James Frey, Ben Greenman and Maira Kalman Spell Some Words
Monday, October 26, 2009, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses hosted Let It Bee, its 6th annual spelling bee featuring, among others, authors James Frey and Francine Prose, New Yorker editor Ben Greenman, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, and artist Maira Kalman. The event, held at the Diane von Furstenberg Studio in the meatpacking district in New York City, was sponsored by Harper Perennial–an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers–which focuses on the work of new and young authors like Rebecca Curtis, whose story collection Twenty Grand I love. Its slogan is “good books for cool people.” As such, Harper Perennial has been making efforts to bridge the gap between print publishing and the online lit world. Here is a subjective account of my experience at Let it Bee.
How could I not bid with all these bright tables in front of me piled with gifts? Gifts like dinner for two at Soho House, editorial consultation with editor Ethan Nosowsky–Est. Value: Priceless, a pet portrait, and a Paul Smith tie. My brother would like a Paul Smith tie, I thought. I leaned in, holding out my pink Bee Prepared Svedka cocktail–Est. Value: $2000, Minimum Bid: $1000. There was one bid in the mead notebook–$1500–but a woman erased it and wrote $1000. She looked up and smiled. I smiled. With my eyes I said, “Rough times.” The tie was in a box. I couldn’t see it. What if it wasn’t your color? No, for $2000, they wouldn’t stick you with one tie. You’d have options. I thought, There is nothing in that box. To my left was a white headless mannequin in a tweed three-piece Paul Smith suit. It was posed like it was walking down a London street. I wanted the mannequin to have a head and walk with me down the street, or to stay headless but hold me and open doors. I bid on an evening of Capote cocktails at Bookmarks Lounge.
The contestants wore gold antennae that bobbed and sparkled at the front of the room. Jesse Sheidlower (editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary) sat at a white desk to the left with a Macbook open and some dictionaries he didn’t open. He had shiny black hair and a neatly knotted tie with pastel spheres. Announcing the rules, he said, “You are commended thus,” and rang a bell. “You are discommended thus,” he said and blew a slide whistle that made a sad sound. The emcee, literary agent Ira Silverberg, sat next to him. Ira Silverberg’s boyfriend, Bob Morris was supposed to emcee but was “stuck in Brazil.”
Ira Silverberg thanked Harper Perennial for sponsoring the event and noted that the Bee was part of Harper’s effort to reach out to small presses and online journals like HTML Giant and its editors. People clapped. I clapped. I wondered who in this room filled with pillars of print publishing was wondering what HTML Giant was. I wondered if they all knew.
Ira Silverberg said some words that people had “walked out” on in the past: horticulture, hassenpfeffer, cappuccino. Alex Kuczynski, author of Beauty Junkies, who misspelled cappuccino last time, stood up in defense. She said it was because she had been thinking about the Capuchin monks. “C-A-P-P-U-C-C-I-N-O,” she said. People clapped. She was tall with long blond hair and knee-high black boots. Except for the gold balls, the skinny headband looked appropriate on her.
James Frey got up and Ira Silverberg said James Frey had done the Bee a few times with them, but “then there was that woman who got in the way–and now you’re back.” Ira Silverberg said there was a rumor that James Frey had met his publisher at the beach, in the Hamptons. But by the tone in his voice, it seemed like that wasn’t really a rumor. James Frey denied that. James Frey said he was “the only person he knows who has a daughter whose godfather dresses like a woman.”
James Frey got blazonry. He said the other times, he had lost on the first round. “Not this time,” a woman in the audience shouted. James Frey said, “B-L-A-Z-E-N-R-Y. Blazonry.” The slide whistle sounded. Holding up his antennae, James Frey walked to the corner and said, “Support small publishers.”
Maira Kalman got up. She misspelled delinquency, got the slide whistle and went to the corner.
Along the walls there was seating cushioned with a black-and-white spirogyra pattern. At the corner where the two walls met, James Frey sat with his arms spread over the tops of the cushions at each side. He leaned his head to one side, crossed his legs and looked out into space.
Alex Kuczynski said, “I really should have listened to Maira.” She started to spell delinquency and paused. She started again. She stopped. “Oh my god,” she said. “I just had a baby by the way.”
Rosalind Kilkenny McLymont, editor-in-chief of the Network Journal, said she was a licensed Zumba
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