By EMILY GRECKI
Reading is a solitary experience. The reader can cozy up with a book (or e-reader device of choice) and be silently transported. But what happens when the reading experience is brought into a public, competitive forum? Such is the case with the Literary Death Match.
If the typical literary reading hearkens back to the ancient oral tradition of storytelling, then the Literary Death Match, by its own description, is a mix between Def Poetry Jam, American Idol, and Double Dare—an amalgam both intriguing and absurd.
These matches are sponsored by Opium Magazine and are performed all over the world. Each LDM consists of four new or established authors who perform seven minutes of original fiction to a live audience, including three special judges. The judges’ criteria are “literary merit, performance, and intangibles.”
I decided to attend one of these matches at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York. The hosts, Todd Zuniga and Ann Heatherington, opened the show by tossing out scraps of paper with the authors’ names, which determined the line-up for the night. Authors Rick Moody and Arthur Phillips went head to head for Round 1. Moody read an excerpt from a short story, and Arthur Phillips described his discovery of an old folio believed to be a newly discovered Shakespeare play, “The Tragedy of Arthur,” for which Phillips has written the introduction and notes. He concluded by reading an excerpt from the play. Both pieces were engaging—each author’s seven minutes spun rapidly by. Moody’s was the more poetical (and perhaps traditional), and Phillips’ the more conversational. When the judges responded, the death match commenced.
Liesl Schillinger, a critic for the New York Times Book Review, judged literary merit; Jena Friedman, an actress and playwright, judged performance; and Kenny Mayne, a sports journalist for ESPN, judged intangibles. Schillinger’s comments were the closest to a traditional critique, albeit with funny quips and multiple pop culture references. Friedman commented that Moody should have removed his hat (a hipster fedora) because it made him seem unlikeable. Mayne said Phillips seemed like a “bad-ass mister.” The judges conferred and announced that the winner of Round 1 was Rick Moody.
Round 2 was a battle between supermodel and author Paulina Porizkova and author Amanda Filipacchi. Porizkova entertainingly recounted the trials and travails of a model in Paris, and Filipacchi, whose excerpt was about a young man who takes a class he believes to be titled “Accessing the Goodness within You” but is actually “Accessing the Goddess within You,” had to pause frequently to allow for interrupting peals of laughter. The piece ended with the narrator trying to sculpt a model vagina out of clay under the professor’s militant gaze. Filipacchi was declared the winner. As Mayne explained, “You can’t compete with a clay vagina.”
This was real entertainment.
I had thought the final round would again be readings, but instead it was a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-like game of audience participation. Moody and Fillipacchi stood on opposite sides of the stage, each commanding half the audience. The hosts played songs with literary references and interspersed recorded readings of literary works. When an audience member knew the answer, he or she ran up to the stage, slapped an author’s hand, and announced the answer. A correct answer counted one point in favor of the author on that side of the stage. In a chaotic, close match of audience-answered trivia, Moody was the ultimate victor.
Despite its competitive premise—coupled with vigorous energy—LDM is clearly more about bringing literature out of solitude and into a live group celebration, honoring authors for both their words and performances. The event definitely gives a one-two punch, but not the kind I expected.
The creators of Literary Death Match aim to “showcase literature as a brilliant, unstoppable medium.” Check out a match near you and decide for yourself: http://www.literarydeathmatch.com/.