American battery farm. Perhaps this pro-vegetarianism is the logical conclusion, then? Safran Foer, surprisingly, disagrees.

“I actually thought the case would get stronger the more research I did, but small farms undermine the case for complete vegetarianism; their existence confirms the seeming impossibility of it”. Safran Foer displays deep affection and concern in his writing and in conversation for these farms, where the farmers care for their animals as individuals during their life and their slaughter. But they are few and far between.

How much difference is there between the industry in the UK and in the States? In his Preface to the UK edition, Safran Foer says that we “should not find any peace in being British”; in other words, although the book focuses almost exclusively on farming in the States and the laws and attitudes here are markedly better, many of the same practices exist on both sides of the pond. I asked him if he had done much research into factory farming in the UK.

“The UK is certainly better than the States. Meat produced on factory farms is in the low nineties [percentage-wise]. But the problem is that everywhere in the world is becoming like the States. And”, he asks, “how much better does it have to be” before the meat produced is deemed acceptable? Different people would undoubtedly have different standards and expectations”.

Safran Foer’s book is, if not enjoyable, compelling. (“Most people don’t really know what to say about it,” he laughs. This can only be a good thing from his point of view, proving he has touched something in his readers.) He has noted that “people are persuaded” by the book; perhaps, then, he might bring consensus among his readership about what it ought to expect in terms of the treatment of meat.

Critics have praised him for his belief in the power of writing to bring about change – but isn’t this a little idealistic, to say the least?

“I think we can be simultaneously idealistic and realistic – we can want things to change but accept that they are not going to happen straight away”. He later adds that “not everyone [in the world] has the same ability to change”. For some it is a question of means – their own financial means and the means (or lack thereof) of their countryside to produce crops. Indeed, the only other place in which Safran Foer himself would eat meat is, he says, “if I was living in one of those places where it’s hard to grow crops”. (He would also have considered it if he was living fifty years ago or more, before factory farming condiditons became as extreme as they are today).

The old days of farming are now far behind and barely visible, livelihood has been condensed into poetry on the page and on the screen. Safran Foer tells me: “Today, big bosses of farms are always away. The big companies will remove humans whenever possible, and the ratio of farmers to consumers is smaller than ever before”.

As his book demonstrates again and again, farming seems no longer to be about producing enough meat for the masses; instead it is an operation in generating money for the few, with no regard for the cost.

This is not an innovative book in terms of content, but, being primarily a creative writer, Safran Foer presents the information in a personal and refreshing style.

“It was a strange thing for me to do. My career as a fiction writer was going pretty well”.

“Do you think it will affect any fiction you write in the future?” I wonder.

“No I don’t think so. Obviously fiction is influenced by the world but it shouldn’t be influenced by a personal goal”.

His latest fictional offering, Tree of Codes, certainly falls in the first category: the text is literally cut from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles (‘Tree of Codes’ is ‘Street of Crocodiles’ with a few letters removed). It is a fragile object, a collection of terrifyingly delicate pages: “It took me about a year to make,” he recalls. Despite being turned away by numerous printers, he and his publisher eventually found a Belgian company, Die Kuere, which was willing to take on the project.

There were two main reasons for the book, the author – or artist, I should say in this case – explains: “I’ve been interested in die-cutting [where holes and shapes are cut into the page] for a while. I also liked the idea of a book that had pieces missing”. Not just a pretty face but also a complex aesthetic idea.

Schulz’s novel is Safran Foer’s favourite: “Some writers create lots of readers and some create lots of writers. Schulz is in the latter category. In his writing I always want there to be something else”.

Safran Foer’s suggestion as to what that “something else” might be is, in a seeming paradox, smaller than Schulz’s novel. The 3,000 words are “an experiment”, and not something he expects to become the norm in fiction.

Like all of Safran Foer’s contributions to literature, both fiction and non-fiction, the carefully chosen phrases and floating sentences of Tree of Codes are wonderfully unexpected.

To talk to, Safran Foer is pensive and calm, but on the page he is gripping and provocative. Whatever your personal opinions on vegetarianism and literary and visual aesthetics are, I can guarantee that if ever you pick up a book with Jonathan Safran Foer’s name on, you will find yourself questioning them.

Eating Animals, at £9.99 and published by Penguin, is out in paperback on 27th January 2011.

Tree of Codes, £25, published by Visual Editions, is currently being reprinted but more copies are expected in shops soon.