The joy of Fran Lebowitz

Blocked? Maybe. Tortured? Nope.

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Hayao Miyazaki, creativity, and selfishness.

Fran Lebowitz (b. 1950)

I’ll be honest: I delayed starting the new Fran Lebowitz Netflix series that everyone’s been talking about, because, having just finished a four-part documentary about Japan’s irritable genius of animation, I wasn’t really in the mood for another tortured-artist type groaning about, well, whatever. But once I finally put on Pretend It’s a City, on Friday, I discovered what everyone else has been saying: It’s an absolute delight! Lebowitz may be the world’s most famous sufferer of writer’s block, and she may play up her persona as the ultimate neurotic New Yorker—but what surprised me is how at peace she seems, how not tortured she is, and how much fun she seems to be having.

This comes across perhaps most clearly in an exchange about guilty pleasures near the beginning of episode six. Asked if she has any, Lebowitz says:

No. I have no guilty pleasures, because pleasure never makes me feel guilty. I think it’s unbelievable that there’s such a phrase as guilty pleasure. In other words—like, unless your pleasure is killing people! My pleasures are absolutely benign, by which I mean: No one dies. No one is molested. You know? And, I think: No, I don’t feel guilty for having pleasure! We live in a world where people don’t feel guilty for killing people, they don’t feel guilty for, like, putting babies in cages at the border. They don’t feel guilty for this, but I should feel guilty for—what? For having two bowls of spaghetti? For reading a mystery?

Lebowitz continues (and here I’m switching to screenshots because it gives you some sense of her delivery, which is of course part of the pleasure of watching the series):

Though I also couldn’t help but wonder if part of the reason Fran Lebowitz is able to have so much fun is that she no longer writes?

Which brings me to another, related question: Does Lebowitz really have writer’s block? Though it’s true that she has never delivered a follow-up to her second book, 1981’s Social Studies, it seems to me that she isn’t so much blocked as retired—as a writer, that is. As a public speaker, a kind of itinerant professional wit, she is at the absolute top of her game, and I dearly hope we’ll all be able to return to theaters and lecture halls before too long so that Lebowitz can continue to ply her craft.

In the meantime, we have this wonderful series; if you haven’t checked it out yet, please do. And if you have a sneaking suspicion, as I do, that you can either enjoy your life or be engaged in a long-term writing project . . . well, please feel free to leave your comments/complaints below.

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Any excuse to post this amazing 1974 Peter Hujar photo of a young Fran Lebowitz in her childhood bedroom in Morristown, New Jersey—I’ll take it.


In case you missed it last week, my Twitter thread of The Creative Process in 43 Hayao Miyazaki Screengrabs has . . . gone viral? Apparently, everyone feels like a tortured artist, at least some of the time. View the entire thread here.


My monthly advice column returns next Monday. Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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(Read my past advice here.)

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