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Nov. 2 2009 - 7:47 am | 328 views | 1 recommendation | 10 comments

On not Eating Animals: Q&A with Jonathan Safran Foer

eatinganimalsbookJonathan Safran Foer is a novelist, a father, a concerned citizen. He is not an animal rights activist. That was my conclusion upon finishing his new book, Eating Animals, and it was his emphatic emphasis when we spoke last week. “I didn’t write this book as anything other than a father who wanted to know how best to raise my son,” he says.

With that in mind, I have to give Foer’s book – and his intensive, dogged research that spanned three years, thousands of miles and hundreds of pages – more credit than criticism. Eating Animals is described in early reviews as “academically rigorous” and “philosophical.” But it isn’t, when compared to literature that offers straight-forward, concisely argued explanations of animal rights. The book is also not a 300-page vegan mantra, despite what Natalie Portman might have you think: he’s transitioning to veganism, but Foer himself still eats dairy products. Which is difficult to understand, given the first-person encounters with animal agriculture he experienced during his research.

Foer, like any novelist, sets out to tell us a story: this one is about him, his family, and how their experiences and dinner plates are paralleled across the country. His book is beautifully written and undeniably well-researched: Foer traveled to animal sanctuaries and factory farms, spoke to animal advocates and ardent omnivores, and then tried to patch it all together. Which means he doesn’t exactly come out with many answers – but there’s enough vivid recounting here to (I hope) turn the stomachs of many a reader.

I can only hope that those readers don’t stop at Eating Animals. It is not, and was not intended to be, a definitive guide to the issues surrounding animal advocacy and animal rights. Safran offers sad truths, poignant descriptions and interesting interviews – he does not offer an exploration of animal rights that will yield a well-informed, lifelong commitment to veganism. When he does touch on the truths underlying deeper questions, though, Foer comes close:

We treat animals as we do because we want to and can. (Does anyone really wish to deny this anymore?) The myth of consent is perhaps the story of meat, and much comes down to whether this story, when we are realistic, is plausible.

It isn’t.

This book is all over the news lately, and I think I might be the only journalist whose critique of Foer is not that he went too far – but that he didn’t go far enough. I closed this book wishing it had been an all-out bid for veganism. But that’s not what Foer intended. So, for the steps he doesn’t cover, please see here. And for more from Foer, please read on.

Eating Animals offers a decided take-down of animal agriculture, and the consumption of animal products. But throughout, you refer to yourself as a ‘vegetarian’ – I think the word ‘vegan’ is used maybe twice. I’m wondering if that was a conscious decision, a matter of syntax, or something else?

The book is called Eating Animals, not Eating Animal Products. I took on a lot, and I wanted to keep the scope as narrow as I could to keep some thread running through it. The topic is already so big, and the book is certainly not as comprehensive as I would like it to be. But personally, when I went into writing the book, I was vegetarian. Through research and writing, that transition to veganism started. Even now, I still sometimes eat dairy and eggs – never at restaurants, but at home, from a farmer I know, maybe.

JonathanFoerBut the stance in your book seems to firmly draw the line on how we conceive of animals. How do you reconcile a non-vegan lifestyle with knowing what you do now about consuming animals and ‘animal products’?

Personally, I know that veganism is what I want to do. It makes the most sense to me. But, on a more general note, I think it’s important to remember that knowing is different than feeling. Reason plays a large part in how we consume, but it’s not everything. There are some very good, kind, upstanding people I know, who are aware of the facts, but who eat meat. That’s what makes this so complicated: how we consume overlaps with so many parts of our lives.

Still, my basic stance on the issue is, I’d say, forgiving – but still quite firm. I am transitioning to veganism, and I don’t like, run home and eat 1,000 eggs or something.

So much of your book touches on the economic implications of consumption – supporting meat and dairy industries, for example, or factory farms, with our dollars. Where do you draw the line? Something like buying a vegan meal at a non-vegan restaurant – you’re eating vegan food, but there’s still a murky financial exchange there.

I don’t think there’s a clear-cut, clean way to draw the line on these questions. And I think that’s part of the problem: people are turned off when issues are turned into black-and-white, all-or-nothing. Because this isn’t: it’s complicated, and nobody always gets it right. Nobody.

I guess sometimes I think you can get a smaller thing wrong but a larger thing right. Like, you eat at a non-vegan restaurant, but at the same time, you strengthen friendships with your dinner companions and maybe start a few conversations about your decision to avoid animal products.

You did three years of research on the book, so I assume you encountered every approach to animal advocacy out there. But I noticed a glaring absence – abolitionist animal rights doesn’t come up, even though activists who align themselves with those ideas are a growing presence.

I was just trying to record my own thoughts – as a father, not as an activist or an expert. I have tremendous respect for what those people are doing. Tremendous. I have no idea whether they respect me, and I’m inclined to suspect they don’t.

