#199: THE MOST PRODUCTIVE WRITER’S BLOCK IN HISTORY. Way back when, in 1982, Fran Lebowitz published a collection of comic essays called Metropolitan Life; it was followed some years later by Social Studies. The essays were witty, vernacular and caustic; they reminded me of no one so much as Pauline Kael, who was writing film reviews then for the New Yorker. Lebowitz had fled from her New Jersey childhood to New York City the way some people run from bad music or drought; she supported herself with the usual scattering of day jobs (most famously as a cab driver), and then fell in with the Warhol circle and began writing for Interview magazine.
And after that, nothing. She has spoken of “writer’s blockade,” and over the years rumors of unfinished or unpublished books followed her the way they did J.D. Salinger. (With Salinger, we at least know they existed: a friend of mine actually helped Salinger burn the manuscript of an unsatisfactory novel once.) Lebowitz took a different tack, and took to talking: on speaking dates, talk shows (any number of which can be found on Youtube), a movie by Martin Scorsese, Public Speaking, and, most recently, a seven episode series on Netflix called Pretend It’s A City. The format in both these projects is simple: Scorsese sets her in front of a camera, winds her up, and lets her go.
The results are brilliant, observant, irascible, epic. Not every one takes to her: two of my friends (both New York enthusiasts) found a little went a long way. My only reaction is: give me more. In the Scorsese projects, the visuals only add to the joy: the evocative setting of the city (for Lebowitz, there is only New York), that lumbering, truculent walk of hers (as expressive a locomotion as any an actor has ever invented for a character), those nervous, flailing, emphatic hands. In Pretend It’s A City (the title a reference to people who walk around staring into their phones, as if no one else existed), she takes on our life in the contemporary U.S. that seems simply beyond belief. Her pet response to so much is a laughing, incredulous cry of “Are you insane?” Writers and commentators say that things now are beyond satire—“Jonathan Swift couldn’t do it,” Lebowitz says at one point. She expresses, with that appropriately staccato phrasing, our shared disbelief at what’s happening in front of our eyes, with all the laws of moral and political gravity having been seemingly suspended.
Not that she is without her affections and respects—quite the opposite. In Pretend It’s A City, there are great clips of her not only with Scorsese but with Spike Lee, and she was a fast friend and infinitely an admirer of Toni Morrison, with whom she spoke every day on the phone for forty years. Pretend It’s A City ends with a segment on Lebowitz’s lifelong madness for books, one of the loveliest (and funniest) expressions of bibliophilia I know of. As another New Yorker says, what’s not to love?
One last thing: people have apparently said to Lebowitz, what’s the problem with doing more books? If you can speak, you can write. A few notes back I wanted to quote what Lebowitz said about Motown music, which I transcribed from a segment of Pretend. This is speech, not written prose, and you’ll never see a better demonstration of the difference. People have asked me in what way a non-metrical, unrhymed poem is not just chopped-up prose. Take a good poem and write it out as prose—it’ll be lousy prose. I recommend the experiment.