A Literary Night Out: Spelling Bee Humiliation…
Last night, the PEN American Center held a party to celebrate the latest issue (#11) of the PEN America journal, a bouillabaisse of fiction, poetry, essays and conversations among writers and thinkers that’s been publishing for nearly a decade. The event, held at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, drew a sizable crowd of literary types (horn-rims and sweaters in abundance).
“This is our first party,” said M. Mark, the journal’s editor. Mark had taken the train from Vassar, where she teaches, and was passing around drink chips, which, given the economic climate and the fact that it was after all a book party, felt decadent.
Mark said the party was a thank you to her staff (including the Vassar students she enlists as free-labor interns) and also a celebration of the journal’s revamping. The current issue, which carries the theme “make believe” and features fiction by Ed Park, among other writers, will be available in a greater number of Barnes & Noble and Borders store than ever before and seems to finally have hit its stride editorially.
Paul Auster (”New York Trilogy”), who previously served as the Vice President and Secretary of PEN, was reading at the event, as was Roxana Robinson (”Cost”). Speakeasy found Auster camped out at the bar, drinking white wine. The Brooklyn-based writer has a new novel, “Invisible,” out today and said he just dropped another book off with his publisher. “I’m unemployed at the moment,” he deadpanned.
Auster planned to read the poetry of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese political activist and intellectual who was arrested in 2008 for speaking out against the government there. In January, 300 writers called for Liu’s release in a statement issued by PEN. Auster took the stage to read soon after, but Speakeasy had to make an early exit to attend another event celebrating small presses across town.
The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses [CLMP] was holding its annual spelling bee at the Diane von Furstenberg Studio. Since 1967, the CLMP has offered assistance to literary publications, ranging from the well-known (N+1; Virginia Quarterly) to the obscure (Les Figues Press). To simultaneously raise money and humiliate writers, each year the organization holds a charity auction and spelling bee. Last year’s winner was Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham, who edged out Sara Nelson, former editor of Publishers Weekly and current books editor for “O: The Oprah Magazine.”
Nelson was determined to avenge the defeat, but said her desire hadn’t translated to hours spent reading the dictionary. “I studied one year and got knocked out in the first or second round,” she said. “Now I don’t study.” Other spellers included novelists James Frey and Francine Prose, Vogue editor Sally Singer, Village Voice mainstay Michael Musto, former New York Times reporter Alex Kuczynski and New Yorker staffers Nancy Franklin and Ben Greenman. The event was emceed by literary agent Ira Silverberg, and judged by Oxford English Dictionary editor-at-large Jesse Sheidlower, who took visible delight in tripping up accomplished writers with deceptively simple-to-spell words like sacrilegious (which knocked several contestants out).
In the end, Nelson did outlast Burnham, but didn’t win the title of king bee. That distinction went to Ben Greenman, who, as the only finalist to correctly spell colophon, was given a crown and a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary that weighed roughly 40 pounds. After the event, Greenman was standing outside when a passing beggar asked for change. Greenman obliged, walked away, then stopped and contemplated giving the man his crown, too. Then he thought better of it, since the crown was only tin-foil, not silver. Also, Greenman said, “How do I know that he’s a good speller?”