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The Blood and Bore of Literary Readings
Literary Death Match SMA, Fri. Feb. 14

by Nicky Redl

Ever been to a literary reading and, despite your best intentions, felt in need of a strong coffee to make it through?

You are not alone.

Reading a book is a private experience, padded by personal imagination and history. You can stop when you like, or stay up late getting lost in another world. It's up to you.

Public readings, in turn, can be hit and miss. If you're unlucky, the only person getting lost in another world is the author while everyone else is desperately glancing at their watches.

Later you check your emails and get back on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube for more entertaining and less time-consuming ways to access stories.

In view of so much competition for our attention, do books and literary events stand a chance in the long run?

In 2006, this concern was one of the things that drove Adrian Todd Zuniga, Elizabeth Koch, and Dennis DiClaudio to seek a different way to showcase writers' work.

They wanted to get listeners excited about literature again, but how?

The answer was launched in The Back Room, a speakeasy in NYC.

This wasn't an exercise in coddling authors and letting them read as long as they liked.

This was the cold, harsh world of battling it out to the bitter end, where only the most succinct and convincing would survive – with mere minutes to hook people's interest.

The Literary Death Match was born.

Of course, despite the dramatic title the whole event is a lot of high-energy fun for audience and writers, co-organiser and author Adrian Todd Zuniga says.

For each Literary Death Match (LDM), four handpicked writers read their work for up to seven minutes each, and three judges humorously assess the pieces from three different perspectives – literary merit, performance and the somewhat dubious-sounding ‘intangibles'.

The two finalists then engage in a light-hearted game to determine the ultimate champion.

The idea to turn literary readings into performance arts gained traction from the very start, and the team managed to win American musician Moby as a judge for their first match. Many high-profile names have followed.

Judges aren't necessarily authors, but can come from a variety of backgrounds, including acting, comedy, dance, and music.

With just seven minutes each, the total reading time is less than half an hour.

Zuniga says they decided on the time limit after seeing attention spans fade at many conventional readings.

"Within the literary community, there is this idea that we never cut anybody off," he says.

"We would go to readings and somebody would read for five minutes and be excellent, […] and then you would see someone read for 25 minutes and everybody wanted to gauge their eyes out."

Keeping it short clarifies audience expectations, and lets the organisers add entertainment and fun to the mix.

There is a stand-up element with Zuniga delivering an opening monologue and the judges making off-the-cuff jokes. Zuniga says this approach works even in combination with serious and sometimes heart-breaking topics during readings.

The event wants to introduce authors and encourage people to think, but at the same time, it doesn't want to take itself too seriously.

And with a dozen years under its belt and more than 500 matches in 60 cities around the world, LDM's goal to make literature exciting and sexy has been a success.

Zuniga says he's seen some outstanding responses, with 800 seat venues so attentively quiet that you could hear a pin drop.

One of his favourite reactions came at the San Antonio Book Festival when author Antonio Sacre was reading about stripping, in relation to writing.

Sacre talked about having to strip until you get to the place where you have stripped everything away.

He turned it into a physical performance, and the audience went wild.

"People didn't just give him a standing ovation, they jumped up, women came and threw dollar bills on the stage," Zuniga recalls.

"It was amazing to watch that response, people really lost it. I loved that moment."

And Zuniga's plans don't end with the live shows. He feels that especially now in the current political climate, truth and reliable information play such a vital role that literature is experiencing a revival and should be taken to further platforms.

The organiser is working on a documentary and wants to take LDM to the screen, hoping that meeting with Netflix is the next step toward making literature great again.


Literary Death Match returns to the
San Miguel Writers' Conference
Friday, February 14, 2-3:30pm


events @ sanmiguelevents.com

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