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Thursday, April 30, 2020

In The Land Of Men: Dating David Foster Wallace During the Golden Age of Magazines

Adrienne Miller had the toughest easiest dream job ever: She was the fiction editor for Esquire in the late 1990s, which I don't know about you, but I think that sounds awesome. The late 1990s were the last gasp of the golden age of print magazines, but also the last hold out for the 'ol boys club that was the magazine industry. And nowhere exemplified that more than Esquire, the long-time publisher of dudes like Norman Mailer and John Updike, not exactly known for their progressive stances on women.

In the Land of Men is Miller's memoir of her time first at GQ, then at Esquire. It's really two books in one — the first half is about her career in the magazine field, and it's fascinating. But then the bomb: She meets, forms a friendship, and then begins dating the one and only, the mercurial, the brilliant David Foster Wallace. 

Miller discusses the first time she met DFW, at the launch party for Infinite Jest, which, just reading that bit made quake with jealousy. But then, seemingly overwhelmed by all the attention, he sort of snubs her and her boss, and she thinks he's kind of a jerk. But soon, she and DFW begin working together on a story, and he calls her (he doesn't do email) all the time, even during non-work hours. Their conversations quickly crossover from the practicalities of editing his story to the more personal.

He's living in Bloomington, Illinois, at the time, but comes to NYC periodically for publishing things, and they make a "date" for the next time he's there. They're supposed to play tennis, but the courts are booked solid, so they just walk and talk and have a picnic. He's supposed to go to a dinner that night, and asks her to come with him back to his hotel room to hang out while he gets ready. Then, one of my absolute favorite details of the whole book: He's showering and leaves the door half open, which she thinks is odd. But then she writes that he tells her later he did that because he was hoping she'd join him in the shower. Ah, the male mind: Infinitely optimistic, against all reason. 

So their relationship continues, long-distance and once-in-awhile-in-person. She likes him, despite his insecurity and his penchant for being distant and emotionally detached (and sometimes even cruel). He genuinely respects her as a reader and editor — which she doesn't get quite often as a young woman in a male-dominated field. (There is a lot in this memoir about the horrendous sexism she had to deal with. It's really saddening.) But because she's unwilling to move to Bloomington and he's unwilling to move to New York City, their relationship begins fading, and then bombs out in dramatic fashion.

When this book first crossed my radar (it came out earlier this year), and I realized it's a memoir about magazine editing, with new details about David Foster Wallace, my first thought was "Wow! This might be the perfect book for me." I wouldn't say it was a perfect reading experience — Miller is a good writer, but man, there are a lot of darlings here that should've been murdered (what's the saying about how editors never follow their own advice when they're writing themselves). But I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Though you take most of the insight into DFW with a grain of salt, it's still a fascinating new angle.

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