Just because you’re a great writer doesn’t mean, as it turns out, you’re also a great speller. This was the disappointing lesson of “A Better Bee,” a literary-celeb-studded spelling bee held at Exit Art in Chelsea last night to benefit the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.
Contestants included big-name writers like Garden State author Rick Moody, The Position scribe Meg Wolitzer, and Prep’s Curtis Sittenfeld. (Last year’s champion, Ghost Town author Patrick McGrath, couldn’t attend and was instead represented by a Hello Kitty doll.)
First-round words were tailored for each contestant by judge Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary. Though poet Billy Collins, the first man up, misspelled villanelle (a kind of fixed-form poem), New York’s Emily Nussbaum, who formerly worked at Nerve.com, nailed vulva, and short-story writer Rachel Sherman correctly spelled “Deborah Treisman,” the name of The New Yorker’s fiction editor. Moody, who was set to perform with the Wingdale Community Singers after the contest, was given the word euphonious. “If I spell it wrong, do I get to be out?” he asked. “I’m really worried about the music. I don’t give a shit about the bee.” Here, emcee Bob Morris, who writes the “Age of Dissonance” column for “Sunday Styles,” noted the absence of fellow Times Stylist Alex Kucyznski, a promised competitor and noted speller. “You get so small with all those nose jobs that eventually you just disappear,” he explained, wondering if she’d been “Botoxed out of existence.”
As the competition moved into its non-customized rounds, Sherman tripped up on “rhythmically” and Thisbe Nissen missed “baccalaureate.” “Sacrilegious” knocked out Adriana Trigiani, Sigrid Nunez, and Nussbaum. The contestants eventually dwindled to The Epicure’s Lament author Kate Christensen, Georgia O’Keefe biographer Roxana Robinson, Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema, and Moody. “Bezoar” baffled all four, which kept them all in the game, but then Moody flubbed “inoculate,” and, several words later, Christensen struck out on “quodlibet.”
Finalists Sietsema and Robinson then proceeded to wow the audience with their skills: “putsch,” “risibility,” “pelisse,” “furbelow” — all letter perfect. It came down to “rickettsial,” and only Sietsema could spell the infectious-disease adjective. There was applause for the champ, and a silver crown, and then writers reverted to what they do very well: They headed to the bar.
— Lori Fradkin