Some of the worst readers of words are the people who wrote those words in the first place. There are notable exceptions of course but organizers of events assume the big names will give life to their writing. Audiences love to hear the books read by their authors, they say. But I bet you half the audience is there to take the piss. They couldn’t criticize the written word so all they have left to harangue is the lithp or the stuttutter or the downright amateurity. Reading aloud is a skill every bit as profound as creating beautiful prose. And most of us don’t have it. No matter how hard I try, I cannot stop myself sounding like Joyce Grenfell when I read from my books. Joyce was a very popular comedienne in England whose most famous character was a nursery school teacher. Against the odds in a class full of monsters, Joyce keeps her stiff upper lip whilst parodying every kindergarten teacher in England. I taught primary school for a number of years which perhaps explains why I lapse into, ‘You! Stop fidgeting there at the back.’ or ‘I’m going to ask you questions when I finish so I’ll know if you’re paying attention or not.’ And all my characters sound like the three little pigs or Rumplestilskin (Spelling check didn’t help at all with that one.)
So it’s good to know that a process is in place to cull awful readers like me and leave us with only true thespians. It’s called Literary Death Match. I first encountered this franchise in Shanghai. It was one of the highlights of the week, they tell me. Despite the fact that it wouldn’t be at all difficult for one to organize oneself, the LDM compare was flown all the way over from New York. In her little blood-red dress and her stilettos she brought a leggy glamour to the previously dusty literary stage of the restaurant. And here’s how it works. Four writers, presumably those who don’t know what LDM is, are called to the stage. These may be writers of any genre, preferably genres which are almost impossible to compare, like poetry and Honda Civic owner manuals. At the toss of a coin the writers are paired off and go head-to-head reading their most electric work (which must come in under seven minutes.) After the first two readers have read, we arrive at the judging. The three judges are supposed to be as ridiculous as possible whilst criticizing content, performance and intangibles respectively. The poet’s hairstyle might come in for a scathing, for example while her verse is left virtually untouched. The judges then select a winner from the contestants who will go on to round two.
The second pair then reads and the judges select an opponent for winner one. Anyone who goes over the allotted seven minutes is shot with a plastic plunger gun. And here is where I found the process to be a little disappointing. Plastic plunger guns hardly hurt at all. Were I organizing a LDM I would introduce the use of actual handguns. If the performance was truly awful, using the same principle as the Gong Show, the contestant would be mowed down in a hail of bullets. Yes, there may be gratuitous fatalities at first but it wouldn’t take long before word got around. In fact I think I’d make literary readings ‘open season’ on bad readers. Listeners could bring along their own weapons, perhaps we’d give a prize to the member of the audience who packs the most impressive piece.
But, back at the pansy version in Shanghai, the losers are still alive and they watch the winners go on to round two. Luckily, we are spared another reading. The competitors merely play a game. I was told that the games sometimes involve balloons and Jello. But as this was a sophisticated gathering and there was a camouflaged representative of the Ministry of Culture in the back row, the two winners were given a quiz. From a huge screen they had to identify whether the character in the photograph is a poet or a serial killer. Thus, recognizing the face of Anne Bronte and not confusing her with Cutthroat Razor Ethel McGuire would be to your advantage. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many poets look like serial killers. There’s probably a high crossover rate.