Literary Death Match: Not your Mom's Literary Reading


Five years ago Ted Travelstead, a fiction writer and Opium Magazine founding editor, had the notion to do a comedic literary reading in New York City. His boss at the time gave him the following advice: "You have to do it different, or you have to do it better." He ended up sitting down with a few of his friends, thinking about why they didn't like the readings they had went to. Eventually they decided it was because events were usually inconsistent in quality; while one author could be good, the next might be just awful.

They decided to fix this problem with Literary Death Match, which is coming to the Aster Café this Sunday.

How would they solve this issue of boring literary readings? First, they enforced a 10-minute reading limit to prevent losing the audience's attention. Since then, the time limit has been reduced to seven minutes. "I believe people lose attention around six minutes," Travelstead says. "At eight minutes everybody's gone." According to LDM rules, contestants who fail to abide are nerf-darted.  

Others have tried to do a comedic literary series, but often they involved a comedian getting out there and being a hilarious, followed by a reader telling a story about how their sister died. To prevent that, the creators of LDM figured out a way to contextualize comedy, giving the judges -- local personalities that don't necessarily have a background in literature -- source material to say hilarious and oddball things.  

To find the right contestants, the organizers invite literary magazines and people who run literary series to suggest the best local writers. This Sunday's contestants include Minnesota Book Award winner Lightsey Darst; Ethan Rutherford, whose work appeared in Best American Short Stories 2009; Electric Arc Radio's Geoff Herbach; and poet Jessica Fox-Wilson.  

For the judges, LDM  picks someone who is writer, editor, or screenwriter to judge literary merit; a musician, actor, or comedian to judge performance; and the funniest/weirdest person they can find to judge "intangibles." 

For Sunday's Literary Death Match in Minneapolis, the three judges are Colleen Kruse, Jeremey Messersmith, and Mark Mallman. "Who are they to judge literature?" Asks Travelstead. "But who aren't they to judge literature?"

One of the main rules for the judges: "Don't be a dick," says Travelstead. The panel narrows down the contestants each round in the most humorous way possible, until the big finale, which usually involves games like literary charades or some other improv/literary fun.  

This weekend's performance is a chance to hear some of the Twin Cities' best writers, and to have some fun as well. "It's sort of a party that happens to have a reading attached," Travelstead says. He also concedes that Minneapolis is his favorite place to the show because the community is so strong and supportive of one another. 

Literary Death Match takes place at the Aster Café (125 Main St., Minneapolis) on Sunday, June 5. The show starts at 8 p.m., with doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8. For more info on the series, visit