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Jonathan Safran Foer's Visual Literature

The author of 'Everything is Illuminated' on his first work of non-fiction and what he thinks is the future of printed books

2010 was a busy year for Jonathan Safran Foer. First up he published his debut foray into non-fiction with 'Eating Animals', an exposure of factory farming and the role of meat in American culture that has become one of the most controversial culture and food arguments of the last few years. He followed this with 'Tree of Codes', a unique project with London-based book-loving artisans Visual Editions. 'Tree of Codes' is a piece of original fiction that aims to bridge the growing gap between the visual arts and literature by carving a new story from within the pages of Bruno Schulz’s forgotten classic 'The Street of Crocodiles'. Dazed Digital caught up with this celebrated member of Brooklyn’s Park Slope literati to talk about art, literature, storytelling and vegetarianism.

Dazed Digital: Your two previous books to this had been fictions, why did Eating Animals end up as a piece of non-fiction?
Jonathan Safran Foer:
 For starters, some of the points I make would just come across as science fiction if they were part of a larger fiction. I wanted it to be a story, but I wanted it to be honest and less of a work of journalism or philosophy or simply an argument. Every time food is served, we serve it with a story. Sometimes the story is quite explicit – like a family occasion and a Christmas Ham or a Thanksgiving Turkey. These are stories about what our values and priorities are. But another story is told when you drive up to a McDonald’s drive-through, and buy everyone in the car a burger and eat while you drive. This is a different type of story.

DD: You talk about wanting to start a new conversation about meat consumption. What point do you most want to discuss?
Jonathan Safran Foer:
 Well, we’ve accepted that being a vegetarian or not being a vegetarian are the two things that someone can be. If I asked you, are you an Environmentalist, what would you say?

DD: Well, I’d sort of say yes, in the same way that if my girlfriend asked me if I was a Feminist then I’d say – yes. Obviously.
Jonathan Safran Foer:
 (uncomfortable laughter) Well, I dunno. I flew here from New York so I’m not really an Environmentalist. In response to that question I’d probably say, well yeah – I try to be an Environmentalist. I do my best. I make conscientious choices. This is how we need to think about food. Rather than think of ourselves as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘non-vegetarian’ we should just aim to be people who reduce their meat consumption. For some people this means 100%, for others it means as little as two or three meals a week, but any amount will make a massive difference.

DD: Moving on to Tree of Codes, you stated that you wanted to instigate a movement towards bridging the gap between the visual arts and literature …
Jonathan Safran Foer:
 Yeah, I’m not sure that I wrote that but go on.

DD: Why do you think that such a gap exists?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, ‘literature’ is so conservative about its form. ‘Literature’ is more protective than any other art form about its territory. For example, if a painter includes text in a painting – nobody mentions or questions it. But if a writer includes images in a novel then it becomes noteworthy, or it’s considered experimental, or gimmicky, or whatever. And if you compare art from 200 years ago, to art in galleries now, then you’d have to say that they have almost nothing in common with one another. Artists from 200 years ago would not recognise what they see in the galleries of today as being ‘art.’ Whereas books written 200 hundred years ago are more or less identical to what we have now. Yes, the content has changed, maybe there are some new voices but it’s all pretty much the same form. I think that this has been both the saving grace of literature and yet it also holds within it the demise of literature.

DD: What would you change?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I don’t think that books need to have a physicality, I don’t think that books need to be experimental but they cannot be resistant to influence from other art forms. And they can’t be resistant to the changes in culture around them. If you think about the ways that the visual arts and contemporary music have responded to the Internet in the form of simple things like sampling and collages of multi-media images – well you have to admit that literature doesn’t really do anything like that. We just tell stories. With Tree of Codes I wasn’t trying to make something experimental, I wasn’t trying to say – look what happens when books have a physicality. I just made a book that I wanted to make. I think that the way it is spoken about as being something on the margins of art and literature show just how conservative literature is.

DD: How did you go about creating the book?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I had always been interested in die-cutting, it’s a really old process that’s mostly used in manufacturing – for example die-cutting metal to make pieces of a car. It’s really difficult to do delicately and, as far as I know, it has never been done in mainstream publishing before.

DD: Was Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles your first choice?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I originally thought that I’d like to do the dictionary because I liked the idea of taking the entire English language and carving a story out of it, but, first of all – Holy Shit – that would have been hard, and second to that I don’t think that it would have been as resonant as using Street of Crocodiles.

DD: Where did you first come across this book?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I first learned about it when I found it in a box of books that my older brother was going to take to University with him. I just passed by his room one day and saw it there and I…

DD: ... Pinched it?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Yep… Yep… So I read it but I didn’t immediately fall in love with it. But I found it really strange and compelling. And so I read it again why I was in college, and second time around it made a much stronger impression on me. Certain books make ‘readers’ and certain books make ‘writers’, The Street of Crocodiles is a book that makes a writer. It made me want to make something rather than just sit back and want to appreciate it. I had been carrying it around with me for years until now.