NYC vs. MFA vs. L Magazine, Or the Opposite Perhaps


NYC vs. MFA vs. L Magazine, Or the Opposite Perhaps

It’s not t

oo often that the NYC writing community gets offered an open call keg party, but that’s kind of what The L Magazine’s Annual Literary Upstart Challenge feels like. Dollar beers are almost free, and though the crowd is distinctly more refined than a rush of undergrads, writers are sort of notorious for being able to party like them. Wednesday night was the kick-off round of the seventh season of Upstart, where four writers spar off against one another on stage using only their words to earn them the favor of a round of judges who include EL’s own Scott Lindenbaum, as well as representatives from Harper-Perennial, and Ben Greenman of The New Yorker.

Standing bar-side before the event, there was that certain buzz of excitement that a good happy hour brings. The L Mag, taking advantage of their captive audience, was passing out debut copies of their new full sized print venture, Brooklyn magazine, which features new fiction by Helen Phillips and an intimate look at our borough in glossy form.

Then it was show time. Readers Kevin Fisher, Margaret Zamos-Monteith, Maura Roosevelt, and Genevieve Lynch took turns delivering their stories, their hands shaking ever so slightly from the shock of filtering their words out into the crowd through a mic — descriptions of hair gel, of the fleshy interior of a woman’s thigh, a debunked pot deal that leads to more unfinished business — a baby without a name. As the stories were told, the room became hushed in a grown-up, beer-and-cookies sort of way.

While the judges deliberated, lit-nerd types played book trivia on stage as Jonny Diamond tested their NYC literary know-all on former beatniks and their predecessors.

Meanwhile, the crowd mingled. I turned to the girl to my right and asked, “Are you a writer?”
“I’m in my last year at Columbia,” she said. Another girl, a friend of one of the contestants, smiled and said, “I’m at NYU.”

“I went to Brooklyn,” I told them. “And one of the readers tonight is from there too.”

Then we all kind of shrugged. I almost told them about how last year, every time I rode my bike by the Parade Grounds I had a recurring fantasy of an inter-writing-program kickball league.
But it was time for the judges. One-by-one each writer got the low-down, American Idol style, delivered by Ben Greenman. And then finally, the winner: Kevin Fisher, author of “White Pages”, a hilarious deadpan monologue which follows an urban designer/housekeeping college grad, will advance to the finals. Kevin is a playwright and a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre Playwrights Unit.

“I don’t know,” Greenman said as he bestowed the honors, “if the first reader of the night has ever won before.”

Perhaps it was a night of firsts. First spring-ish enough night to ride bikes around town. First time I’d found myself debating writing process with a sampling of writers from seemingly every school in town.

Springtime in Williamsburg at 10pm. Beer and prose and wet black streets. During the intermission quiz hour Diamond had asked which subway stop Burroughs refers to in the opening pages of Naked Lunch. Nobody had a clue.

“East Broadway?” one guessed. Another, “Union Square?”

And so the federation of New York writers said our goodbyes on the sidewalk of our little hometown, and made our way off to our laptops or our typewriters or to whatever else we do.

Check out photos of the event here.

–Lauren Belski is a recent graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program. Her work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Nerve, and Forte.

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