American Novel, American Idol
A Reality TV Competition About Reading? Literary Death Match Wants a Show
Jonathan Lethem, Susan Orlean—Literary Death Match, a reading competition judged by writers and actors, has just taped a pilot. Melissa Goldstein reports.
In case you were watching Homeland instead, last night was the greatest night in literary history. That is, if you ask Literary Death Match founder Adrian Todd Zuniga.
The self-appointed stage mom/pimp to the world’s literary stars, Zuniga began rolling out his plan for world literary domination in 2006, teaming with then-girlfriend Elizabeth Koch and friend Dennis DiClaudio for an event in New York that would pit writers against one another in a drinks-fueled, tongue-in-cheek talent competition to be judged by name authors, editors, and pop- cultural figures.
More importantly, it would “mix a bunch of people together—actors, writers, and musicians in one room,” Zuniga explains, “so that people don’t just have boring literary babies.”
In the years since that first barroom show, Zuniga has exported the format to 46 cities around the world, from London to Oslo to Shanghai to Tulsa, and roped in the likes of Tom Perrotta, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chuck Palahniuk, and Daniel Handler. To date, LDM has lured a combined audience of 35,000 people. TV seemed a natural step.
And so, last night 350 LDM loyalists descended on Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens to witness Zuniga’s 258th installment, a taped double bill built on the following premise: if you put them in a boxing ring, hang microphones from the ceiling and add witty commentary and famous people, they will watch.
The pilot is being funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $11,000. “One cameraman who would usually charge a lot of money said he would do it for free and bring an assistant if he could get a photo of (LDM judge and Dexter star) Michael C. Hall choking him for his Christmas cards,” Zuniga says.
Introducing himself by invoking Los Angeles Magazine’s description of him as “a bug-eyed, whippet-thin P.T Barnum,” Zuniga bounded into the ring on a cloud of fog-machine smoke, modeling a silver lounge tuxedo jacket gone Gangnam.
After shaking off a few on-camera jitters with a couple of takes, he introduced his first pilot episode’s judges: novelist Jonathan Lethem, actor Michael C. Hall, and This American Life regular Tig Notaro.
“You are like the Will Hunting of literature,” Zuniga told Lethem. “What else do you and Matt Damon have in common?”
Sans beat, Lethem replied, “Sarah Silverman would rather I not say.”
And therein lies Zuniga’s hook: these people—the ones whose books and New Yorker essays you take to bed with you—are real-life people you just might want to take to bed with you. Or hang out with. Which, if you didn’t realize, are two of the most compelling motivations for watching people on reality television.
Lethem may have been the L.L. Bean sweater–wearing Adam Levine to Zuniga’s Carson Daly, and there may have been a boxing ring, but the script was a long way from The Voice. Following a recitation by the evening’s first challenger, Silverlake-based comedy writer and novelist DC Pierson read a piece titled “To All the Aliens Who Got Stranded on Earth But Never Found a Kid to Take Care of Them.” Lethem pronounced it to be “like Allen Ginsberg in its velocity,” and suggested that “if there was an intergalactic Ellis Island, you would be its Emma Lazarus.”
“Hmmm … what channel would this air on?” one nearby audience member asked her neighbor, leaving the unspoken “Blake Shelton doesn’t use words like that” hanging in the air.
“IFC? Sundance? Maybe … Bravo?” her friend hypothesized.
“Your hair is very strong,” Hall commended of Pierson’s WWF-worthy coif. “And I like the way you carried your mic pack like it was a shrunken head.”
True to its beginnings, the night’s banter was heavy on compliments and light on critique. In LDM’s off-camera past, this has not always been the case. At a 2007 installment in San Francisco, Zyzzva’s Howard Junker, sitting in as the evening’s Literary Merit judge, was famously on the receiving end of a beer in the face, thanks to his pronouncement that McSweeney’s author Stephen Elliott “had no literary merit.” Some might say that such incidents could make for great TV.
Instead, where the likes of Junker may have skewered challenger Tracy McMillan’s light-hearted answer to Pierson, a Sex and the City-indebted annotated guide to casual sex partners, Lethem pronounced it to be “a vision of the infinite.” Performance judge Hall paid due respect to McMillan’s legs, and Intangibles judge Notaro pointed out in suggestive monotone: “I notice there’s no mention of a girl trying to have a one-night stand with you.”
The pattern continued throughout the show: poet Adrian Wyatt’s love ode to a zombie, “The Shotgun Was Just a Misunderstanding,” led Lethem to gush: “I just want to touch some of your words.” Daniel Alarcón also received praise for his short story, “Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot,” with Lethem dubbing it “epic like a Bob Dylan song.”
In the second pilot episode, The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean offered positive reinforcement in her role as Literary Merit judge (alongside Performance judge Moby and Intangibles judge Keegan-Michael Key) by way of book cover–worthy sound bytes. On Jeanne Darst’s excerpt from her book Fiction Ruined My Family: “The Bible meets Fifty Shades of Grey!” On Jillian Lauren’s excerpt from her memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem: “Lawrence of Arabia meets Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm!” And in response to poet Beau Sia’s impassioned performance of his poem-rant “Boys Will Be Boys,” Orlean responded with motherly praise: “I can’t believe you memorized that whole thing! Loved it. Total score.”
In the absence of confrontation, there were clever bells and whistles: sexy librarian–styled ring girls and elaborately quirky tiebreakers involving a game of “pin the mustache on Hemingway” and a vegan cupcake toss.
As Zuniga points out, the true spirit of the exercise is not in the judging. (“It all comes down to personal taste anyways,” he says.) It is in the surprise factor: “People are going to tune in to watch Michael C. Hall but fall in love with [New Yorker and Pixar writer] Simon Rich,” he promises.
The question is, will viewers have a show to tune into?
“People are going to care much more deeply about literature, because now they have one more thing to sort of push them towards it,” Zuniga says. “We’re creating a relationship and intimacy with the author, and people are going to say, ‘Oh My God! I want more of that.’”