The second annual Believer Festival—organized by the bimonthly arts magazine of the same name—kicked off on Friday, April 13, at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, with readings from poets Jericho Brown and Javon Johnson; prose writers Nick Hornby, Leslie Jamison, and Rachel Kushner; and others. On Saturday, in downtown Las Vegas, graphic novelist Thi Bui and novelist Zinzi Clemmons discussed their new works with Dave Eggers at a restaurant next door to the local bookstore, the Writer’s Block. (The crowd had outgrown the space.) Later that day, Mohsin Hamid and Tayari Jones read from their latest novels, and author Morgan Jerkins interviewed filmmaker Barry Jenkins before an enthusiastic crowd. That evening, a sold-out benefit event saw multitalented actor-comedians John Hodgman and Jean Grae cohost a storytelling variety show of sorts that put such writers as Ayelet Waldman and Meg Wolitzer on the same stage as comedian Aparna Nancherla and musician Aimee Mann.
It was a whirlwind of a weekend, but one thing was clear: everyone was happy to be there—Las Vegans, Angelenos, East Coasters, and Bay Area folks alike. Despite the tight schedule and the bona fide star power, the vibe, unlike that of many literary events in New York, was laid-back and familial. The Believer had accomplished its mission. It had curated a literary-style micro-Coachella in the middle of the desert. It had attracted, the festival organizers confirmed, “several thousand people”—almost doubling its attendance from last year.
Many would balk at the idea of Las Vegas as a potential creative capital for literature in the U.S., but the city’s literary ambitions aren’t new—and they certainly predate the Believer’s history in the state. That began only last year, when the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute (BMI)—the international literary center located at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—bought the magazine, which distributes roughly 10,000 copies of each issue.
Previously, the Believer had been published by the Eggers-founded independent press McSweeney’s in San Francisco. Vendela Vida, Eggers’s spouse, was, with Heidi Julavits, a cofounder of the Believer in 2003. Vida, with current editor-in-chief and BMI executive director Joshua Wolf Shenk, cofounded and curated the festival, with organizational support from festival director Libby Flores.
Vegas’s literary ambitions took shape a quarter-century ago, when authors and creative writing teachers Douglas Unger and Richard Wiley came to town to jump-start a writing program at UNLV. (Its first class was admitted in 1997.) At that point, Unger said, the population of serious writers in the city was about five people, himself and Wiley included.
Unger and Wiley initially had to raise funds for the program themselves, but in 2000, casino mogul Glenn Schaeffer, a former classmate of Unger’s and Wiley’s of the Iowa Writers Workshop, stepped up. Unger said that Schaeffer’s financial support—along with the support of writer Dave Hickey, former UNLV president Carol Harter, the Vegas-based International Institute of Modern Letters, and others—helped them found the Black Mountain Institute. The institute is named after the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina, whose copyright Schaeffer bought. Another vital project was establishing the first City of Asylum writing fellowship program in the United States, which “provides safe haven for writers whose voices are muffled by censorship, or who are living with the threat of imprisonment or assassination.”
Today, Shenk and company’s leadership have combined with the support of the wider Believer/McSweeney’s family to allow the city to finally begin reaping the creative seeds sown so long ago. “The question of how [building a literary community] happens has an answer I have some humility about,” Shenk told PW. “It can’t be engineered by definition. But it’s interesting that we started from this place where it feels very unlikely—who woulda thunk it in Las Vegas? But virtually every arts community starts as this incredibly unlikely thing. That’s part of its character. Then a decade or a generation or two later, it feels inevitable.”
In Vegas, against all odds, it’s starting to feel just that.
Correction: This article initially misnamed Javon Johnson as Javon Jackson.