Talking with Black Mountain Institute boss Joshua Wolf Shenk about its groundbreaking literary festival
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity; a shorter version appears in the April 2018 issue of Desert Companion.)
Your first question when you see the promo material for this year’s Believer Festival (April 13-14) might be, Where are the headliners? All the talent, famous or obscure, is listed alphabetically. This may rub against Vegas’ marquee aesthetic — put the stars in big type! — but it’s in keeping with the quirky, egalitarian spirit of The Believer, the festival’s namesake magazine, now housed at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute. “What we convey is that this is about a variety of people coming together to do something bigger than any one of them,” says Joshua Wolf Shenk, BMI director, Believer editor, and the festival’s curator.
Still, if you did want to build a mental marquee, these are some of the names that might leap out: Oscar-laden filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), authors Mohsin Hamid, John Hodgman, Rachel Kushner, Leslie Jamison, and Nick Hornby, rapper Jean Grae. But doing that would shortchange a roster whose diversity and wide-ranging experience ought to be the real draw.
Last year’s debut festival established a durable template: offbeat venues, unexpected modes of presentation. “No panels,” Shenk quips. He intends the weekend’s events to build on each other “so it feels like you’re exploring something, that it accumulates.”
“This whole thing is this kind of audacious bet on Las Vegas,” Shenk says, meaning The Believer and its festival, and the notion that a funky, literary sensibility can take root here. “The invitation is not to consume a cultural product,” he adds, “it’s to come out and be part of something.”
This must be a busy moment for you.
Oh, it’s so close, so close. It’s challenging, in part, because we want to represent literary writers from all genres and all backgrounds. But we also want to edge into popular territory (with film, music, comedy) to convey that we’re not cloistered. And we also want to represent Las Vegas writers, UNLV writers and artists, so we’re not dropping a cultural spaceship in the middle of town and opening up the hatch. I think this kind of culture is like a vine — you can introduce it into an environment, but it’s got to catch onto something solid and substantial that’s (already) there. That’s how culture really grows. One of the things we were most proud of last year is that we were able to strike that balance (by involving many local writers).
Last year’s theme was American Dreams. Is there a theme this time?
American Dreams was a really vigorous theme, and we talked about doing that again, (but) came down on just calling it The Believer Festival. I feel some sadness because I thought American Dreams was so potent. But there are good reasons to make The Believer itself a centerpiece. Ideally, The Believer becomes, for Las Vegas, to use a cliche, like a big tent of arts and culture. It’s something that we send out to the world, and it’s also a lure: The Believer has a physical home, come be part of it.
Were there things you learned last year that informed this festival?
Bigger venues. (Laughs.) Last year, (KNPR State of Nevada host) Joe Schoenmann took me to coffee and said, “I’m going have you on the show. First thing I’m going to ask you is, ‘Is Las Vegas ready for this?’” I answered him honestly, which is, “I hope so.” And then tickets went on sale, and we sold out within a couple of days. We had a plan for national advertising that we did not enact because our problem was managing all the people we had to say no to. So we’re in bigger venues this year.
The one thing we’re doing identical to last year is starting at Red Rock. We were all just floored by that — this feeling of sinking into the quiet, a stunned, grateful awareness about where we are. A quality of this region I cannot get over is the juxtaposition of the manmade and the kind of man-defying. It’s like the height of chutzpah and the height of humility right up against each other. And I wanted to begin that way because I want to root the festival in a surprising sense of place.
What guided you in choosing the festival’s lineup?
There’s kind of a loose Believer aesthetic, which is quality work that has a lot of life, that’s not self-serious but is meaningful. We’re looking for people who will be generous in spirit. You know, there’s a certain kind of diva who you know will do something meaningful onstage, but who will just go back to their hotel afterward. And we’re 180 degrees from that, because part of our job is to convey an opportunity of arts and culture in Las Vegas to these guests.
Then, yeah, just diversity, diversity, diversity, in terms of geographic background, racial background, but also the kind of work people do. This is in the spirit of The Believer. It has its roots in the literary arts, but it is omnivorous, curious about visual art, music, comedy. There should be a smile on your face, even when you’re grappling with the most solemn things.
I’m curious how you see The Believer’s sensibility meshing with Vegas’.
Vendela Vida, the co-founder of the magazine, has often referred to Las Vegas as the spiritual home of The Believer. She says before there was any prospect of it living here, they would talk about Las Vegas and The Believer as having this weird kismet, and I think it owes to Las Vegas being kind of outsidery, eclectic, to it not being afraid of being showy. But also weirdly earnest ... like, yeah, we’re going to put on the neon outfit, but we’re really trying to connect with you.
One thing that interests me about The Believer being here is whether, at the more conceptual level, it organically changes the handful of tropes that are always rolled out about Vegas: city of second chances, city of risk, those sorts of things. So I'm curious to see over the long term if The Believer aesthetic pushes beyond those.
I feel the same way. I mean, that's a big part of my job. It's a funny mix. It goes back to the thing about the space station. You need to do some big dramatic things, but it's also about what catches. And if BMI is successful, and if The Believer's presence here is successful, that success will be felt in things happening that we had nothing to do with. And it is, I think, advancing a new idea, but in some ways it's going back to the Dave Hickey vision of Las Vegas. He's the one who articulates it best, but it might be best captured by a line from a David Foster Wallace piece, which is when he says Vegas is at least pretentious city in America.
Dave is like, this is the place you can come and you don't have to deal with this bullshit. I think the image he uses is, like, you don't have to talk over your fence and ask after Aunt Dot. And if you have an idea you can build it. There's a kind of audaciousness, there's definitely a sense that we're clearly not in New York City, and that comes with a sense of freedom; there's also a sense of we've got something to prove.
And at its best it's like, we're not being measured according to what people think of us when we meet them at a cocktail party. It's like, yeah, you better write that book.
So, does the festival relate to our political context?
Our primary contribution to politics is articulating the reality of an environment of free, artful expression. And if we are political, it is about the potential of art to open the human heart and help us see and feel each other.
I mean, I remember when I was in high school and my brothers and I would make jokes about gay people, because we didn’t know any. Then I went to college, and my best friend came out. That changed everything for me. So I really believe in the power of the encounter, and what is the impact of actually encountering a Nigerian novelist who might literally be dead if it weren’t for the asylum work done by this network of people we’re proud to be connected with? What is the potential there? That, I think, is what we can offer, not any particular argument about any particular position.
I will just say that none of this has any permanence except to the extent that it catches — it goes back to that original image. And so at all levels we’re really looking for people to connect and contribute. It could be by volunteering. It could be by writing a small check. It could be just by being in the room. A presence like that is a huge act of service.