This Is the Last Literary Death Match at the Elbo Room

Don't expect authors slamming each other over the back with folding chairs on Oct. 17. Expect literary excellence with a little silliness.

At one time, Literary Death Match used a water cannon to get people off the stage. That lasted until Michael Krasny, the host of KQED’s Forum, got wet and the Elbo Room management said no more. So now they use gentle hugs instead. In spite of the presence of literary titans on the stage, the point of the entire exercise is that it’s fun, says producer Matthew James DeCoster.

“We’ve had some real divas show up and think they’re vying for the Nobel, and we have people who come to play and have fun and get word-nerdy,” he says. “Everyone gets to do whatever they want for seven minutes. They can read their own published work or something they’re working on.”

One-third literary salon, one-third comedy set, and one-third game show, Literary Death Match pits four writers against one another with three celebrity judges, each of whom is tasked with adjudicating based on a specific criterion. The last segment is very silly, not unlike The Gong Show. Hosted by series creator Adrian Todd Zuniga, 2018’s match brings together Lambda Literary Award-winning author K.M. Soehnlein, James Beard nominee Chris Colin, Philip K. Dick award-winning author Meg Elison, and award-winning poet Maisha Z. Johnson.

Judging their excellence or fatal inadequacies are writer and educator Vernon Keeve III (literary merit), stand-up comic Karinda Dobbins (performance), and Caldecott Honor-winning children’s book author Mac Barnett (intangibles). Previous years’ judges have included Susan Orlean and Tig Notaro, and the showdown next Wednesday, Oct. 17, is the final farewell to a beloved venue, as the Elbo Room closes forever on Jan. 1, 2019.

“This will be the last show there. I’ve said that before, but I have reason to believe it,” DeCoster says. “It might be Cher’s last time putting on her boots at the Elbo Room, which is the spiritual home of Literary Death Match.”

As we’re already midway between Sept. 11 and Nov. 6, DeCoster felt a sense of urgency about the midterm elections. So he invited a heavy-hitter: Harvey Milk’s right-hand man.

“This is going to be a couple of weeks from the midterms when we do our show on the 17th, and we’re in the bluest state in the bluest city, so what can we do?” he asks. “Cleve Jones is going to be opening our show, and he’s going to come with some real, tangible options for people who live in San Francisco and who feel helpless — in a good way, because all of our people tend to vote the good way.”

Although the name Literary Death Match has violent connotations, it doesn’t mean that Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley was on stage whacking people over the back of the head with a folding chair. However, she did win the 50th episode some years back.

“At that show, she was wearing a green sparkly cocktail dress, and we thought she’d want to judge but nope she wanted to compete,” DeCoster says. “Our judges were Andrew Sean Greer — who would go on to win the Pulitzer — [Porchlight founder] Beth Lisick, the humorist, and Olympic medalist Brian Boitano. Brian said to Jane, ‘I know what you’re trying to do. … You’re trying to get to my heartstrings by wearing the outfit that Kristi Yamaguchi wore.’ And Jane started skating around the stage.”

Just as The New York Times Book Review asks every person it interviews which writers, living or dead, they would invite to a dinner party, SF Weekly asked DeCoster which dead authors he’d invite to get judged on intangibles.

“James Baldwin. I would hide most of the liquor for John Cheever,” he says. “All of the Bronte sisters — well, forget the last one and ask Jane Austen. Edward Albee. Tennessee Williams. And Maya Angelou.

“Writers by nature are very insecure people, so to get folks out to have fun is amorphous community building,” he adds, noting that Literary Death Match is the “only place I know of where there’s an equal amount of heaviness and brain candy, with a beer.”

Literary Death Match, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 7:15 p.m., at the Elbo Room, 647 Valencia St. $15-$20, literarydeathmatch.com

Read more from SF Weekly‘s Litquake issue:

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What Would the Kids in the Hall Do?: Dave Foley at Litquake
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(Lit-)Crawling out of This Mess, at Survival of the Queerest
There are dozens of events within the three segments of this year’s Lit Crawl. But only Baruch Porras-Hernandez’s showcase has QTPOCs of this caliber.

Ron Stallworth, Real-Life BlacKkKlansman
As in Spike Lee’s film adaptation, the Black police detective’s memoir of infiltrating the Klan reminds us that the ugliest parts of our country never quite left us.

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