Fran Lebowitz likes to talk. And in Public Speaking, a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese that airs Nov. 22 on HBO, the author and commentator does just that, weighing in with characteristic wit on everything from her decades-long literary barren spell what she dubbed a "writer's blockade" to Andy Warhol and our culture of fame ("what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply"). Lebowitz talks to TIME about her half-finished books, the importance of elitism and why she belongs on the Supreme Court.
The film bills you in press releases and on the website as an "iconic New York City writer." How does it feel to be iconic?
I never thought about it. It's a code word for being old. I'm guessing. It's a word I cannot stand applied to anything because it's so overused and hence misused.
You often say you're the laziest person in the world.
That is true.
Are you not working on anything at the moment?
Well, I have two half-finished books. One is a half-finished novel that I say I made an original contract for in 1981. Then I have a half-finished other book, nonfiction, the purpose of which was originally to get me just to write a book. I think that is probably five years late. I did try to sell my truly indulgent publisher on the idea that I have two half-finished books. We could just take the done half of the novel and then half the other book then I have a book.
A whole new genre.
Yes, but no takers. I also moved this summer, and I finally found something worse than writing, which is moving. While I was moving, I was thinking, you know, I'd rather write. So when all this moving stuff is done and I finish unpacking the last dozen boxes from July 27, then I think I might write. I mean, I intend to. I haven't given up. I've given up working, yes, but I haven't given up the idea of it.
But your first book, Metropolitan Life, came out when you were 27. That's how old I am, and I don't have any books, so I feel somewhat unaccomplished.
Yes, but see, you're not supposed to then stop, because then everyone catches up with you! And surpasses you with the number of books. When I was a child, I would go to the library all the time, and I imagined that I would have a shelf of books and that seems unlikely now. Unless I'm on a very small shelf.
Why did you agree to a documentary now?
It was [Vanity Fair editor and Public Speaking producer] Graydon Carter's idea, and when he first broached the subject with me, it was eight years ago. He figured out when it was, because we were on our way to Disneyland.
You don't strike me as a Disneyland kind of person.
I have hidden qualities.
In the film, you say there's "too much democracy in the culture, not enough democracy in the society." And you speak of a "natural aristocracy of talent."
Yes, 'cause talent is natural. It's not something you can learn or wish for. Why is this such bad news to people? Up until five minutes ago, everyone knew that. That's what talent means. People accept that in athletes. Why is LeBron James so good? He's more talented at playing basketball! He didn't go to the University of Iowa basketball workshop.
You also note in the film how AIDS robbed us not only of great artists but also of the most engaged audience members, and we don't have that discerning audience anymore. Do you think there's a chance of getting such an audience again, or have we lost the ability to be discerning?
It's possible, but it would not be anytime soon. This is about our making distinctions. Making distinctions is oh, I don't know elitist? Making distinctions is judging. It's saying, This is good, this is better, this is best. You have to know a lot of things. These things, in my opinion, are pleasurable to learn. This is what used to be called context. This is a rich thing, it's a complicated thing. Like democracy. Democracy is something that you have to learn. It's not natural to people. What's natural to people is monarchy. Go to any playground. You have to learn what it is, and you have to do things. It's actually a kind of um responsibility that you have. So if everyone decides we're not going to know anything, then where would discernment come into it?
The film shows you telling an audience, "There are too many books, the books are terrible, and it's because you have been taught to have self-esteem."
Yeah. They now give prizes to children in school whether they win things or not, because they don't want them to feel bad.
They should feel bad?
The goal isn't that they feel bad, but the goal is that they know what is good. On the way to knowing what is good, you are going to feel bad if you are not good. And you have to learn that you're not going to be that good at everything. In fact, you're probably not going to be that good at anything. The word elite is not a bad word in sports even the Tea Party thinks it's a good word. It's O.K. to be a very good soldier. It's O.K. to be a very good baseball player.
Do you ever regret not going to college or not finishing traditional high school?
No. Well, the only reason I regret it is, I'm sure that's what's keeping me off the Supreme Court, which is my dream job. No, I'm sure that if I'd gone to college, I would have gotten thrown out of college. So I believe that getting thrown out of high school saved my parents some money that it would have cost them to get me thrown out of college. Because I really hated school. I don't even like to be in that environment now.
You'll never be teaching?
No. Can you imagine? I have been offered teaching jobs. A person who has failed as a student. This should be your first hint that you shouldn't teach. Plus, what is a salient quality a teacher should have? It would be patience. No one has accused me of this.
Judges, on the other hand, don't need patience.
No, judging, that's my natural bent. Judges, teachers, they're opposite.
So you really got a kick out of playing a judge on Law & Order?
I loved it. But mostly I didn't love the acting part so much I loved wearing the judge's robe. I loved to gavel. Of course I got a million letters from judges: judges don't bang gavels. You would be surprised, the number of judges who watch Law & Order. You're only supposed to gavel if there's an outburst in the courtroom. But let me assure you that if you are sitting at what is essentially a desk above everyone else in the room, and you have that little hammer there, it is irresistible. And, you may believe me or not, but after I started doing that, every other actor who played a judge did that. They all copied me. Because it's so fun.
Did you ever have any trouble with lines?
I'd only have one or two. I wasn't really acting. I really am like that. The reason I could do that is because that's how I go around in life. I just don't get to wear the robe, and they don't give me a hammer. I couldn't play anything else. In fact, a lot of people said to me at the time, Are you doing that little part in hopes of getting bigger parts? I said, No, I'm playing that judge in the hopes of becoming a real judge. I'm hoping they'll say, Look how good she is at judging. Let's put her on the Supreme Court.