“Few people go around rooting for the career success of a very young woman,” writes Adrienne Miller in her memoir of her time as an “improbable gatekeeper” to the New York literary world of the mid 1990s and early 2000s. When a man achieves success at an early age, it is attributed to his “self-evident brilliance”, Miller reflects. When it’s a woman it’s put down to luck, her appearance, favouritism, “her ability to play the game”. Who has she slept with?
In 1997, aged 25, Miller went from an assistant editor at GQ to the first female literary editor of Esquire, which then saw itself as the home for the writers who had defined “masculinity” in the 20th century: Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver and the practitioners of New Journalism. At the time, the men’s glossy ran short stories and long-form book reviews, championing writers such as Dave Eggers (who joined the staff on the same day Miller did) and David Foster Wallace, a “Tasmanian devil of energy and ideas”, whom she regards as the Shakespeare of his day In the years before his suicide in 2008, Miller and Wallace, who was ten years older than her, vacillated between being colleagues, friends, lovers and foes.
In the Land of Men conjures the last-hurrah days of Manhattan magazine publishing – a world of Filofaxes, editorial budgets and little internet – but it is full of contemporary resonance. With an easy intimacy and intellectual acuity, it’s an engrossing story of innocence and influence, impostor syndrome and “the human urge for distinction”.
Miller, who had enjoyed a Peggy-from-Mad-Men-like leap from assistant to creative, couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she had landed the Esquire job because she was “young, female, and (seemingly) controllable”. Plenty of men fanned her fears. “You don’t have any authority to do this job,” one literary agent told her. When she edited a story by one of “the most famous and successful authors in the world”, he replied, imperiously, through his agent: “WHY is this person bothering me with this? Tell her the story is FINISHED.”
But Miller had her own wry disdain for the predictable “meat-and-potatoes” fiction of many male writers, which was set somewhere she termed “The Land of Marriage”:
A middle-aged man coming to terms with something. Extramarital affairs. Hotel rooms. Adult life as unwinnable game. A man trying, and failing, to be a man – whatever that thing was. A wife. A waif. Oh, God, the mothers… Why were there so many prostitutes? And why were so many of the women dead? Rarely did any children appear in the stuff I read, and when they did, they tended to serve as devices for the teaching of moral lessons – touching ones, usually. And the women – voluble, irrational, rarely all that smart, but, with any luck, sexy, sexy, sexy – functioned as instruments to male enlightenment. Oh, if I had a dime for each time I read the sentence “She made me feel alive…” (to which my private stock response was always “And you made her feel dead”).
Miller published stories by John Updike, George Saunders, Arthur Miller and Jeanette Winterson (passing on JM Coetzee’s Disgrace), and she allied with office buddy Eggers (on twice her salary, she later learned). But no writer would come to define her time more than Wallace, an “Augustinian, self-punitive” man so “full of need and yearning, yet so utterly lacking hope and trust”. She met him at the launch party for his postmodern opus, Infinite Jest. Dressed in a polo shirt several sizes too small, he hid in the bathroom. But when she published his short story, “Adult World”, the two developed a rapport. He enjoyed prank-calling her, she enjoyed cutting him down to size (“You’re not that tall”), after which they would indulge in “rhizomatic conversations” for hours on end. Wallace would switch from flattery to teasing insults, while spilling all kinds of personal details about his beloved dogs, his creative rivalries and his tortured record with women.
Miller worried that indulging these “intrusive, invasive, and inappropriate” exchanges meant that he, or maybe she, had boundary issues. But she got sucked in by his “voodoo”, finding him to be “the best active listener you could possibly imagine”.
Wallace lived in Bloomington, Illinois; during his first planned meeting with Miller in New York, he said he had been a drug addict and an alcoholic and had attempted suicide, and claimed to have once hired a hit man to kill someone. (This has since been disputed.) He was, Miller believes, a man who “worked on a sliding scale of truth”. On the same day, he asked her if she would meet him in an empty theatre and have sex in the auditorium seats.
For all his violations, she detected a man who wanted to be a better person, who was looking for absolution. At this point, the book becomes an intense, claustrophobic portrait of a complex relationship. Wallace was courtly and gentle but also crude; he could be sexist but was respectful of Miller’s literary instincts. She told him that a section of Infinite Jest was “one of the most self- indulgent wankfests ever put to paper”. And she wasn’t impressed with his celebrated essay on John Updike, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, in which he coined the phrase “Great Male Narcissists” and attacked “their solipsism, their machismo, and their swinish attitudes towards women”.
Wallace told Miller he didn’t want to become “one of those old fuckers who writes about his genitals and who teaches his own stuff in class”. But what infuriated her, quite apart from his fascination with other men’s scorecards, was the way he insisted that women readers could only make emotional, rather than critical, evaluations of literature. He said female readers detested the GMNs because they – or their characters – were incapable of love. And all women wanted, after all, was a love story. Miller’s response is coolly incisive: “Closer to the truth: we want a respect story. We merely want to see what we understand of the human estate represented on the page.”
By the time she left Esquire, she was struggling to get any literature into the magazine at all, which was now trying to compete with “lads’ mags” like Maxim. A Wallace story that she had laboured on for months was killed – but by that point, the relationship had curdled, with Wallace changing his number after she refused to move to Bloomington, and later marrying an artist. But In the Land of Men is, despite this, a romance. The emphasis is on the almost erotic thrill of Miller and Wallace solving an editorial conundrum together. It reminded me of something the literary editor Miriam Gross said: “I have fallen for people just on the basis of their writing.” Gross married one of her writers.
You get the sense that, as she wrote it, Miller was still having arguments in her head with Wallace. But this is what gives the book its energy and its wisdom. It is honest about the conflicting effects an influential older man can have on a woman’s career. She learned that “art is all about rigour and precision” from Wallace, who hymned her praises as an editor. But he showed no interest at all in her own novel when she began describing it. “I wonder why you’re telling me this,” he said cruelly. How much we give each other, how much we take away.
Johanna Thomas-Corr is a New Statesman contributing writer
In the Land of Men
Harper Collins, 336pp, £20
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb