Fran Lebowitz on Her New Netflix Series, Complaining About New York, and Being a ‘Slut of Literature’

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Fran Lebowitz is many things, but reticent is not one of them. It’s appropriate, then, that the 70-year-old cultural critic and consummate New Yorker’s new Netflix documentary series—a six-episode collaboration with Martin Scorsese titled Pretend It’s a City—delves unflinchingly into au courant topics from the MTA to e-cigarettes to wellness culture. Lebowitz is one of those charmed souls who could make a half-hour recitation of the phone book (remember those?) seem vital, but it’s especially gratifying to hear her weigh in on the future of her home city as it fights a pandemic.

This week, Vogue spoke to Lebowitz about everything from reactions to the Netflix series to her quarantine hobbies and her opinion on “greedy” New York landlords. Read the full interview below.

In these bizarre times, what do you hope people take away from Pretend It’s a City?

Well, I am way too old to imagine that I’m in charge of other people’s reactions to things. Something I’ve learned that people should learn is that even if people like something you do, you might think, “No, you’re liking it in the wrong way.” I’m not in charge of what other people think, but I hope they like it. Of course, it was shot before the [COVID-19] virus.

Speaking of the virus, how have you been filling your time throughout the pandemic apart from working?

I am a tremendous bookworm, and I’ve always said, “Oh, if only I could just read all the time.” And now I can!

What have you been reading?

Well, I am the world’s most promiscuous reader. Really, I am a slut of literature. When I go into a bookstore, I try every book in the store, so I have not been going into bookstores and browsing around. I also don’t have a computer—I know, it’s against the law—so I have to ask people to order books for me, and I pay them back. I’ve been ordering a lot of books that, if if I was in a bookstore, I would never think of them.

Is there a bookstore you’ll be excited to go back into when it’s safe?

First of all, my deep-seated opinion is that all bookstores are important. All bookstores are good. I happen to mostly go to The Strand or the Argosy, because I happen to buy a lot of secondhand books, and those bookstores have them.

I was so struck by your show’s balance between loving New York and complaining about it. Do you think the two always go hand-in-hand?

Here’s what I think. I think that if you don’t love something, you don’t care that much if people are ruining it. So, you know, of course I love New York. And of course I complain about New York, for numerous reasons. My feeling is, if you don’t like New York, who invited you? But people frequently complain about New York because something they love or care about has changed. Or, you know, they change something in a way that is not to your liking. I think “complain” is mild; sometimes I get enraged by things that have happened. I really think even New Yorkers who are a lot more serene than I am, which is probably pretty much everyone...I don’t know a single New Yorker who doesn’t complain about New York.

What’s most enraging to you about New York right now?

The pandemic absolutely enrages me, because it’s so tragic. I really believe that with any other president, this virus would never have gotten here, so this is a preventable tragedy. I mean, when Obama was president, he prevented Ebola from coming here. It’s obviously enraging to see the economic devastation in New York, tons of people in line for food...that isn’t just horrible, it’s a disgrace, because I don’t care what’s going on, there is plenty of food here. One thing that I’ve noticed is that a lot of people I know, are lamenting how many places are closed, and I have to point out that some of these places were closed before, right? Well before the epidemic, you saw a lot of empty stores on Madison Avenue, you know, or West Broadway, and the reason for that has nothing to do with virus. That is because the rents were $8 million a month. I don’t imagine this will ever happen, but I hope landlords might become a little less greedy. Because if a store that sells very expensive stuff can’t pay those rents, no one can, and they’re stupid. It’s bad for a city to become overpriced, even for people who are used to overpaying.

What do you see happening next in the New York real estate economy?

Real estate prices are going down now—not bottoming out, of course, but going down—which will not last, so I tell people who are younger than me, which are pretty much all people, “If you have any money, move now.” Because this is not going to stay like this. It’s a big opportunity for people who really couldn’t move here before. If you don’t do it, I guarantee you, three or four years from now, you’ll be saying, “I can’t believe I could have gotten that apartment.” That will be good, not just for these people moving here, but for New York, because one of the worst things about New York in the last 15 or 20 years were the real estate prices. I never heard anyone say, “Oh, you know what’s wrong with New York? There aren’t enough bankers.” Maybe this will allow the non-banking population—which, by the way, is the population that actually makes the culture of the city, right? The bankers just buy it—to come here.

As you mentioned, many parts of New York life—queer nightlife in particular—weren’t thriving even before the pandemic. Do you think there’s a future for, say, lesbian bars?

People who are young, they go out. They want to go out, they will go out…you know what I mean? A while ago, there was a piece in a magazine that had photographs of these places that people go into illegally, and a friend of mine said, “What is this about?” I said, “What are you talking about? It’s about sex!” That’s what it’s about. Someone else said, “No, it’s about dancing,” and I said, “Dancing is about sex.” I mean, when I was young, being gay was illegal. It was a crime. People got arrested, they went to jail, and there were probably more bars than there are now. That part of life will always find a way. I’m not worried that the sexual appetite of 20-year-olds is going to disappear.

**One last question I promised myself I would ask: In 2019, my former editor Rachel Tashjian wrote a profile of you for No Man's Land titled "Fran Lebowitz Will Never Read This Interview." Did you ever read it?

No. I really hate to read about myself.

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