Fran Lebowitz at the PEN World Voices Festival
“Always right, never fair and relevant as ever”
Last week the peerless Fran Lebowitz graced the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature with what was called a “Master/Class”, in which A.M. Homes meekly suggested topics and Lebowitz sat back and held forth. Dressed in jeans, a crisp white shirt under a navy blazer, and her trademark hyper-shined cowboy boots (“Who shines your boots and is there an opening?” was one of the questions fielded in the Q&A), Lebowitz was delightful and scathing on topics old and new.
“Are New Yorkers brave to leave the house?” She repeated the question posed by Homes. “Depends where they live. And it has everything to do with bicycle riders.”
“Bloomberg’s plan was to replace citizens with tourists,” she said, in response to a question she couldn’t remember by the end of her response. “I mean, he put a toilet in Washington Square Park. Washington Square Park used to be a toilet! Now–he plans to build micro-apartments. Like we don’t already live in those! Because all you hear is New Yorkers complaining that their apartments are too big. Who should be the next mayor? Whoever. Anyone will be better than him. Why? Because he’s a billionaire. He closed St. Vincent’s because it wasn’t making money, like that’s what a hospital is for. He tries to run public institutions like they are businesses. You know what? They’re not. A business is the easiest thing in the world to run: make a profit! Public institutions are really, really complicated.”
“I don’t believe in forgiveness,” was another point she made. “I don’t even know what it means, unless you mean forgetting. I believe in revenge—and it doesn’t matter when you get, cold or hot, it’s good. But forgiveness—it’s a Christian concept. Jesus said, I’ll forgive you all. So everyone became a Christian and left all the judgmental Jews like myself.”
She told a story about being a rally for the liberation of Soviet Jewry, where she told the crowd that surely their demands will be heard, for who would want so many Jewish women angry at them? “I know I wouldn’t!” She quipped, to the angry boos of a quarter of a million “crazy Jews”—“You know who I mean by ‘crazy Jews’? Those Jews that normal Jews, like me, call crazy Jews, and everybody else calls, ‘the Jewish community.’”
In response to Lebowitz calling herself judgmental, Homes brought up Lebowitz’s stint as a judge on Law and Order. “Playing a judge is my hobby,” Lebowitz said. “I can’t act, but I am judgmental. My goal is to be on the Supreme Court. You don’t need to be a lawyer to do that, did you know? I’m already not a lawyer. And I’m already judgmental! Plus, the Supreme Court gets the easiest cases. I could judge any of those cases in a split second!” The Supreme Court has another benefit, Lebowitz informed us in response to a question from the audience about Anita Hill: “It’s the Fountain of Youth. If you don’t want to die, join the Supreme Court. No one in this room will outlive Clarence Thomas!”
On the subject of Hurricane Sandy, Lebowitz expressed outrage that Con Edison had shut off her electricity. She decided to wait out the storm with a friend of the Upper East Side, who went to the store with all the other needlessly, hilariously worried Upper East-Siders to stock up. The friend reported hearing a woman wining to the gentleman behind the counter, “What do you mean you’re out of celery remoulade?” to which Lebowitz hoped he had retorted, “Madam. Are you aware that there are people on Staten Island with no celery remoulade at all?”
But Lebowitz’s political concerns were much at the forefront of this talk. “I don’t believe in hate crimes,” she said. “There are no hate crimes that are not already crimes. To make it more of a crime because a person hates the person is to infringe on thinking. You should be free to think, I hate gays. You shouldn’t be free to beat them up. But that’s already a crime.”
“No, writers do not have social responsibilities,” she said in answer to another of Homes’ questions. “If they did, they would owe things to people with bad taste. But citizens have responsibilities. They are responsible for paying attention. You need to notice, that this is not a ‘movement in a culture’ but a business. If you see a 20 minute story about Google glasses, this is an ad. Google is a business.”
On the recent events of this past April, Lebowitz stressed how skewed the reaction was: “Three people were killed in Boston. Fourteen were killed in Texas. But no one cares, and that is because of class and economic difference. Think about who runs marathons, and who works in fertilizer plants. A fertilizer plant is a giant bomb. That fertilizer plant hadn’t had an inspection in 28 years, meanwhile, every two seconds, every restaurant in New York City is being inspected so your sushi will be pristine.”
In one of the scenes of Public Speaking, the documentary film Martin Scorcese made about her (Lebowitz refers to him as a filmmaker who is “promising”, Homes reported), Lebowitz’s old friend Toni Morrison once observed in a conversation with Lebowitz, “You seem to me to be almost always right, but also never fair,” (to which Lebowitz responded, “What do you mean, seem?”). This critique of Lebowitz—that she chooses a form that sacrifices fairness or accuracy to the electric flash of prophecy, is also why Lebowitz is as important as ever today, despite her decades-long writer’s block. With her scathing insistence on good form, Lebowitz reminds us that having good politics is also a question of style.
Also in that movie, Lebowitz says that one of the unreported tragedies of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, aside from the loss of many friends, was the loss of a discerning audience, as important to a culture as its artists. Fran Lebowitz is rebuilding that audience, one quip at a time.