Fran Lebowitz and the Law of the Conversation of Energy

Fran Lebowitz has waged a decades-long war against the cult of self-esteem. Is Berkeley ready for three nights of conversation with her celebrated wit?

Fran Lebowitz. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Fran Lebowitz is among the most celebrated wits of our day, a supremely self-assured arch-New Yorker prone to dismissing vast swaths of contemporary culture as hopelessly mediocre. Afflicted with a case of writer’s block so severe it has forestalled the publication of a third book of essays for decades — Social Studies came out in 1978, Metropolitan Life followed three years later — she’s also a notorious technophobe, eschewing cellphones and computers, and she works a lectern fielding audience questions like a particularly erudite stand-up comic.

She’ll be at Berkeley Rep for three nights next month, discussing literature with writer Daniel Handler (Friday, Feb. 2), money and politics with UC Berkeley professor Mark Danner (Saturday, Feb. 3), and nostalgia with Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) chief curator Lawrence Rinder (Sunday, Feb. 4). Lebowitz’s pointed demeanor harkens back to the grand literary deathmatches between figures like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. (snippets of which can be found in Martin Scorsese’s 2010 Lebowitz documentary, Public Speaking).

But she’s not really a fan of theatrical spats that play out in public.

“I know this doesn’t sound truthful to people, but I don’t really enjoy conversation,” Lebowitz tells SF Weekly. “I just want people to agree with me. I don’t enjoy the fight. I really don’t, because I am so full of rage that it takes me one second to become homicidal.”

Not that the world currently brims with potential foils for her to lock horns with, and that’s not simply because writers don’t occupy nearly as central a place in the culture that they did for most of the 20th century.

“I don’t think there are many candidates for that,” she says.

Among the many topics of which Lebowitz disapproves — cultural anti-elitism, forgiveness, baby strollers — perhaps none rankles her more than what might be called the cult of self-esteem. If all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average, then almost all the novels that people recommend to Lebowitz are below average. And there might be no place more devoted to making sure everyone feels fuzzily validated than Berkeley.

“Let me assure you, New York is not lacking in the same qualities,” she says. “Those kinds of things are more noticeable in a place like Berkeley because it’s more homogeneous than New York, but New York is becoming like that.”

Hand-in-hand with the embrace of mushy small-d democracy in cultural affairs is what Lebowitz laments as a decline in connoisseurship among literate audiences. She attributes much of this to AIDS, which obliterated generations of mavens who not only kept symphony orchestras and ballet companies in the black, but devoted intense attention to poring over the tiniest details in a given performance. (Such obsessiveness still exists, as the mere existence of Twitch attests, but it may have fallen several rungs down the Europhilic snootiness ladder.) But there is something ineluctably Proustian about a figure like the 67-year-old Lebowitz, who calls herself the biggest time-waster of her generation and who was always more interested in her elders than her peers. It may be her facility with withering epigrams, like “Polite conversation is rarely either” or “Willpower is not telling anybody you quit smoking.”

Much has changed since the plague’s crisis years but things are too different now, in her estimation, to recuperate what has been lost. In the meantime, she’s a bit of an anachronism, an unapologetic smoker and irascible cool-aunt type who’s certain the pampered youth of today have no conception of how truly bad things really used to be. But it’s not all downhill in the Age of 45, as we long ago hit bottom and may be on the way back up to something almost respectable.

“The first generation after me, culturally, I just thought, ‘Oh my God, these people are horrible. They write horrible novels, their music is horrible, they make horrible movies.’ And I thought, ‘This is going to get worse and worse,’” she says. “And then, to my surprise, absolutely people who are in their 20s now are a billion times better than people who are in their 40s.

“I don’t mean better humans,” she adds. “But they’re more interesting to me — and I’ve never been interested in people who are young. I wasn’t even interested when I was young. It’s not their youth that interests me; it’s my happiness to discover that they’re better than the people that preceded them.”

Her refusal to name names — of writers and artists she respects, that is — is slightly frustrating in light of such a thunderbolt of generational criticism, although The New York Times once wrested a few names from Lebowitz, including fairly obvious contenders for greatness like Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz, but also Lynne Tillman and Wallace Shawn. Having spent years as a keen observer — although not such an outsider that she hasn’t been photographed at Studio 54 or in the company of such luminaries as Paloma Picasso, Dolly Parton, or John Waters — she clings to a fixed set of truths no less firmly than before. At the heart of her unrepentant elitism is an almost religious faith in art. No matter how many bad books she reads, Lebowitz is unwilling to write off the novel, arguably one of the art forms that’s deepest in crisis.

“A lot of people say now is not really the era of fiction, and in a way, I don’t know why that is,” she says. “It can’t be because people don’t have an appetite for it, because I think that appetite is innate in humans. I’m always finding novels that people say, ‘Oh, this one’s great!’ and they’re not. I think the worst thing that ever happened to American literature — if you want to call it literature — is the idea of writing school. It’s the stupidest idea I ever heard in my life.

“You can’t teach someone to be a writer,” she adds. “It’s like teaching someone to be tall. It’s a talent. If there’s one thing that Americans hate, it’s talent.”

Fran Lebowitz in Conversation, Friday-Sunday, Feb. 2-4, at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. $50, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org

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