The late 90’s were the apotheosis of magazine publishing, but no one knew so then. A young writer by the name of David Foster Wallace would announce himself via his huge (literally and figuratively) novel Infinite Jest, along the way publishing an essay labeling Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth–three then-still-powerhouses of American fiction–as narcissistic misogynists. It was in this changing but still largely man’s world that Adrienne Miller found herself in the role of fiction editor for Esquire magazine. Miller was smart, young, and pretty, with ideas about the new directions in American writing Wallace and other emerging authors represented. The men she worked for, with, and around had ideas too. Not all of them had to do with literature.
In the Land of Men, A Memoir is Miller’s account of the decade (almost) she spent in her dream job, before the internet, too, began to change almost everything. Miller tells a large part of her story through the lens of her relationship with Wallace, as she edited or attempted to edit stories of his the magazine agreed to publish, not an easy job in any era. Meanwhile, both were sinking deeper into a relationship Miller felt and knew was unprofessional and inappropriate. Wallace arrived with his own reputation for harboring troubling attitudes toward women, complicating things for Miller even more.
Miller is an excellent writer and presumably a fine editor, but a few questionable judgments seem to have snuck through. “That was all I wanted to do–to be with and be in love with David. But love, with him, was a danger, the biggest danger there was.” Given Miller’s overall fine prose style, this rather purple passage cries out for Ye Olde Red Pen. Miller agrees that the work of Updike and others justifies their misogynistic label, only to state later “The novelist is not responsible for the views of his characters though.” The debate is longstanding, but I’m not sure one can have it both ways. Anyway, I would expect a good editor to have caught this apparent contradiction, yet the book makes no attempt to resolve or even acknowledge it.
Parenthetical material and rhetorical questions are frequently employed, as if to raise points warranting deeper discussion while avoiding having that discussion:
- “I ought to read aesthetically, not morally, yes?”
- “Or was it that these men felt comfortable enough with me to be the brutes they actually were?”
- (Note: Rachel Archambault was not this person’s name, but it definitely could have been. (??))
A few sentences are repeated as if aspiring to aphoristic status: When you get thrown back into who you are, you’d better have something there. These shorthand techniques are not objectionable on the surface. But once used, the dam can quickly break, never to be repaired. (Stephen King and John Irving anyone?)
Not all readers will find the world of magazines, authors, editors, and the inherent web of power structures fascinating, but if anything, I wanted more details on exactly that sort of thing. The story of Miller and Wallace’s affair, if that is not too strong a word, interested me less. And I wasn’t always sure what overall lesson Miller was aiming toward, if there was one. Despite these few caveats, though, when I put In the Land of Men down, I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it.
One other question seemed inescapable to me as I read: What would Wallace have thought of this book? Just reading Miller’s own account of Wallace as a person, I imagine he would have hated it, and I imagine Miller knows this too. Wallace has been gone over a decade though, making the timing of this story seem a bit odd. Perhaps Miller intended the story as her contribution to the Me Too movement, for what it’s worth. Or perhaps her lesson is simply that people have always been complicated. Certainly, she is far too generous, kind, and intelligent a writer to have intended the book as a simple vengeance tale. What it is, or seems to be, is a curious and fascinating mix of profile, memoir, manifesto, and confessional genres, one that does some measure of justice to all of them, even if the big picture is hard to pin down.
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