Into The Agony, or "How to Fix the Opium Literary Death Match"
I finally managed to get into the "Opium Magazine Literary Death Match" last night. People had been warning me away from it since I came to the city, and it was unfortunately as unimpressive as they said. Fantastic marketing, fantastic promotion, fantastic buzz -- but a complete fumble as far as execution.

Two of the acts were bad confessional stand-up comedy, and only one person actually read a real, made-up story from a real, made-up novel.

The emcees were hard-asses about time limits; something the audience didn't seem to care about at all. They should have been hard-asses about the fact that the stories ought to be written down ahead of time, instead of perhaps composed on the spot or in the shower before the show. They should have checked the word counts on the stories like refs check the weights of boxers before a fight.

The "death match" part of the death match was also a total misnomer. There was no clear winner and the judges were really just there as scenery, even though more time was probably spent introducing them than introducing the contestants, whose names were then serially mispronounced. The two "finalists" competed in some kind of Nerf war that had not been adequately prepared and which was embarrassing to watch for everyone.

The show cost ten dollars. Don't get me wrong: there were some good things about it. The emcees were both very charismatic and fast on their toes, but the best part of the night was when one of the judges told an impromptu story about not wanting to look at Playboys after getting permission from his friend's mom. It was a breath of fresh air for everyone. An actual human speaks!

I know I am a contrarian, but I have been running and attending fiction shows for seven years now in the punkest motherfucking cities and clubs around. Most people thought the show was light and fun and easy to watch, and it was. I wouldn't even have minded paying the money if it was going to the performers. But the Death Match was like watching precocious high-schoolers at an urban magnet school throw their own speech tournament. There was no real emotion, no real discovery, no real passion. Everybody was trying so goddamn hard to be attractive and to have a good time that everybody forgot that fiction is for sad, lonely, unattractive people. The bungled and the botched.

The four readers at the show each represented four different East Coast literary magazines (BOMB, Tablet, Post Road, and The Moth) all of whom will probably not receive any money from the night's proceeds. One of the most unsettling things about the night was that I felt like I was participating in some kind of sly literary Ponzi scheme.

How can we fix the Opium Literary Death Match? How can we turn this elitist power grab into something good for literature? How can we learn from the mistakes of other artistic popularity contests -- such as the Poetry Slam and reality shows like "Top Chef" and "Project Runway" -- in order to create something that actually matters and that you should actually care about as a reader and writer?


(1). Rename this shit.

You can't call this the Opium Magazine Literary Death Match and expect real writers and real editors at other real magazines to care. For one thing, why should we editors put our fates in the hands of Opium to run a fair competition and to make sure that everyone is paid for their work?

Additionally, if Opium runs things, they won't be able to compete, and surely Opium would like to put up a contender to be their writer, performer, and avatar.

Furthermore, the name "Death Match" is an obvious derivative of MTV's "Celebrity Death Match," which is old, snide pop-culture bullshit. The opposite of literature.

Let's go back to the Greeks. Let's call this thing "The Agony."

(2). Only fiction.

To an audience that wants to love and empathize with performers, the cold art of fiction cannot compete against "true" stories of loss, heartbreak, revelation, and transgression.

For this reason, this contest should be a fiction contest, because otherwise a story contest quickly devolves into a "misery contest" or a "politics contest." Otherwise, as with the Poetry Slam, the most brave person who has had to overcome the most difficult obstacles will win -- not the best poet, and certainly not the best poem.

We have to create a contest where a piece of thrilling science fiction stands as good of a chance at winning as a piece of confessional sex drama. Where even if the work is not fiction, the judges must treat it that way.

Additionally, you should not be allowed to memorize your piece. You should have to read it from a sheet of paper so that every word and sentence is correct, the way you wrote it down in the first place. If you are allowed to memorize your piece, to speak conversationally and without "affectation," you are guaranteed to win over a crowd of people who don't want to do the work of imagining your carefully-crafted story. But that's why stand-up comedy exists! There are a million clubs for that. A million contests.

Literature does something different. If you want to sound conversational, write a conversational piece of fiction.

(3). Restructure everything.

The whole competition should be restructured from the bottom up. The Agony should be a full web series and no one should be able to compete without the backing of a magazine or literary group. A sponsor, like Nascar. The magazines don't have to be based out of New York, but all the shows will be run out of New York City clubs -- as many different ones as possible.

So let's say we sign up twenty-two literary magazines who each pay a hundred dollar fee to put up a contender. Perhaps each magazine holds auditions. Then the actual Agony costs ten dollars to attend. You can establish some big prize money that way, in addition to having a big enough budget for operating costs.

Each show has four contestants. There are three "guest judges" for each show and they narrow down the contestants to two after the contestants each read two-thousand word stories. Each story is webcast (not live), and you lose the "wacky finale" of picking a winner arbitrarily through some crazy unrelated contest at the end. Instead, the Internet votes on a winner between the two finalists after hearing the story audio tracks, creating buzz and generating online excitement and link traffic. The videos of the judge's decisions and the audio tracks of the readings are hosted on a separate Agony website.

There are also two Shadow Shows where the eight most popular contestants online who have been eliminated can compete again. The semi-finals are then a show between the two actual winners and the two Shadow Champions.

Jungian perfection!

(4). Prize to the winner and magazine.

The monetary prize will be given to both the winning writer and the magazine who sponsored them. There will be one winner. No runner-ups. No second place. AGONY.

The final showdown will be a full show between the last two standing contestants where they each get thirty minutes to read before a team of high class, pro-writer judges who decide their fate. All further sponsorship, merchandising, and exploitation (anthologies, DVDs, recordings, t-shirts) will be used to fund the Agony.


There are a lot of other details that spring to mind for how to make this work and how to make this slick.

But here's the central and most important point: all of literature can stand to benefit from a highly visible, web-based performance contest that is fair, aggrandizes everyone, and selects for the highest quality short fiction. It's an old, old art form. A performative fiction contest is a good idea, but fiction is not poetry. Fiction cannot be slammed.

Fiction requires a circus!

Posted by miracle on Fri, 21 Aug 2009 17:01:08 -0400 -- permanent link

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