LITERARY DEATH MATCH: sloppy and exciting

(Evan Karp)

“Satire, like all good literature, has always been about creating a safe, neutral space for mediocre, uncontroversial ideas to be met with constant sycophantic applause, and all dissent is stifled unless that dissent is projected en masse onto a larger abstraction that has no bearing on the local milieu.”

The above words, spoken by LDM guest co-host Will Franken at the start of the Fri Apr 8 show, surprised me. This is not something I expect to hear at readings: direct address to the audience that asks anything beyond applause, attention, book sales, laughs. And of course the message is coated in the same warped cloak used by “genderless hipsters in tight pants puffing up each other’s frail egos in the Mission District” that Franken mocks. But mocks isn’t the right word. We all make fun of hipsters, don’t we, striving to fit in as ourselves, unique in our personable shades of discontent, irony, or indifference — however blind or dependent on booze. We make fun of the sycophantic so long as we are public, but nearly all public gatherings are by nature sycophantic. When we go home we dissent, and we call our discord art, and we want to share it with our friends. See! I’m different. See! I get it.

Of course Franken’s point is that literature is not about creating a safe, neutral space, but instead should provide an expression of authenticity, disregarding the rest of the world’s opinions and whatever ramifications might ensue from them. He speaks these words, and there are scattered chuckles throughout the room; the crowd doesn’t know what to make of them. Is he serious? What does he mean? Is this a safe neutral space?

Satire, like nearly all literature, has always been a way to speak the truth without actually taking any chances. Judge Kim Addonizio awarded Dean Rader a penis pushpin “for reading poetry at all,” especially during national poetry month, and someone said: “Fuck poetry!” and Kim responded: “Fuck you!” and smiled. The crowd sure got behind that. “After he did all of those really cool things [with language] I just wanted to sit back and listen instead of judging, so that to me is a big sign that actually the literary stuff is working, because I don’t want to judge it any longer — I just want to fall under its spell.” Satire begs for judgment.

Franken’s remarks seemed to address some criticism from the previous show, back in February. I wasn’t there. But what he says seems to be a criticism of Literary Death Match itself … certainly the culture that supports it and perhaps the culture it’s creating … not just the audience that presumably booed him (many of whom were likely not a part of this crowd). And it’s the spirit that Franken critiques that indicates the forums we have come to expect: neutered, out for a laugh, for a taste of the something expected. How come you always know where you’re coming from? Why do you want this to be so easy to read?

This all seems appropriate for LDM. I’ve talked about the series here and here. I said something positive about it once (more, really, but you’ll have to google those other occasions). Friday’s show was kind of exciting to me, even though I heard more than a healthy several say it wasn’t very good. Why? Because the show, though relatively long-standing now and having gone through several significant transitions, is still very clearly in its formative stages.

In little more than an hour we saw a hilarious (and somewhat controversial) debate about the origins of American music: was it the work of methodists, the creation of free or enslaved blacks, or was it, as judge Anthony Bedard suggested, a result of more recent adventures in hi-fi? We saw Bedard do an amazing recitation of Easy E:

We saw the death of a vegan baby and heard the child protective services’ agent say: “We heard a baby screaming for 3 months. We came as soon as it stopped.” Bedard, lighthearted and sly as a fox, took periodic chances to promote upcoming shows. In response, Addonizio proclaimed “I don’t have any upcoming events and I would just like to advertise that for a minute.” We cheered.

We are all trying to see ourselves honestly. Author Kim Wong Keltner reminds herself “that being a writer is still about keeping yourself open and vulnerable to the newness and energy of words and unexpected places.”

Despite all of this, the show was pretty sloppy. The gears didn’t click, and I felt like any point could see us careening off the edge. It’s like that point — if you’re socially awkward, and after a few minutes sometimes who isn’t? — when you’re in a small group of people and you don’t know what to say and you know, for whatever reasons, that you’re stuck in that situation, and everyone wants to say something but no one wants to force it and everyone’s just anxious for direction and shifty …

Maybe I’m getting too excited about seeing No Exit this week. But the point stands, as I did, watching the show and trying to figure out what was going to happen. We are all trying to signify honesty. There’s no rush; if you need to say something, after all, you can take out your notebook. Nothing wrong with a little discord. Even at the end, as I was putting my coat on and packing my bag, I was pleased to hear producer and host Alia Volz boom into the crowd: “I don’t know … Is this a tie? Is this a tie?” And if she didn’t hold court with such aplomb I think people would just get up and leave.

But they didn’t, and they don’t. We want to see ourselves clearly and we want to be entertained. Literary Death Match is poised to be an exciting union of these often disparate events. What is this, we wondered, while the flies shook their drunken booties in the spotlight and Friday night ticked us that much closer to explosion, or our graves; moved us that much closer, so long as we were paying attention, to whatever it is that we thought we wanted when we moved here, left the womb, the house, our cities and families … into our actual free and moldable lives. Shit: he’s just waxing on here, isn’t he?

Suckers. Balloons.

Will Franken

Kris Saknussemm

Dean Rader

Monica Youn

Kim Wong Keltner