Fran Lebowitz: Writer, public speaker, elitist

October 1, 2012

The American writer Fran Lebowitz is known for her acerbic wit and pointed social critiques, through her essays published in Interview magazine and two collections, Metropolitan Life and Social Studie

She's currently on a public speaking tour called "A State of the Union Conversation," which comes to Chicago's Harris Theatre this Tuesday night. In our brief interview, she discussed the state of Fashion Week, her penchant for elitism and view of American politics.

I know you’re a fairly regular attendee at Fashion Week. What did you think about this year’s Fashion Week?

What I think about it is what I think about pretty much everything that used to be small and now that is big. Things tend to devolve when they attract more of a mass audience. I can say because I’m not running for anything. I have to say I have an elitist view of fashion and many other things I might add. So I think it is too big.

The title of your talk is The State of the Union. So what, with your elitist view and all, is the state of the union?

This first occurred when someone called me and asked “Did you see the President give the State of the Union address?” I said: “Yes. First I watched the President give the State of the Union address and then I watched the Republicans give the State of the Confederacy address.

What are you saying about the Republican Party?

During the Bush-Kerry election, we were watching (the returns) map on the TV. And when it became apparent that Bush was going to win everybody in the room started to argue as to whose fault this was. And I kept looking at the map and I said “It’s Abraham Lincoln’s fault.” If they had just let the Confederacy go, Bush could be the President of the Confederacy, because that’s how that map looked.

So you think the big divide is north-south?

I think the big divide is smart-stupid. I know you’re not allowed to say that and I know that everyone thinks the big divide is rich-poor. And I wish that were true, or even just rich-not rich. But I think state wide that is true. Look I can understand not loving Obama. I don’t love Obama, he’s too right wing for me (laughs). But the hatred of Obama from the right is racism, pure and simple.

Nothing has aided and abetted the theft of this country than the really horrendous state of the public education schools in this country for the last 30, 35 years. The less you know the more they can manipulate you. And basically it’s the fault of the people. 

In Public Speaking, the documentary Martin Scorsese made about you, you said “there’s too much democracy in the culture, not enough in society.” What did you mean by that?

In culture, by which I mean writers, artists, musicians, there is way too much democracy. Everyone is considered to be an artist. Everyone has an opinion about art even if they know nothing about it. People are allowed now, because of technology, can actually produce and distribute this stuff to many more people than, let me put it this way, good artists can. And it’s bad for the culture.

In all matters other than and culture, political matters, there’s less democracy. The power’s in fewer hands than it used to be. And fewer people participate in it. They more watch it. There are more people observing it than participating in it.

But in a way it is the democratization of culture that allowed you to become famous, through the essays you were writing for Interview magazine, through placing this focus on writers in popular culture.

It is impossible for people to recall the past because you lose the context.  It is impossible for me to explain not just New York when I was young, but the particular little tiny bit of New York I occupied. It is completely vanished. It is as vanished as the British Empire, it’s gone (laughs). So these equivalencies are false, it’s just not true.

It was democratic in the sense that I, a person who knew nobody, who didn’t finish high school, could find my way around. But it was just me, it was just one person. There was no a path to it, and now there is. And there was no communication between people the way there is now. The ability for people to communicate with one another has changed the world in such a profound way.

I meant Interview magazine is a form of communication in itself, so that people could discover you outside of New York, people that might never have known of you before that.

Interview magazine, when I started writing for it, pretended to have a circulation of 10,000. I doubt it ever had more than 3 or 4 thousand people reading it. There were a couple of people outside of New York who read it. Inside New York outside of a tiny group of people it was completely unknown. When my first book came out I had been regularly publishing for nine years, but no one in the establishment had ever heard of me. That would be impossible now.