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Literary Competitions of the Ridiculous Sort

The other day I participated in a spelling bee. No, I’m not actually in third grade; I’m 27, and I’ll have you know I was in the bee for a good reason. Held at a downtown Lincoln bar and attended by decidedly geeky literary types, the competition was a benefit for the Nebraska Literary Heritage Association, an organization which supports Lincoln’s public libraries. I represented UNL’s English department along with fellow grad student Annie Bierman. We did quite well, if I do say so myself: Annie made it until about the final five, while I placed a solid second. I lost to an auto mechanic who could spell the word “ptarmigan” (the “p” is silent!), but I won myself a lightly used copy of the game Bananagrams.

There was a lot of downtime between spelling rounds, so I had the chance to ponder what seemed an increasingly apt question: Why am I here? And for that matter, why did all these people pay ten dollars to see me spell some words? The more I drank, the more ridiculous the words thrown at me became—“impugnable,” “accretionary,” “oompah”—the more I was moved to question this spelling bee’s raison d’etre. By the time I’d gone out on the word “delicatessen” (never again will I set foot in one of those establishments), I’d concluded that the adult spelling bee satisfies a need for a certain kind of competition most of us thought we’d abandoned in childhood.

We take it for granted that children will compete—even if they aren’t in the swim team or the marching band, competition is inherent to the practice of assigning grades. But competition becomes something different when we’re grown. We’ve typically got fewer explicit opportunities for it, but it’s more serious: the competitions to which adults are subjected have financial security or personal self worth as their stakes. Competition is no longer fun. So we hold arm-wrestling tournaments, attend trivia quiz nights, and—dare I say it?—obsess over football games. These activities fulfill that need most of us have, even if we don’t admit it (it’s not fashionable to call oneself “competitive”), for lower-stakes competitive recreation. The spelling bee was pleasantly silly: no one actually cared who won, and there was a slightly ironic gloss over the proceedings that allowed us distance from the actual stakes of the event.

As I looked out over those friendly faces in the crowd—a few were kind enough to cheer me on, bless their hearts—I realized that what we geeky literary types need are more, not fewer, avenues for ridiculous competition. One spelling bee a year is simply not enough. So I got to brainstorming about other ways to channel that competitive energy—in the literary arena. Here are some ideas:

  • Literary Pictionary: Like regular Pictionary, except the artist is given a novel or poem to depict visually—the title of which the guesser must divine.
  • The Book Cover Game: This is delightful—instructions can be found here.
  • Stage Reading contests: Who can do the best Patrick Bateman sneer? Who can best capture Ahab’s monomaniacal vigor?
  • Man or Woman?: In this revealing game, the guesser is read a passage and asked to say whether the author is female or male. It’s harder than you think: check out the Guardian’s version (inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s ridiculous remarks) here.
  • Match the Food & Drink: What do Hobbits prefer, mead or ale? What was it that Esther Greenwood ate that made her so sick, crab or cod?
  • 30-Second Novel Summaries: The title says it all. I recorded a version with some friends a few years ago; the results are here.

Those are just a few ideas; I know there are many more possibilities I haven’t even dreamed of. Admit it—I’m onto something, right? Who can help me organize one of these events? The need is there: I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s time to move beyond the spelling bee, into realms of literary competition that reach new levels of hilarity.