“When I published my first book, _Everything is Illuminated_, I made the choice to include my middle name. I think I started using it in your class,” said author Jonathan Safran Foer to his former professor and college mentor, novelist Joyce Carol Oates.
“What is your middle name?” inquired Oates.
Foer paused for a moment, bemused. “It’s Safran.”
Some may follow boy bands and others may admire world-class athletes. I’ve attended lectures at Princeton given by renowned economists and former government appointees, people in suits who frequent the White House and who attend international conferences; who stand and speculate to the audience about the future of our nation and the role of their particular field. And they have been fascinating. But when word of a lecture—even better, a conversation—between authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Joyce Carol Oates caught my ear, I knew that whatever the event, I couldn’t miss it. These were two of my heroes, the masterminds of plotlines and concocters of phrases at which I spent so much of my time marveling, and now I had the chance to watch them in action, and to glean as much as I possibly could in two hours. Their goal: to sit on the stage and carry out an entertaining and informative dialogue under the vague but daunting title, “Writing Life,” preferably well enough to sell the copies of a sampling of their latest books set up neatly on a table by the exit.
It is probably fair to say that as I walked into McCosh 50 nearly half an hour before the start of the talk and proceeded to make my way up the stairs to the balcony in search for a remaining empty seat, I was giddy. This was Princeton’s chance to showcase the remarkable rewards that may result from the ideal professor-student relationship. Foer, who never considered becoming a writer before matriculating at Princeton, found himself in Oates’s introductory creative writing class his freshman year. After completing a soul-searching journey to Ukraine one summer as an undergraduate, Foer drafted his Senior Thesis, a fictional account based off his adventure, the foundations of what later became his first, and internationally-acclaimed novel, _Everything is Illuminated._
Twelve years, four books, a movie (and one on the way!), and a bundle of short stories later, Foer returned to his alma mater and conducted a workshop, a luncheon, and finally a public reunion between he and his former thesis advisor, Joyce Carol Oates. (Princeton certainly seems to know how to milk an opportunity). Foer stands as evidence of the sort of magic that occurs when someone discovers you, when a National Book Award winner takes you aside to tell you that she is a fan of your writing. Last Thursday evening an audience of several hundred waited in anticipation of a grand reunion, a sort of marvelous tête-à-tête in which the two, teacher and student, now comparably accomplished, sat together casually at a small round table, chatting over plastic bottles of water.
Jonathan Safran Foer leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other, exposing a pair of black and yellow Nike sneakers. It was clear that he was comfortable. Had he been in the audience, anyone may have easily mistaken him for an undergrad; the dozen years since his Princeton graduation are barely detectable through his dark, youthful facial hair and small round glasses, more quirky than pretentious.
Across from him sat Joyce Carol Oates, her thin, angular frame perched on the edge of the seat, her legs tucked underneath, a head of short, curly hair leaning toward her former student, now guest. Oates was to play the host, a successful author and old friend who, throughout the evening, would pose pointed questions (“What did you do at Terrace?”), and interject his answers with amusing and unforeseen commentary that revealed the touch what must be a unique and extraordinary intellect.
I instantly found delight in seemingly natural discourse between two of the most respected literary personalities of our day. During their discussion of his latest book, _Tree of Codes_, for which Foer die-cut the text of Bruno Schulz’s _Street of Crocodiles_ (a process that includes removing letters and words from one novel in order to produce an entirely new one), Oates called the concept strange. “You’d never want to do it,” Foer responded, and she agreed. “I’d become deranged. It’s like moving across the floor, pushing a bean with your nose,” Oates said. “It’s like some masochistic nightmare.”
In a moment of outrage, Oates expressed her indignation at the treatment of Foer on comedian Stephen Colbert’s satiric television news program, “The Colbert Report.” In one episode, Foer, a featured guest on the show, finishes explaining the context of his book, _Eating Animals_, a critical, nonfiction examination of American eating habits and the U.S. factory farming industry. Colbert thanks his guest for his time, and from behind a curtain produces a plate of bacon, inviting Foer to a post-shooting snack.
Oates found Colbert distasteful, and commented on his “idiotic comedy,” calling him foolish, “a man who can’t take a serious affair.” When Foer came to his defense, suggesting that Colbert is a “professional fool,” Oates seemed unmoved. “That right-winged idiot should run for Republican candidate,” Oates said, maintaining her soft, trailing, high-pitched voice. “He would bring more intellect.”
On the topic of vegetarian philosophy, Oates likewise shared her wisdom in the form of an artfully anecdotal narrative involving the quantity of rats’ tails and whiskers that fall into the vats of lard found in meatpacking factories. “The worst part is,” Oates continued, “a man falls in, and then you have humans being all pieced up in it as well,” she turned gravely to the audience. “And all this winds up on your breakfast table.”
Foer illustrated the necessity for a writer to have a willingness to be made a fool of, by using the example of rap legend Kanye West at a concert he attended in Madison Garden a few days earlier. “I thought it would be a cultural experience,” Foer said. “Rap is the most masculine art form, and arguably the most homophobic art form. And when I got there, Kanye West, the world’s biggest rap star, appeared on stage wearing a leather skirt. I was moved by that.” Though Foer admits he “limits his flamboyance to the page,” one of the messages I considered most prominent from that evening is the importance of confidence and of persistence. When one’s career hinges on the public receipt of one’s work of art, courage is a requisite.
“I have this constant wondering,” confessed Foer, “if I’m wasting my time.” He described a New York City café where he often goes to write, outside of which usually sits a homeless man. He discussed an internal conflict precipitated by the man over whether his energy was going to the right place, if really he should be out in the world helping others. “Instead I spend my time filling papers. Or worse, cutting them out.” When Oates proposed that he use his proceeds to donate to the disadvantaged, Foer laughed. “Being a writer is not the best job if your interest is ultimately to become a philanthropist.”
But Oates, a veteran in the field of writing, dismissed Foer’s speculation. “People write to expand the human spirit,” said Oates. “When people write they are communicating with other people, they are writing to affect other people.”
Together Foer and Oates contemplated art. While two pioneers in creativity themselves, neither lacked respect of, or for that matter, familiarity with the classics or contemporaries. They discussed the merits of Kafka’s “extremely neurotic imagination,” and Peter Singer, whose works are now so commonly assigned that they have become a “rite of passage, like the next generation’s J.D. Salinger.” They pondered the delicate line between art and bullshit as exemplified by a Jackson Pollock painting, the role of the works of Cézanne and of Dickinson, the fashion statements of Kanye West and Jay-Z. They considered the difficulties involved in writing about love, the embarrassment that Foer feels when he rereads his sentimental scenes, the timelessness of “Old Truths.”
I, in the back of the darkened balcony of McCosh 50, watched the pair of storytellers seated on the center of the stage, laughing, reminiscing, flipping through the pages of a hard copy of Foer’s latest novel. Along with the audience of hundreds, I chuckled at the deadpan humor the two built off one another. I marveled at their musings on art and on life and on the purpose of writing, a purpose Foer feels the ceaseless need to justify.
So when are you a writer? Maybe after receiving rejections from fourteen publishers and still pressing forward to that lucky fifteenth (in Foer’s case, rendering a bestseller published in twelve different countries, and a major-motion film in which his own character is played by Elijah Wood). Perhaps it is when you are employed as a professor of creative writing by a respected institution. Or when you are invited back to McCosh 50 and, in front of a crowded lecture hall, are asked to divulge everything from your undergraduate eating club activities, to the merits of free range. When hungry students, aspiring writers, and avid readers, sit in the audience, feeding on your every word. According to Foer, it is whenever you call yourself one. And you’re not one until you do.