LITERARY DEATH MATCH'S TODD ZUNIGA CROWNS A WINNER, JASON BAYANI, IN SAN FRANCISCO. PHOTO COURTESY OF TIM FAUST.
The lights dim and the bartenders put my tab on hold. A dapper young man approaches the stage, and after a mic test or two, the house lights go up and the crowd begins to rustle. I don't quite know what to expect. What, exactly, is a Literary Death Match?
Anyone who has attended literary events in New York City and elsewhere knows they can run the gamut from the softly-lit, soul-searching poetry reading to the more boisterous—though often unfulfilling—open mic night. The Literary Death Match is some combination of the two. Founded four and a half years ago by Todd Zuniga (the aforementioned debonair gent, also the founding editor of the deliciously deviant literary journal Opium Magazine) and two friends over sushi, the conceit was to create an event that married literature and comedy. "We basically said, ‘What is the state of literary events? Why are we bored at them, and how can we do what we like and what we think is fun?'" Zuniga recalls. "We loved comedy and literary things. I've been to so many events where a writer has to follow a comedian, and it's just like, ‘Oh, that poor fucking writer,' you know?"
The Death Matches (commonly referred to as LDMs) started in New York. The original idea was to invite literary magazines and small publishers to nominate a reader to represent them; the basic concept, to have four writers read for seven minutes each, in competitions of two. Three guest judges evaluate the readings in categories of Literary Merit, Intangibles, and Performance (my guest judge for Literary Merit was New York Times book reviewer Liesl Schillinger, who, along with her co-judges, rivaled the contestants for performance). The victor from each competition then goes head-to-head in a chaotic and ridiculous finale. At the event I attended, the ever-cool Rick Moody faced off against Amanda Filipacchi—whose selection from her 2005 novel, Love Creeps, perfectly and hilariously utilized the word vagina—for the final showdown. Moody won, though not for any other reason than his "team" (i.e. his side of the packed room) was more quickly able to identify seemingly random songs that, according to Zuniga, contained some sort of literary reference. "We've done musical chairs, where we play music and we invite people from the crowd to join the writer's team—the last team sitting wins as opposed to the last writer sitting," Zuniga laughs. "We're doing a thing called poets vs. madmen, where we show pictures of serial killers and pictures of poets and the two finalists have to guess which is which. You'd be amazed, Shel Silverstein is the craziest-looking dude on earth."
LDM100 NEW YORK JUDGES: COMEDIAN JENA FRIEDMAN, SPORTS JOURNALIST KENNY MAYNE, AND TIMES LITERARY CRITIC LIESL SCHILLINGER. PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH HALLACHER.
Zuniga and the LDM crew have now put on 119 events in cities all over the world, from hometown favorite New York to San Francisco, London, and even Beijing. The readers range from the über-established to the somewhat unknown, including award-winning authors and more than one celebrity (at LDM NYC, supermodel Paulina Porizkova read from her novel, mistaken by Schillinger for a memoir, about being... a supermodel). "We'll have events where we'll try to get a couple ringers to bring the crowd in, but I just love having the small, independent literary feel and inviting writers that we've never heard of," Zuniga explains. "A lot of times we don't vet the readers. We may know their short stories or work, but we don't know how they're going to perform. I think that kind of thing makes it more fun and more fresh for the audience, because they don't know what they're going to get."
The madcap zaniness that LDM embodies seems to be striking a chord—and will likely be reaching an even wider audience in the not-too-distant future. Zuniga and his cohorts recently got an agent and are close to a TV option. They may do fewer LDMs a year, but have plans to invade Europe and the rest of the world, starting with English-speaking countries and eventually complicating things by hosting episodes in places like Hungary. (They're currently working on doing one, in Spanish, in Buenos Aires.) "I feel like we're on the right path. Like anything that's worthwhile, you just sort of bust your butt and eventually you get rewarded. The reward for me is I have a couch in very single city in the world to sleep on." Zuniga pauses. "That's not really the reward. The reward isn't that easy to pin down." For the greater literary community, though, the result—if not the reward—seems obvious: events like LDM are helping to revitalize the coolitude of the printed word, thanks to people like Zuniga. As he says: "My whole philosophy is I kind of strongly believe in the pop cultural-ization of literature."
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