Killing Teenagers: In Class with Jonathan Safran Foer

by Joshua Kline


“A friend once told me ‘writing is like pulling teeth…’”

Jonathan Safran Foer is about to deliver a worn platitude to a classroom of 50+ high school students. What’s been an engrossing, possibly life-changing, hour for a group of star-struck pubescent bookworms and aspiring novelists at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences has just come to a screeching halt. Deafening silence envelopes the stuffy room for a moment, but before my brain can silently complete the sentence “Did he really just say that?” Foer gives a mischievous side-glance to the classroom and adds:

“…through your penis.”

The students erupt into laughter. This is the second time that Foer has expressed the difficulty of being a writer through an anecdote involving a reproductive organ–more on that later.

You’d think that Foer–33, with three successful books under his belt, a place on the New Yorker’s “Top 20 writers under 40” list, a wife also on that esteemed list and the arguable winner of a brief but widely televised word war on Larry King Live with America’s Alpha Omnivore Anthony Bourdain– would have some sort of “recovering wunderkind” chip planted on his shoulder that would prevent him from easily communicating with a classroom full of Tulsa teenagers. Not because Tulsa teenagers are somehow unworthy, but because vegetarian writer superstars who live in Park Slope aren’t normally inclined to stop by Mrs. Stackable’s AP Lit class to tell penis and vagina jokes. Foer’s the exception, obviously. He’s in Tulsa to promote his new work of nonfiction (the meat industry muckraker/vegetarian memoir Eating Animals), and he’s graciously agreed to spend his afternoon prior to the main event talking to teenagers.

Portrait by Michael Cooper.

“Normally when you promote a book you’re just trying to find readers, whereas here it’s not exactly that simple- I’m trying to expand a conversation,” Foer tells me later.

He and I are now sitting in the same (now-empty) classroom, and he’s explaining to me the difficulty of promoting a book like Eating Animals, which he describes as a “particular type of non-fiction that is potentially annoying.”

Eating Animals has sold well, and Foer has been careful on shows like Ellen and Larry King Live to avoid proselytizing. He’s worked hard to promote the book, and he seems to have succeeded in expanding the conversation. Now he’s in Tulsa, in Mrs. Stackable’s class. Earlier, he was clearly more interested in connecting with the kids than promoting himself or his work. He opened by announcing to the students that as a teenager he didn’t enjoy reading, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and that now “I’m probably the luckiest writer I’ve ever heard of,” a phrase he repeated more than once. When class was over and the kids began to reluctantly file out, I noticed across the room a pretty, lithe junior with straight yellow-blonde hair had cornered Foer. She giggled and twitched and smiled awkwardly, talking to him the way a flirty young girl would with a boy her age. With each batting of eyelids, Foer just nodded and smiled. (Earlier, she confessed to me that she hadn’t read any of his work.) Once she made her exit, a portly young man stepped up and eagerly grabbed the opportunity to shoot the shit with the author.

Now that the children are gone, Foer is almost somber. Speaking to me, he’s direct and stoic, with constant eye contact and a poker face that belies his diminutive stature and youthful appearance (his hair is disheveled like a young boy’s, and his oval, black-framed eyeglasses bring to mind Harry Potter). He talks about heavy things, like the weight of raising a child in the modern world (“It’s not at all clear that the world is changing for the better”) and how the digital age is ruining intimacy (“The idea of someone reading while having the ability to check e-mail—it ruins the reading experience”). The essence of what makes him both important and divisive as a writer becomes clear: it’s as if he’s a teenager who’s accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room. Like his books and their characters (especially Oskar Schell, Foer’s precocious 9 year-old stand-in in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) Foer exudes a volatile mixture of guileless idealism and old soul wisdom; as manifested through his fiction, these traits have led some critics to dismiss his work as cloying and sentimental—“adolescent.”

Of course, most teenagers haven’t written a novel about processing 9/11. Foer has. I ask him, as the author of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and a Jew who lives in New York City, what he thinks about the current to-do over building a mosque near Ground Zero. This particular issue causes Foer’s stoicism to falter, and frustration comes through in his voice. His eloquence is muddled by his anger, and his passionate response makes him sound as if he were an 18 year-old student activist (in a good way).

“I think they should build it! I can’t even believe we’re having the conversation right now. It’s like- it’s a community. First of all, there already is a mosque only two blocks away. There’s also like a porno shop only two blocks away. On top of which, I have no qualms with Islam. I have qualms with a very specific kind of radicalized Islam. So the question is, are we going to reject all of Islam, which happens to be the most practiced religion in the world, which is not going anywhere, or are we going to open our arms to the really good kinds? You know, we run the risk of alienating a lot of people. And not only that, but acting in a way that’s just un-American. I know that people are hurt, and that hurt should also be thought about and we should be sensitive to it, but it doesn’t mean we should organize our laws around it. Lawmaking is done with a cool head, not with a hot head.”

Photo by Michael Cooper

Earlier, when the classroom was bursting at the seams and Foer was still taking questions from students, one boy asked “How do you feel about writing that’s not novels, like short stories or poetry?”

“I like it,” Foer responded. “I don’t do it, but I like to read it. I often like to read most the things that I don’t do.” The mischievous side glance appeared again, and Foer continued: “It’s like the old joke about the gynecologist. Do you wanna hear it?”

At the mere suggestion of a gynecologist joke, the class was already chortling.

“A gynecologist comes home after a very long week. It’s Friday night, he’s totally exhausted from the long day, and he comes in- ‘hello, hello?’ His wife says ‘I’m up here’, so he goes up to the bedroom. His wife is laying on the bed in lingerie, she has opera music playing, a glass of wine on the bed side table, a candle light. She pats the bed, and he says ‘if I have to look at another one of those things I’m gonna kill myself.’”