Literary gameshow entertains College with raucous humor

The College staged an ‘episode’ of the ‘Literary Death Match’ this past Tuesday at the ‘62 Center. Photo courtesy of David Dashiell
The College staged an ‘episode’ of the ‘Literary Death Match’ this past Tuesday at the ‘62 Center. Photo courtesy of David Dashiell

This past Tuesday, the ’62 Center’s MainStage was host to the “Literary Death Match:” an American Idol-esque literary gameshow co-sponsored by the Department of English, the Program in Comparative Literature and The Book Unbound program. Created and hosted by Adrian Todd Zuniga, a writer and award-winning journalist, Literary Death Match pits four authors against each other in decidedly light-hearted competition. Contestants each read up to seven minutes of their work and then receive commentary from three judges. Two finalists compete for the win in an irreverent finale requiring neither reading nor writing. The show has been performed internationally since its debut in 2006, and past judges include prominent authors, comedians and actors, from BJ Novak to Jeffrey Eugenides.

The College’s “episode” of Literary Death Match was judged by Roy Blount Jr., a prolific author, humorist and radio personality on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, Muffy Plotner, the drag queen personality of Bill O’Brien ’89 and Professor of American History, Literature and Eloquence Jim Shepard. The three judges carried the show with their wit and good humor, delighting their audience both with their clever quips and comedic camaraderie. Shepard commented, “Being a judge for the Literary Death Match is like being asked to juggle on a tightrope in public when you’re not sure a) if you can juggle or b) if anyone cares. Being a contestant, I assume, is somewhat similar. Even so, the whole thing seems high-spirited and harmless and good-intentioned enough to support.” Plotner set the night’s jocular tone by switching her spiky stilettos for Blount Jr.’s sneakers immediately after they took their seats on the judges’ couch.

Contestants were science and bizarro fiction novelist Jedediah Berry, author and editor of short stories Kelly Link, University of Massachussets at Amherst professor and author Jeff Parker and slam poet Elizabeth K. Gordon (a.k.a. elizag). After a brief warm-up by host Zuniga, the Death Match began with Link facing off against Berry in Round One. In her brief reading, Link kept the audience laughing (and blushing) with her erotic Great Gatsby fan-fiction, undoubtably the most X-rated performance MainStage has ever seen. Berry countered with a short story presented on a deck of cards. Each card held a sentence or two that seamlessly added to the tale of a strange, surreal family, a strategy that came off as charming rather than gimmicky. Each judge then gave the writers their commentary, with Blount Jr. focusing on Literary Merit, Plotner on Performance and Shepard on “Intangibles.” Their feedback was funny and good-natured (Plotner complimented both readers on their “symmetrical breasts”) and though it seemed close, they named Berry the winner. Round Two began with Gordon, who gave a rousing performance of two poems centered on class and identity. Parker read a short story about a man and his often-inebriated rooster, a humorous tale of unlikely companionship. The judges commended both, but Gordon’s moving and energetic presentation easily beat out Parker’s, making her the second finalist.

The night lost a bit of its coherence but none of its charm in the raucous and casual finale. Each finalist chose two team members from those on stage to compete in a victor-determining game. Zuniga read off negative Amazon reviews of classic literature, and contestants rushed to guess the correct book. Gordon’s team won by a landslide and she was crowned the champion of the Literary Death Match — although at this point, it hardly seemed to matter who won or lost.

The Literary Death Match was not a packed event (although that may have had more to do with the size of the venue than the size of the crowd), but it was nonetheless a night of energy and fun. Its aim is to share literature in new and exciting ways, and that is exactly what it did. The audience was able hear the work of four emerging writers – and to laugh a lot along the way.