Highbrow smackdown: Writers prepare for Literary Death Match

Four writers enter, one writer leaves
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  January 24, 2011

BOOK BATTLES LDM founder Todd Zuniga kicks off a national tour on Tuesday at the Enormous Room in Cambridge

In the documentary on Robert Lowell, Voices and Visions, there's one scene that's totally insane. In it, a group of youngsters resembling extras from Godard's Bande à Part pack a café. Many sit with only their black wool slacks or knee-length plaid skirts between them and the bare wood floor. The kids are rapt; their eyes shine up at the middle-aged poet with severe diction and fussy hornrims. He is like their god.

It is likely just this sort of glory writers seek when they sign up with something called a Literary Death Match. "Everyone typically understands it's a celebration of literature," says its founder, Todd Zuniga, from his home in Paris.

Four writers participate in a Death Match. Though only one will emerge victorious, each will be heard. Literary Death Matches have been precisely calibrated to minimize what Zuniga refers to as "diddling": each writer gets only seven minutes to read her work. After the three judges choose two finalists, the latter engage in a contest unrelated to literature — in past years in Boston, for instance, ink-stained wretches have competed in musical chairs and a hockey shoot-out involving piles of books. Zuniga promises not to repeat last year's Facebook-friend-adding contest, which he now deems a "total disaster."

On Tuesday, Zuniga will fly in from Charles de Gaulle and host a Death Match — Boston's fifth — at the Enormous Room later that night. Four respectable local writers — Myfanwy Collins, Christopher Monks, Heidi Pitlor, and Eugenio Volpe — will compete in front of three judges: Phoenix fave comedian Mehran Khaghani, alt-country chanteuse Sarah Borges, and Grub Street artistic director/Writer Idol host Chris Castellani.

Zuniga has cultivated an unlikely sensation among what the LDM's FAQ describes as "a bevy of college-educated urban tastemakers between the ages of 24-45 (55 percent women)." Since its inception in New York five years ago, the Death Match has grown to include regular tours and monthly events held in New York, Los Angeles, and London. The Enormous Room will be Zuniga's first stop on a cross-country tour. "We're seconds away from signing a TV option, which is the most amazing thing ever," he says, unwilling to jinx himself by providing further details.

Zuniga credits irreverence for his success. "Every time you come, somebody says something weird, or they say something sort of crazy, or the judges are funny, or the judges are super-funny, or they're weird," Zuniga says. "And the finale is always different."

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  Topics: Books , Sarah Borges, Heidi Pitlor, Enormous Room,  More more >
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