Nashville: The It City Becomes a Lit City

Nashville has received a heaping helping of media love in the past couple of years. The New York Times famously proclaimed it the latest “It” City in 2013. GQ dubbed it “Nowville.” Condé Nast put it in the top five “Must See Cities” and the top ten “Friendliest Cities in America,” and Forbes named Nashville #3 in “America’s Most Creative Cities.” The list of accolades goes on and on, and Music City’s future looks bright and bigger than ever: We’ve heard that 80 people move to Nashville every day, a lot of them creatives. However you measure it, whatever you dub it, Nashville’s clearly a very good place to be.

That’s truer than ever if you’re a writer—and for once we’re not talking about songwriting (though of course it’s as hot as ever for that). Nashville’s writing community is having a moment alongside the vigorously healthy visual and performing arts scenes that have helped put the city on the map. Herewith, ten reasons this ”It” City is a “Lit City”:

1. Literary Rock Stars love living here: No doubt you know Ann Patchett’s a proud resident—our city’s literary icon, certainly, and beloved savior of our independent bookstore scene. But did you know that Lorrie Moore joined the MFA faculty at Vanderbilt last year? That Tony Earley, Madison Smartt Bell, Jon Meacham, Adam Ross, and bestselling thriller writer JT Ellison all call Nashville home? We’re taking bets on what big name will adopt Nashville next—or emerge from our homegrown scene.

2. We are Parnassus’s hood:  Is there any more celebrated, adored, media-darling of an indie bookstore than our own Parnassus Books, deemed one of the “World’s Coolest Bookstores” by CNN? Arguably not. While competing against the big Amazonian dog is a battle fought and lost in too many places, Parnassus Books is our David to Jeff Bezos’ Goliath, the gift Ann Patchett famously gave the city she loves. When Patchett was forced to sell her book at an alteration shop because both of our bookstores had closed, she took action, teaming up with Nashville native Karen Hayes, who’d long been in the trenches of the book business, and together with their team of committed and brilliant booksellers, they are fighting the good fight… and winning. We love that they’ve put Nashville on the map as a town of passionate readers who are equally passionate about supporting their local bookseller. Not only does Parnassus offer a wonderful place to buy books, they host loads of author readings and signings—over 250 a year. Speaking of which…

3. Literary Rock Stars love to visit: It’s no secret that Nashville is a favorite destination for girls’ weekends and bachelor parties, things like that. Our many music venues and dining scene do a stellar job of luring visitors, but hang around just a few days and you’re also likely to catch the appearance of a notable writer or poet. In just the past few years we’ve hosted luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Barbara Kingsolver, the late John Updike, Elizabeth Gilbert, Donna Tartt, Michael Pollan, Yann Martel, Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie… Seriously—this is just the quick, off-the-top-off-our-heads list; there are countless others we could name, thanks in large part to free readings offered by Parnassus Books, the Nashville Public Library’s Salon@615, and the Southern Festival of Books. Vanderbilt University’s Gertrude and Harold S Vanderbilt Reading Series is also a huge literary boon: this spring and fall we’ll be treated to visits from Stuart Dybek, Natasha Tretheway, Claire Vaye Watkins, Jamie Quatro, and others.

4. Our lit roots run deep: Okay, so we can’t claim Faulkner or Angelou, Hurston or O’Connor. Compared to other Southern locales, it might seem that few giants of the written word have worked their magic in our town (though we’ll claim Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson, thank you very much). But a literary culture has long brewed on the banks of the Cumberland River: The Fugitive Poets and subsequent Agrarians, whose cast of characters include Robert Penn Warren, John Crow Ransom, and Allen Tate, among others, rose out of Nashville, as did Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell, John Egerton, and John Seigenthaler.

5. We’ve got Salon@615: We could heap big praise on the Nashville Public Library for so many reasons. But we’ll make a special shout-out for Salon@615, the free reading series hosted by the library in partnership with Parnassus Books, Humanities TN, and the Nashville Public Library Foundation. Salon@615 brings to town nearly twenty bestselling authors a year, giving Nashvillians regular first-hand exposure to those who weave the fabric of our nation’s literary life. (And note that key word above, partnership. That’s how we do it in Nashville – collaboration makes our arts world go round.)6. We host the Southern Festival of Books: October is one of our favorite months in Tennessee for many reasons, not least of which is this annual festival, held downtown for the past 26 years. Thousands of authors and book-lovers descend on the city for this weekend full of free readings, panel discussions, and literary revelry. It’s the biggest book festival in Tennessee, a real embarrassment of riches. This year we’ll be treated to readings from Joshua Ferris, Bret Anthony Johnston, Amy Greene, Rebecca Makkai, Antonya Nelson, and so many more.

7. We’re a city that reads together. Our mayor loves books—no lie, he’s in Parnassus all the time—and literacy is one of his top agendas. To promote literary citizenship in Nashville, he started the Nashville Reads initiative, modeled on successful programs in other cities, to encourage Nashvillians to read a book together as a community, and to engage in events all over the city, from book discussions to writing contests to school-based programs. Nashville Reads culminates each spring with a visit from the selected book’s author. Selections over the last few years include Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

8. We’re a stone’s throw from Sewanee.  Ninety minutes south of Nashville, nestled on the Cumberland Plateau, is Sewanee University, University of the South, host to The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee School of Letters, The Sewanee Review, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. Sewanee has its own incredibly rich literary heritage, of course, and has played a vital role in the education of contemporary writers such as John Jeremiah Sullivan, Kevin Wilson, and TK.… And did we mention it’s absolutely gorgeous up there? Oh, yes. There’s something in that air up on the mountain…

9. We have our own East Side Story. In East Nashville, a thriving, arts-rich neighborhood across the river from downtown, this tiny but mighty bookstore carries only books by local authors (plus lovely book-related artwork and handmade books), and opens its arms wide to writers who self-publish as well as those who go the “traditional” route. Its owner, the also-mighty local literary hero Chuck Beard, hosts the biweekly East Side Storytellin’ series, which features a local author or poet paired with a local music talent, and is working steadfastly on a micro-publishing venture that pairs local writers and artists.

10. We’re home to Chapter 16. While book review pages have swiftly disappeared from magazines and newspapers over the past decade, Chapter 16—Humanities Tennessee’s online center for the book—has taken up that noble task, offering daily reviews of new books, interviews with local and touring authors, features about literary culture in Tennessee, and more, all free for the reading. Browse the site for a true trove of smart, in-depth literary coverage.

That's our lit-city list -- what would you add? Tell us in the comments!