Literary Death Match Returns to Dallas. Think Wrestlemania with Words. But Not Really.

New Yorker staffer and author Susan Orlean, making her point at a Literary Death Match in Los Angeles.
New Yorker staffer and author Susan Orlean, making her point at a Literary Death Match in Los Angeles.
Jason Gutierrez

Next Thursday, April 9, there's a reading series coming to the Texas Theatre. Nothing so out of the ordinary in that. Dallas has been blessed with lots of readings recently: The Dallas Museum of Art's Arts & Letters Live series began in January and is still kicking, and The Wild Detectives hosts authors weekly. The Texas Theatre may be a slightly unconventional place to put on a literary event, but storytelling group Oral Fixation has been giving encore performances there this season.

This new series, though, is called Literary Death Match? That sounds ... different.

Remember Celebrity Deathmatch, that claymation MTV show that was popular in the early aughts, in which little clay celebrities gruesomely fought to the death? The clayfamous were impaled, crushed, decapitated. They died by pretty much every means conceivable. What could a live-action, literary death match possibly look like? How can reading and writing be turned into a competitive sport, exactly? Is it safe? If it's anything like Celebrity Deathmatch, when can we get tickets?

Creator Adrian Todd Zuniga has it all worked out. Here's a loose outline of events: Four authors perform a short selection (7 minutes or less) from their work, then three judges grade them on literary merit, performance and "intangibles," selecting two finalists to continue on to a literary game-show that determines the champion. According to its website, Literary Death Match "marries the literary and performative aspects of Def Poetry Jam, rapier-witted quips of American Idol's judging (without any meanness), and the ridiculousness and hilarity of Double Dare."

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No impalings or decapitations. That's ... good.

Literary Death Match originated in Los Angeles, but it's now been brought to 57 cities worldwide. This isn't its first visit to Dallas, either. Their first event was at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2010. Will Clarke, author of Lord Vishnu's Love Handles: A Spy Novel, won last time, in a competition that allegedly involved hurling plastic footballs at Lonesome Dove author and Brokeback Mountain screenwriter Larry McMurtry. I would pay the $8 price of admission to see that on its own.

For take two in Dallas, Literary Death Match has teamed up with Will Evans of Deep Vellum, the local publishing house that produces works in translation. "I have a friend who is quite good friends with [Zuniga]," Evans says. "She runs the Texas Book Festival in Austin and had heard my plans to do all of this literary stuff in Dallas. She said, 'You guys should do this together.' We've planned this for over a year."

Zuniga wanted to do something more offbeat than the DMA this time, and Evans proposed the Texas Theatre. The outside-the-box series syncs up with Evans' interest in fostering a literary culture in Dallas that's unconventional, fun and engaging. "It's the type of literary event that Dallas needs more of," he says. "It's not just a reading. It's not just a DMA event. It's a nice, fun event in a cool space that's not normally hosting literary events."

Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk) was a judge at the 2010 death match at the DMA, and he'll be returning for this round, as will Clarke, in an effort to vanquish his competition a second time. Fountain will be joined by judges Tim Rogers, editor of D Magazine, and the Observer's very own Alice Laussade; the other authors up for the title on Thursday are Merritt Tierce (Love Me Back), Joaquin Zihuatanejo (a poet featured on Def Poetry Jam) and J. Suzanne Frank (Laws of Migration).

"[Literary Death Match has] a framework of authors they like to work with," says Evans, who was instrumental in assembling the cast. "They like to represent the city other than with dudes with MFAs. I tried to pick out authors either who I knew personally or through recommendations. Ben [Fountain] is kind of the literary godfather in Dallas and having him involved is really wonderful."

It's certainly an impressive group of literary folk, and even knowing the basic rundown of events, there's so much room for spontaneity that it's anyone's guess what will happen. So, get out of your wingback reading chairs and to the Texas Theatre, bookworms. No authors will be harmed in the course of the evening. Not seriously harmed, anyway. There's no guarantee someone won't get whacked in the head with a plastic football.

Literary Death Match is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 9, at Texas Theatre (231. W. Jefferson Blvd.); doors at 7 p.m.; tickets $8 in advance at thetexastheatre.com or $10 at the door.


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