|Dispatches from NYC
In Defense of Jonathan Safran Foer
By Pauline Millard
Apr 21, 2005
A few weeks ago the New York Post ran an article called "So Over Foer" which offered readers more than a dozen reasons to hate the literary wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer.
From the title of the Post's piece you would have thought that Foer ate babies or ran the militant wing of the Salvation Army. Instead, all it did was list the assorted successes of the 28-year-old writer. It was accompanied by his press photo on top of a dartboard, weak imagery even by the Post's standards. Since when did going to Princeton make you a social pariah?
In New York, and certainly beyond, it's become somewhat cool and acceptable to make fun of Foer. After all, he's young, he's talented, pleasant to interview and has scored book deals most writers would sell their mothers to have. When I met him and interviewed him in 2002, he invited me up to his apartment in Queens, showed me all his books, and offered me something to drink. I must note that he had nice furniture. Leather chairs!
Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list three years ago, earned him six-figure advances as well as a movie deal. Since then he wrote another book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and married fellow writer Nicole Krauss. Word on the street is that he also bought some fancy real estate in Brooklyn and still calls his grandmother regularly.
Foer's a good egg, but it seems that no one wants to accept this. It seems easier to make fun of the guy for being innovative than to try to enjoy his books. Finding a fault, any fault, is better than admitting this guy is a monstrously successful writer and using his brain more than you are. (And P.S., he never went through an M.F.A. program.)
Trashing Foer is an exercise in futility. Face it, the guy is talented. Regardless of what John Updike or any other reviewer thought, Foer is probably going to be around for a while. Whether the literati like it or not, they're going to have to deal with him. Most literary lions met their share of static as they were on their way up. Yet they survived and can still be found on required reading lists.
Since Foer's latest book came out, he's gotten a lot of flak for it. While Everything Is Illuminated was lauded as a stunning debut, Extremely Loud is getting trashed because of Foer's use of color, blank pages, and a flip-book gimmick. Reviewers find it confusing, but Foer likens it to a literary version of sampling. After all, he has said, if rappers can do it with different styles of music, why can't writers borrow from different forms as well?
He's not the first writer to have an obtuse idea, run with it, and then find out he was on to something. In 1924, Ernest Hemingway tried a new slant with the first printing of in our time. (Yes, the title should be lowercase.) The 32-page book contained only the vignettes that would later appear as interchapters of another version of the book by the same title. Hemingway had the theory that by taking the right parts out of a story it could actually make it stronger. It turns out he was right and his idea changed the way he wrote, and led to another one of his watershed stories, "Big Two-Hearted River."
Another criticism of Foer is that in Everything Is Illuminated he named a character after himself. Some critics saw this as self-indulgent, precious even. What they may have failed to realize is that Philip Roth, a writer Foer is often compared to, did the exact same thing in four of his books: The Facts, Deception, Patrimony, and Operation Shylock. (To be fair, only Deception was billed as a novel. The other three were considered memoirs or autobiographies.)
Then, naturally, there is his age. Foer is barely 30 and yet he has completed two important novels and is reaping the benefits of his hard work and natural intelligence. Nevertheless, critics are practically licking their chops and ready to pounce on any of his endeavors, waiting for him to fail. Surely this kid can't be anything more than a one-hit wonder, right?
Let's look back about 20 years. Remember Bret Easton Ellis? Jay McInerney? They released their wildly popular books about the young and the partying to plenty of criticism. Ellis' works have been panned as being thinly-veiled autobiographies. (Foer also takes that lick as well.) Jay McInerney was praised for his innovative use of the second person in Bright Lights, Big City, but the critics were much more harsh when his follow-up novels didn't deliver the same pizzazz. Those two took their hits, but every few years a new generation of young people discovers their books, which may explain why copies are still very much in print. You can't say that about every tortured scribe in New York City with a blog and an agent.
When most of us were in college and working summer jobs as lifeguards or trying to make a bong out of a Sunny Delight bottle, Foer traveled to Ukraine for four days and tried to find where his grandparents had lived. That was the seed that eventually grew into Everything Is Illuminated. He had a vision, he ran with it and now he's made a dent in American literature, mostly for the better. His books, with their bizarre characters and twisted plots, may not be for everyone, but you cannot say he's untalented or not worthy of the good that has come to him.
Foer has the gift of taking big issues such as the Holocaust and September 11th, humanizing them and doing it well. I know, it's sickening. How dare he break down world events into a more manageable size? Why can't he just write about being a lost twentysomething male in New York City who drinks too much and can't get laid? Those books sell, don't they?
So talk all the trash you want. I'm sure Foer will just write more.
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