November 10, 2009

Jonathan Safran Foer

A modest proposal
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Since his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, made him a major literary figure at the age of 24, people have been talking about the work of Jonathan Safran Foer. His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, continued the trend, sparking controversy with its inventive use of images and changing typefaces—a technique that was either a gimmick or genius, depending on your literary leanings. Now, Foer turns to a nonfiction topic, the ethics of eating, with equally provocative results. His new book, Eating Animals, goes beyond recent foodie tomes like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to explore the effect that our carnivorous tendencies have on society. Begun as a search for answers when explaining to his own young son why they don’t eat meat, the book takes readers along on Foer’s journey of discovery—which has already generated a lively debate and just might change the way you eat. We asked Foer a few questions about the new book, his research and his (meatless) Thanksgiving menu.

Food is a touchy subject for many people, especially where it intersects with questions of morality, as it does in Eating Animals. What kind of reactions have you gotten from people you know, when they find out what your book is about?
The strange thing is how people assume they know what my book is about before I tell them. Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about eating animals, they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.

What expectations did you have when you started writing this book, and how did they match up with what you found in the course of your research?
I assumed my book would end up being a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn’t. Factory farming turned out to be significantly more horrible than I was expecting it to be (if in different ways), but the best family farms exceeded my expectations in the other direction. I wouldn’t eat what they produce, but they made a philosophical case against meat eating impossible for me to make.

How do you think your book fits in with other recent books on the ethics and politics of food, such as Michael Pollan’s books and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?
It’s quite different. I’m a great admirer of Pollan and Kingsolver, but their books stop short of serious discussions of meat.

Do you see a connection between your novels, which concerned the Holocaust and September 11th, and the topic of Eating Animals?

What are some of the differences you have found between writing nonfiction and writing fiction?
Fiction writing is the most liberating thing I know how to do. The singular constraint is my own imagination. Nonfiction is all constraint. Of course there’s plenty of room for interpretation, and style and so on, but I always felt hemmed in by reality. How much more readable I could have made this book, how much stronger the argument, if I weren’t constrained by how things actually are!

You found yourself in some unusual situations in the course of researching this book, such as sneaking into a turkey farm in the middle of the night with an animal rights activist. Did you ever feel that you were in over your head? What was it like to take those steps?
Over my head would be an understatement. I was scared shitless much of the time, angry at myself for having ended up in such positions. I didn’t want to die at the end of some farmer’s rifle, or worse, because of a case of campylobacter. That having been said, it would have been impossible to write this book without seeing the insides of these farms. And having spent more than a year trying the old-fashioned way (letters and phone calls), at a certain point, I had to get in over my head.

How do you think people will react to this book?
I have no idea. Different people will react differently, of course. That much I know. And I know that not everyone will agree with my conclusions. But I hope that readers will see the importance and urgency of the questions.

How much did you know about the history or philosophy of animal agriculture before you began researching and writing this book?
I knew precious little. And the further I got into my research, the better I understood how little I knew. The history, in particular, is important, because one of the most startling things about our present system of animal agriculture is just how new and radically different it is. Factory farms now produce more than 99% of the animals raised for meat in this country. Eighty years ago, there were no factory farms. The suddenness of the change suggests many things, but at the very least we could say that it holds the promise of a quick reversal.

You talk about how the farming industry has tried, largely successfully, to coopt the language of animal welfare for its own purposes, promising that their chickens are “free-range,” for example, when often that simply means that the chickens can see the outdoors through a small screened window. Do you have any suggestions for how consumers can be certain that the products they buy really do come from farms that treat their animals humanely?
The only way to be sure, for now, is to visit the farms and see for yourself. But then, of course, there’s the problem of knowing how those farms operate over time—what they look like when no one is looking. And how frequent are mistakes? So perhaps it’s good to visit the farm on more than one occasion, and ideally as an unannounced visit. If that sounds hugely inconvenient, or downright impossible (as it does for me), I would suggest you just refrain from eating those products.

How can consumers effectively protest if they decide they don’t want to support factory farms?
There’s no protest more effective than saying no. Just order something else on the menu. From that protest, there are a few ways to go. Some will decide to eat meat from small, family farms that practice sustainable agriculture and treat their animals humanely. Others, like me, will simply say no to all meat.

You began working on this book after your son was born. Is he old enough now to understand why you don’t eat meat? Does he make any of his own food choices yet?
All children understand why people wouldn’t eat meat. The burden of education falls to parents who feed their children meat. Killing animals for food—even when done in the most humane ways—is antithetical to everything else parents teach their children about animals. Animals are the heroes of children’s books, the stuffed toys kids fall asleep with, pets, objects of fascination and wonder. No parent would stand idly by as his or her child abused an animal.

None of this necessarily says anything about the rightness or wrongness of eating animals—we raise our children with all different kinds of over-simplicities, half-truths and make believe. But in the three years I spent researching animal farming, I didn’t meet a single slaughterer who was perfectly comfortable with killing animals. That says something. Our taste for animals can be lost, but our discomfort with what we do to them cannot.

In any case, my son is now old enough to understand that he doesn’t eat animals, and that most of his friends do. We’ve had numerous conversations about it, but he’s never needed a second explanation for why we don’t.

What’s on your family’s Thanksgiving menu this year (and are you doing the cooking again this time)?
I will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I haven’t yet planned a menu, but it’s pretty much all that you’d expect—minus the turkey, that is. No tofurkey for us. No faux anything. All real food, as much bought from our local farmers market as possible. A few dishes will be awesome, a few will fall flat, we’ll all talk and laugh and go to bed full.

Author photo by Gian luca Gentilini

Read a review of Eating Animals.

Eating Animals trailer

Get the Book

Eating Animals

Eating Animals

By Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316069908

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