Las Vegas isn’t known as a literary city, but its reputation got a boost with the arrival of The Believer magazine in 2017. The magazine migrated here from San Francisco to become part of UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, celebrating their arrival with a festival that brought hipster icons such as author Dave Eggers and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia to Sin City. This year’s Believer Festival, taking place April 13 and 14, is another two days of readings, discussions and even a variety show.
“The big question last year was: ‘Is Las Vegas ready for this?’” says Joshua Wolf Shenk, editor-in-chief of The Believer. The sold-out events and national coverage indicated that indeed it was. What sets the Believer Festival apart is its fluidity and the way it seemed less like a series of events than an ongoing celebration.
“This whole thing from last year was predicated on a sense of community and connection,” Shenk explains. “We’re asking our guests to come in for the whole show and move from being a performer on stage to a member of the audience, out there with the crowd.”
As it did last year, the event will kick off with a reading at the Red Rock Amphitheatre, where the austere beauty of the desert puts attendees in a serene, expansive frame of mind. “It’s a way for us to kind of look around and recognize that we’re going on this journey together,” Shenk says. There will be a half-dozen or so authors reading their work, including novelists Nick Hornby and Rachel Kushner, as well as poet and UNLV professor Javon Johnson.
Saturday afternoon offers two events. The first is a reading/signing at Chow and Writer’s Block on East Fremont Street featuring cartoonist Thi Bui and novelist Zinzi Clemmons. Slightly later, the Las Vegas Academy Theatre will host “Songs of Love and Betrayal,” a program that includes readings by Mohsin Hamid and Tayari Jones, followed by an interview by Morgan Jerkins with Moonlight writer and director Barry Jenkins.
The festival will climax on Saturday night with “Laugh Tracks: The Believer Variety Show” at the Fremont Country Club. The event will be hosted by humorist John Hodgman and hip-hop artist Jean Grae, with appearances from an array of guests (some repeats from earlier in the festival) including rising standup comedian Aparna Nancherla and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. “I think a couple of people will read, but there’s going to be a lot of improvisation and playing with the audience,” Shenk says. “The variety show is actually an old tradition from Believer live events back in the day, but it feels really right for Las Vegas.”
“It’s people who are our extended family of artists and writers,” Shenk says of the two dozen artists contributing their “quirks and brilliance” to this year’s events. And, once again, Las Vegas will lend its bright neon backdrop not just to literature, but to a literary community.
Tickets are still available for “Songs of Love and Betrayal” (free) and “Laugh Tracks: The Believer Variety Show” ($15 for general admission and $5 for students, with proceeds benefitting the Black Mountain Institute). For more info, visit festival.blackmountaininstitute.org.