Jonathan S. Foer: Storytelling

Photo Credit by Maria Mansfield Richardson of the CofC Honors College

Because he had to talk at lengths about his ideas concerning vegetarianism in his final session, Foer allowed in the first forum a more general discussion of his ideas concerning fiction. Readers of his fiction work pounced upon this opportunity to question him concerning Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated.

He began by answering a girl’s question about Oscar, the protagonist of Extremely Loud, whether or not he based that character on himself or someone he knew. No, he said, not really. Characters have to be believable, but not in a journalistic sense. “If I wanted to write a book that accurately portrayed a nine year old, I would have interviewed a nine-year old.”

There is a difference, though, he contests, between journalistic and novelistic truth. We as readers may believe exaggerations and oddities through a story because it serves a greater truth. “Fiction isn’t about the facts,” Foer said, “just about what you know without someone telling you.” He made a point to emphasize that books that resonate the most with us simply “feel true.”

Next he told an anecdote about the first time he talked with a fan in public, over a radio broadcasting show. He sat wearing headphones, ready to discuss Illuminated, when the first caller phoned up. “Your story, that’s the story of my family, something that tells my story—” This man must be just like me, Foer thought: a young Jewish man, reaching back in time for his heritage. The man continued “—as a sixty year old black man from Trenton, I thought nobody would get it right.”

This illustrates the innate universalism of personal stories. Even emotions we think that we exclusively express, the feelings we believe alienate, those are the things that unite us to other people from a myriad of backgrounds. Books connect us in a beautiful way. Foer learned, we are not always closest to the people who look most like us, not just people with the same skin color or ideas, but instead with people who share similar stories.

“Does it get any easier?” asks the next spectator, a fledgling writer. Foer shook his head. It doesn’t get easier, never does. In fact, he asserted, it gets harder with each book he attempts to write. You have to choose a story you’re willing to stick with for a very long time. He put it quite simply: “People who continue to write become writers. The others just stop.”

He addressed also the critical analyses of his work, at first calling BS on the whole trope. But he admitted that once a book leaves an author’s desk, it’s no longer only his. Once a book goes out into the world, it gets better because each reader breathes life into it.

Foer sets up this contrast: either “interpretation of literature” is nonsense, authors subconsciously place info into stories, or maybe books are flexible. Maybe books can mean more than what they’re meant to mean. This was a fresh insight—that just because authors don’t intend a theme doesn’t mean the book can’t have it. Readers are people who like to be provoked, challenged—they make a story more full by comparing it to their own stories. They add in bits until the story sprawls and is out of the author’s control; this is not a bad thing.

Books, Foer explained, are not the party—they’re the invitation to the party. Where you go and what you do once you reach the party is the choice of the reader.


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