Electric Literature curated a line-up at the Franklin Park Reading Series last night that included some literary heavies: Jim Shepard, Colson Whitehead, and Ben Greenman. But they were upstaged by a pair of up-and-comers. Matt Sumell, who was referred to Electric Lit‘s editors by a friend, lived up to his introduction as “brutal, hilarious, and heartbreaking.” He read a story called “Toast,” which he said was inspired by advice from Jim Shepard to “follow your weird.” “No one likes this story,” he said. “No one will publish this story.” But the audience, even larger than usual, adored it; with a page and a half left, he asked if he should finish the story, to which the crowd responded with a resounding yes. The story, which Sumell read with dry perfection, was packed with comic dialogue, clinical and mean descriptions born of astute observation, as it chronicled a relationship, a break-up, and the aftermath.
Steve Edwards read his funny story “Daily Bread,” about members of a U.S. military starvation experiment turning against one another as they lose their cognitive abilities and physical strength. Ben Greenman, introduced as “the nicest guy in publishing,” read a silly story originally published in The L from his most recent book Celebrity Chekhov, which rewrites the Russian’s stories so they’re about contemporary celebrities. He also read a more poignant story from his book before that, What He’s Poised to Do, which he described as “about letters and how we’re losing things by losing letters.”
Before each story, Electric Literature projected on the bar’s side wall the Single Sentence Animation that had accompanied whatever story the author had published in the literary magazine. (Some read that story; most did not.) The short—sometimes very short—animations use a single sentence from a story. “We give it to some unhinged animator,” Andy Hunter, Electric Lit‘s editor explained, “and get some crazy animation back.” For Edwards’ story, the animator focused on the hallucinatory quality of hunger: Rorschach tests seem to breathe, doctors’ heads become those of birds, or made of food, or skeletal.
After intermission, Colson Whitehead, introduced as “one of the most distinguished writers in Brooklyn, which is no mean feat,” shared what he called “a work in progress.” He said he had begun editing an anthology about the craft of writing, and read two ersatz entries, clever meta works poking fun at writing, writers, writing teachers, and writing style-guides, which went over well in a crowd of literary types, many of which were writers themselves. After him, Jim Shepard read two stories, an old one and a new, the latter which he prefaced with “if you don’t like it, I’m gonna be totally fuckin’ depressed.” Both were smart and beautiful but, disappointingly, he read them too somberly, particularly in the context of all the sharply timed wit exhibited elsewhere through the evening.