Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An editor chronicles her meteoric rise and tumultuous relationship with David Foster Wallace

Illustration for article titled An editor chronicles her meteoric rise and tumultuous relationship with David Foster Wallace
Graphic: Allison Corr

If you’re a straight woman with some artistic sensibility, you may have dated a David Foster Wallace: a red flag who charmed his way into your heart by claiming you were the only one to truly understand him, but who turned out to be less sensitive than he at first seemed, to say the least. Chances are your David Foster Wallace read David Foster Wallace, an author whose writing left an indelible mark on the literary world. Over the years, Wallace has transformed into an avatar for a certain kind of lit-bro who scorns anyone who hasn’t read Infinite Jest, but doesn’t consider why he hasn’t read a female writer in his entire adult life.

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If you’re Adrienne Miller, who, in 1997, became the first woman to serve as Esquire’s literary editor, a position she held for nearly a decade, you have dated the David Foster Wallace, and part of your story is contending with the late writer’s near mythical status, which has grown more complicated in the #MeToo era. Miller’s new memoir, In The Land Of Men, grapples with that experience, in the context of a larger industry that celebrated, coddled, and enabled all sorts of terrible men.

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Miller’s meteoric rise in the world of ’90s glossies occupies the memoir’s first half. Bookworms, former English majors, and anyone tired of Old White Men novels will enjoy the blunt descriptions of petulant literary giants (John Updike), high-brow celebrities (Todd Solondz), and other behind-the-scenes figures (editor Rust Hills). Miller likes to emphasize her level-headed Midwestern sensibility and rarely presents events salaciously. She needn’t, as the awfulness is so explicit. A colleague calls her “veal”; she gets groped after a lunch meeting; Norman Mailer is, of course, a total dick.

Miller was 26 when a 36-year-old Wallace came into her life. The intellectual chemistry between them is alluring, and there’s something satisfying in her ability to hold her own with someone who, for all his faults, was incredibly talented. Miller is clear, however, on what a nightmare Wallace was as a romantic partner. Needy, dismissive, manipulative, and demanding, he gave her backhanded compliments and held grudges. “I already understood that David would always define the terms of your reality,” she writes. “And I also already understood that I could never be a woman who slid into a man’s premade life and claimed it as her own.”

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Despite this, Miller doesn’t demonize Wallace by airing all his dirty laundry— and there are moments of tenderness here. Focusing on her own life with him, when she references Wallace’s relationships with other women, she’s mum about the details and only shares how they affected their bond. His confession of wanting to hire a hit man to go after an ex was offered to her as a redemption story; he shared it to prove he was no longer that person. (Whether this had anything to do with Mary Karr’s allegations of abuse against Wallace is unknown.) Women “want a respect story. We merely want to see what we understand of the human estate represented on the page,” Miller writes when discussing one of her literary disagreements with Wallace. In these pages, she makes space for the respect she was too often denied, both in her professional and intimate life.

Until his death by suicide, in 2008, Wallace continued to entrust Miller as a reader and editor, his professional esteem far outlasting their romance. Miller is sensitive to his struggles with mental health, but she also acquired her own demons because of him. The author is, by her own account, very private, and as a result, the book doesn’t really take off until Wallace makes a more definitive appearance about 150 pages in and she shows more vulnerability. This may be the memoir’s most conflicting aspect. There is something unsettling about wanting to give due credit to her identity as separate from Wallace, but it’s hard when this is the most riveting part of the story.

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Miller says Wallace helped her “understand that anger is active, that it is a process and a decision.” As a young woman who was just trying to do her work, Miller often chose to back away from it. But if this memoir is about a woman coming into her own, it’s telling that the result is anger, and that such passages are the most powerful in the book. It’s a fury that extends beyond Wallace. The misogyny expressed individually could only happen in a world that allowed it at all levels. Maybe the best way to fight Wallace-as-idol is by pointing out precisely how pedestrian his callousness was. Wallace’s death occupies only a few pages, but it is in her grief that Miller finally allows herself to put her anger into action. “What I really wanted to do was write manifestos, organize opposition parties, pick fights, scream obscenities into a bullhorn,” she writes. “I wanted to destroy everything and rebuild it better.”

Ines Bellina is a writer, storyteller, and bon vivant. When she's not working on her novel or overscheduling herself, she sings love songs to bulldogs.

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