A lot of people ask us, “Why are you always putting a price on Ben Greenman’s head?” This is the answer.
A few years ago we entered a short story contest at The L Magazine called Literary Upstart. After our story was selected, we had to show up at a bar in Greenwich Village and read it, aloud, in front of like 50 people. Three other contestants read their stories, too. The winner was picked by a panel of judges that included a literary agent, a book editor, a dude from The L Magazine, and Ben Greenman. He was their leader. Ben Greenman is always their leader.
Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker. He also writes fiction, dreams up wacky musicals based on trashy pop culture events, and judges pretty much every literary talent competition in the city and state of New York. Seriously, he is all over these things. We didn’t even realize how many literary talent competitions there are, until we noticed that Greenman is always judging them. It’s like a wizard appeared and told Greenman that in the future, judging literary talent competitions will be the main prerequisite for wealth and happiness, and Greenman kept the wizard’s secret to himself. Otherwise, why would he do it?
The story we read at the competition included this paragraph.
Out in San Francisco, I hung around Golden Gate Park while Chinese women performed tai chi in a meadow of daisies, and the veterans of forgotten wars gathered around a blue pond to race their remote-controlled sailboats. I carried a yellow notepad everywhere. When I saw the Russian ladies wearing scarves and gabbing by the chess tables, I thought of my girlfriend, and what she must be doing, and how we should have taken more pictures of each other.
If this were a movie, we’d call that an establishing shot. It’s not terribly important, plot-wise, but it lets you know where you are.
When the verdicts were handed down, and Ben Greenman read the judges’ commentary aloud to the bar, we were sad that someone else won instead of us. But the strange thing was that Ben Greenman used the word “xenophobia” in his critique of our story. He said something to the effect of, “The judges didn’t really like the xenophobia you expressed in the piece, but…” Which caused us to make a face at the microphone, under the lights, in front of everybody. But we weren’t allowed a response.
We assumed the xenophobia comment had come from one of the other judges. Possibly as a joke? And that Greenman, as their spokesperson, was simply reading it off a list of comments. Because he tossed it off quite casually. So as soon as the competition ended, we moseyed over to the judges table and thanked everybody, and asked Greenman if he could elaborate on that. But he clearly didn’t want to talk. He just waved his hand and said, “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
More perplexed than anything, we returned to the table where our friends were waiting (about fifteen people had come to cheer us on) and found them in a state of agitation. A lot of remarks were made about how easy it would be to kick Ben Greenman’s ass. (We think it would be pretty easy. He’s a New Yorker editor.) After seeing the reaction from our friends in the audience, we got angry, too. Who publically calls someone’s else work xenophobic and then cuts off the discussion?
Does it matter that the neighborhood in San Francisco that we were describing is actually full of Chinese women doing tai chi, and old Russian ladies watching their husbands play chess? Probably not. It’s fiction, after all. We can’t justify it by saying it really happened.
But damn. That was cold. And random. And kind of an abuse of power.
Ben Greenman is currently touring in support of his new novel, Please Step Back. He might be a good writer—we don’t know. If we picked up one of his books, all we’d see is red capes, the smoke from our nostrils, and hot Spanish dust purling up from the stadium floor. But if anyone dares to attend one of his readings, and uses a variation on the word “xenophobia” during the Q&A period, your reward will be $20. No joke. Show us a video clip from your cell phone, and we’ll meet you to transfer the money.
Sample question: “Ben, aren’t you worried that your work is a bit xenophobic?”
Extra cash if you then take his microphone away and tell him to sit down, which is how it played out for us.
Here are his tour dates.
5/26: Word, Greenpoint, New York City (in conversation with Shelly Salamensky)
6/2: Community Bookstore, Park Slope, New York City
6/5: Book Cellar, Chicago
6/6: Printers Row Book Fair, Chicago
6/11: Book Court, Brooklyn, New York City
6/29: Barnes and Noble, Tribeca, New York City