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2023-10-20 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Fran Lebowitz on Fame, the Threat of AI, and Her Buddy Martin Scorsese

Fran Lebowitz on Fame, the Threat of AI, and Her Buddy Martin Scorsese

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

The ever-opinionated author and public speaker returns to the stage for a one-woman show in Brooklyn this weekend. In advance, she spoke to Avenue about fame, New York nostalgia, and why you should never call her in an emergency.

What writers do you like today, both alive and older and established and young and new?
The majority of my friends are not now or have ever been writers, but I have some friends who are writers and I love their work. That’s not why they’re friends, but it helps. I love Deborah Eisenberg’s work. I love Lynn Tillman’s work. These are all friends of mine. I just finished Colson Whitehead’s book. I only met him once as far as I can recall. He’s not a friend of mine, but I really like the book a lot. There’s a lot of good writers now. There’s not a lot of great writers now because there never are. There happened not to be a lot of geniuses at any given moment in the history of the world.

Why do you think that is?
Because it’s a rare thing. It’s as simple as that.

What do you think of ChatGPT and AI? Do you think it’s scary? Is it a real danger?
Whenever [ChatGPT] first became available to the public, I happened to be in San Francisco, and the people running the theater where I was speaking were hysterical about this. The girl running the theater said, “We asked it to write a press release and it was as good as ours.” (For this big theater.) I said, “Who cares? No one reads press releases. So ‘as good as yours,’ what does that even mean?” I didn’t understand at all what this was until I read a very good piece explaining it. I think it was in New York magazine, and it was by someone who specializes in [AI]. I now have a vague idea of what this is. Basically it’s made up of stolen stuff. Writers hold copyrights. What people don’t understand is a copyright property the same way your house is. What if a bunch of people just moved into your house and start living in your house? That’s what this is. For sure this is a bad thing from that point of view.

Do you read books on paper or a Kindle?
I do not own anything you could read a book on other than a book. I don’t own a computer. I don’t own a cell phone. I don’t have a Wi-Fi connection in my apartment. I know that people especially read newspapers and magazines on the phone. I wouldn’t say that I’m generally the most optimistic person on the planet Earth, but I take the subway a lot. Most everyone on the subway is on their phone. But when you do see people reading books on the subway, they are almost all in their 20s. And that is a very hopeful sign.

It must be hard not to have an iPhone and Wi-Fi.
I’m not a Luddite, but I have no interest in machines, period. I never had a typewriter. I don’t know how to type. There’s no connection between me and any machine on the planet. When they first invented the [home] computer, it was called a word processor. It was quite a bit before the internet. A friend of mine, a screenwriter, got one and said, “You have to come look at this thing. It’s fantastic.” I thought this was just a very fast typewriter. I don’t know how to type and I don’t need something this fast. I am such a slow writer. I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

How do your friends feel about that?
They always say things like, “I can’t reach you.” I think, “So what?” Who am I? I have no skills. If you have a big problem, don’t call me anyway. I can’t help you. I’m not a doctor. I cannot fix anything in an emergency. So, it doesn’t really matter whether people can reach me or not.

Did you watch Pretend It’s a City, the Netflix series that you and Martin Scorsese did?
I didn’t watch it on Netflix because you need a Wi-Fi connection. But, of course, I saw what we were making. I saw it 1,000 times in Marty’s screening room because he changes things every two minutes. I believed that I saw the final thing everyone else saw, but the cinematographer told me, “You didn’t because it wasn’t color corrected,” or something. So, apparently, I didn’t see it color corrected, but I can remember what color things were.

It was so popular with young people. You must get stopped everywhere.
Always kids have come up to me on the street, even before Netflix. I always thought that had to do with the fact that New York in the ’70s has achieved this kind of permanent glamor, like Paris in the ’20s. And because I was there, I always thought that was the reason. But because of not having Netflix, I was unaware of how big it was. There’s no comparison to the number of people that come up to me since Netflix. It’s a billion times more.

Do you get annoyed by it?
It doesn’t bother me. There’s a lot of people who say they hate it. Most people I think probably are lying. I mean, people say a lot worse things to me than “I love you.” I always think, “Really, you hate people saying, ‘I loved your movie’ or ‘I loved your book’?” Sometimes some of it seems kind of nutty. Like if I am racing down the stairs of the subway, that’s not the time to ask me for a selfie because obviously I’m trying to get a train.

New York seemed more fun in the ’70s.
I thought about this a lot, trying to think, “Was it more fun?” Truthfully, I was in my 20s in the ’70s. It was definitely more fun to be in your 20s. When you’re in your 20s is when you should have fun. What [young people] see now is stuff on the internet, which is a very flattening medium. Lots of times kids will say, “How can all these people know each other?” I think because these worlds were very small then. That’s what they don’t understand—the New York art world fit in one restaurant in the ’70s. You knew everyone. Now, because of the internet, people see everything, but they don’t go anywhere.

Has New York changed?
New York changes by the day, it always has. People say, “When will things go back to the way it was before Covid?” Never. Covid was like three and a half years ago when it started. New York would not be the same in any three-and-a-half-year period. In a six-month period New York changes. One of the reasons people who like cities like cities is because they change.

Do you go out to eat a lot?
I go out to eat all the time. I would never say [where]. My favorite restaurants are crowded enough. I go to [them] all the time because I hate to cook. I’m a horrible cook. Without question, the worst food in New York City is in my apartment.

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