Your book will no doubt be a big seller. But do you think it will actually spur change?

Changes will take place, there’s no doubt. Whether because of my book or not. There are a lot of straws, and one day there will be enough to break the camel’s back. That’s a terrible analogy, but I guess I hope I can add a few straws.

Demographics are shifting. Around 18 percent of college students self-identify as vegetarians. In ten years, that 18 percent will be our politicians, writers, great thinkers. I think vegetarianism is becoming an aspirational identity: more people identify as vegetarians than actually are, as opposed to a decade ago, when more people were vegetarian than identified as such. People want to do the right thing.


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  1. collapse expand

    Well Katie, I am so glad I read your review/interview.

    Before reading the first review my hopes were to give the book to a few select friends & family, that are not vegan, so they could get a better understanding of the world around them. I read N.Portman’s review and thought maybe the book might go too far. I don’t want to turn people off and I really want them to read the book (and think about what they are reading).

    I think the true hard facts are too “hard” for people to grasp and it just gets their guard up (heck, me being vegan pisses people off, go figure) This sounds like it might just be enough info, and done in the right way, to not turn people off.
    I’m eager to read it and hopefully give it to a few family members at xmas.

    Remember….slow and steady wins the race :)

    • collapse expand

      You are right on with the idea that the book offers a more “reader-friendly” approach to some of these hard truths. I think my biggest hope is that people read JSF’s book and then go read more, do their own research, ask questions, etc.

      I’ll be giving the book to a few family members who’ve found other books “too dense” and then talking to them about the content and the ideas. I think the discussion post-read is actually more important than the actual reading.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Katie,

    Well done on pushing Safron Foer a bit. I have not read his book yet, but I imagine that it is an important work in the direction of changing people’s minds about consuming meat. I am not a vegetarian, and so I may be guilty of being a hypocrite, but i do believe that one of the best ways to get people to listen to a message is by speaking to them with a concerned voice one can relate to, i.e. that of a father. It tends to go down better than messages associated with specific political or biased associations, which can make people pull back.

    • collapse expand

      Nick: I definitely liked Foer’s approach – I’ve not seen a storytelling method used to navigate these complex and very hard issues before. But, I think with issues as important as these, sometimes you just need to swallow the medicine, no matter how bad it tastes.

      That said, if people read the book and start asking questions, read more (Gary Francione’s work, in my opinion, is the definitive guide to animal rights), then I can’t complain.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Nicely done, Katie. I always enjoy your e-interviews. I’ve got his book in my “to-read” pile and will move it up.

    FYI, I heard JSF interviewed on Brian Leher this morning (for non-NYers, he has a talk show on WNYC). He stressed that his battle is with factory farms, not with sustainable, local farms. But he acknowledged that 99.9% of the world’s meat comes from factory farms so that is where the story needs to be told. He even talked about the values overlap between vegans and those who only eat meat products from farms they know and visit. He was clear: No supermarket meat, no restaurant meat, and watch out for marketing nonesense like KFC having a board to protect animal rights when those sitting are the board overseeing practices are the very same suppliers processing 1 billion chickens a year to KFC. Yuck.

    While I’m with those who would want genuinely local, sustainable to be college students’ aspirational identity, vegetarian is a good start in getting people not to buy supermarket meat. And a little agreement is always better than none. I’m looking forward to his story.

  4. collapse expand

    Todd: the book is definitely worth a read, so move it up on the pile for sure.

    His book definitely makes the battle lines clear – but the 99.9% issue is a very important one, that, he points out, essentially necessitates a genuine rethinking of how we conceive of, and treat, non-human animals.

    My own values in this regard are more unconventional, I acknowledge. I just hope his book spurs more discussion and research.

    And KFC: the laundry list of sickening practices becomes longer every day…It’s rather difficult to imagine. And that “difficult to imagine” part is, I think, what forces people to turn a blind eye to ALL of these issues, so often.

  5. collapse expand

    Interesting conversation, and probably will push me a bit more to read the book. I’m glad to hear that it’s not an all-out call to vegan conversion – as I think JSF recognized, it’s tough to convince people if you preach to hard.
    Having said that – and in order to complicate my own comment – I think he might be wrong that people “are turned off” by black-and-white scenarios. I’d wager that actually, that’s exactly when people will start paying attention: the “either we continue and die, or stop and live” situation. How that comes about, or when, still seems a bit ambiguous. But obviously this book is another step.

  6. collapse expand

    Colin: I’m with you. I think these issues are complex, sure – food and what we consume overlaps with so much of our lifestyle, friends, traditions, norms, etc. That said, the issue always has been black-and-white to me. When I was 12, I said to myself “this is wrong.” Sure, my ideas have become more sophisticated, but they are still based on that fundamental baseline.

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