Saturday, May 1, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of the books "Lincoln's Melancholy" and "Powers of Two," has resigned from his positions as editor in chief of the Believer magazine and artistic and executive director of the Black Mountain Institute.
On March 24, staff of the institute, a literary arts center at UNLV, and the publisher of the Believer magazine were notified via email that Shenk, 50, had resigned and that John Tuman, associate dean for faculty at the university, would step in as its acting executive director.
A search for a new executive director will begin "as soon as is feasible," wrote Jennifer Keene, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
In a farewell letter shared with the staff, Shenk said his resignation followed "a dumb, reckless choice to disregard appropriate setting and attire for a Zoom meeting. I crossed a line that I can't walk back over. I sorely regret the harm to you — and, by extension, to the people we serve. I'm sorry."
The incident occurred during a video meeting in early February with about a dozen staff members of the Believer and BMI, according to three sources who were in the meeting. According to Ira Silverberg, a literary agent and editor who is acting as Shenk's adviser, Shenk was soaking in a bathtub with Epsom salts during the meeting to alleviate nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia.
He had chosen a virtual background to mask his location and had worn a mesh shirt. When Shenk's computer battery died, he got up to plug it in, believing the camera was off. But the video kept running. According to Silverberg, Shenk reported the incident immediately.
In a statement to The Times, Shenk apologized for the pain the incident caused to the BMI staff, who he called "the most talented, devoted and creative people I've ever worked with.
"After my lapse in judgment, I decided to resign so that BMI's work — sparking culture in Southern Nevada, publishing The Believer, and hosting writers persecuted in their home countries — could best continue in their exceptionally capable hands," Shenk said.
At least two witnesses reported the incident to the university's Office of Equal Employment and Title IX. UNLV dismissed and closed the Title IX complaints when Shenk resigned, according to emails the complainants received from the university, which the Times obtained.
According to Silverberg, Shenk had already been negotiating a transition in leadership at the institute prior to the incident. The university declined to comment, saying it "doesn't discuss personnel matters."
"Josh never tried to do anything but take responsibility and help the staff move on," Silverberg said in a statement. "Indeed, he has spent most of the last few months working with medical people to try to address the illness, for which he's seen dozens of doctors over three decades without success."
Founded in 2003, the Believer quickly gained a reputation for its off-beat, enthusiastic criticism and earned multiple nominations for National Magazine Awards. Considered to be a West Coast counterbalance to the East Coast-dominated literary scene, it was founded by authors Ed Park, Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits and originally published by McSweeney's, Dave Eggers' independent publishing house.
Nick Hornby, Peter Orner, Amy Sedaris, Susan Straight, Anne Carson, William T. Vollmann and others have contributed to the publication. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown is the magazine's poetry editor.
In 2017, the original editors stepped aside as McSweeney's sold the publication to the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute and Shenk became editor in chief.
He led the launch of the annual Believer Festival, which featured authors such as Tommy Orange, Valeria Luiselli and Kiese Laymon and guests including Joey Soloway and Reggie Watts.
Following Shenk's departure, its future direction is an open question.
Shenk, who splits his time between Las Vegas and Silver Lake in L.A., is the author of the 2015 book "Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity" and "Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness," published in 2005, which was honored by the Abraham Lincoln Institute and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, according to his website.
His work has also appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, Slate, GQ, The Nation and other publications.
"In the instance that this note is in fact a final farewell," Shenk wrote in his apology email, "I want to convey my great faith in the work you do and in the capacity of BMI to serve its communities. With remorse, and with gratitude for all we've accomplished, I'm off to do all I can to be a better person."