Tonight HBO is airing Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on raconteur/bon vivant Fran Lebowitz. Rachel Shukert at Tablet has some thoughts on the documentary in the context of Lebowitz’s career, and specifically the fact that she doesn’t exactly have a career in the traditional sense: though she became famous for two books of essays, she’s written very little since, and her never-finished novel is so much a part of her public persona that you get the feeling people would lose interest in her if she actually finished it.
Lebowitz is a very New York character, which is one of the reasons she continues to be famous enough to have Martin Scorsese following her around with cameras and David Letterman inviting her on his show. As Shukert says, she has cultivated the absolute perfect look for a cranky, witty New Yorker. And in an era when no one can make a living writing funny essays — not just because of the decline of publishing, but because the internet has made it possible for people to write short, funny pieces for free — she’s one of the last links to the older culture of the professional wit, someone whose dry sense of humour not only gets her published but gets her into all the best parties; the character who at once embodies and lampoons the appeal of the New York culturati. It’s not surprising, really, that HBO would want to do a show about her, since quite a bit of the show’s programming feeds into this image of New York literary culture.
This image is, to some extent, a myth. After all, Dorothy Parker, who Lebowitz is often compared do, had to support herself in the traditional way: doing a lot of writing and hoping the cheques added up to enough. She was a full-time critic, sold tons of her poems to paying outlets, secured regular positions at major magazines. But the vague memory of Dorothy Parker and the other, equally busy Algonquin Round Table types is of a bunch of people sitting around, swapping jokes, and drinking. And Lebowitz has kind of become what we like to think those other people were. If you wanted to be really nasty you could compare her to Elliot Vereker, a James Thurber character who was invited to all the fancy parties (and whose anti-social behaviour was excused) because he was considered a writing genius — even though he never wrote anything.
Not that Lebowitz is Elliot Vereker. Her two books are still fun reads today, not so much for the jokes as for her brilliant idea of phrasing those simple observational jokes in formal, old-fashioned prose. It’s like reading someone from the 18th century who was transported forward in time and decided to become a stand-up comedian. Hence memorable lines like “I consider getting out of bed. I reject the notion as being unduly vigorous.”
Today, though, the short humour essay is (as I said) more the province of the internet; some people get paid for writing these pieces, but others are either doing it without pay, or doing it as an adjunct to their paying work. So Lebowitz represents a link to a charming imagined past, where wit and personality was a more valuable commodity. She’s a perfect HBO heroine.