Curiously, In the Land of Men needed better editing; it’s curious because this memoire was written by a former fiction editor of Esquire.
Early on, Adrienne Miller’s In the Land of Men is an arch portrait of a time when journals like Esquire made an effort to publish significant, literary short stories and Miller navigated her way through this male-centric sometimes inhospitable world to become a deciding voice in what got published. In later chapters, In the Land of Men narrows to focus on the author’s relationship with one of these writers, David Foster Wallace. This turns out to be less interesting than it might sound.
Miller has a deft touch with the telling detail, and, at its best, In the Land of Men is an intriguing description of the 1990’s New York world of letters, the most praise-worthy and well-reviewed denizens of which constituted ‘the red hot center’. Esquire was a part of this world when Miller began curating fiction for it. She carried on a tradition stretching back decades to when Esquire published writers including Hemingway, Martin Amis, and Truman Capote. However, recently, this world could seem a bit insular, like who would care beyond a small slice of the literati? Having said that, would that Miller had included more commentary on the authors she crossed paths with as well as what separated a publishable story from the slush pile. Also, given her former vantage point, where does Miller think short-form fiction is heading now with the gate-keeper role of journal editors reduced? In a post-literary world, will tweets and texts shouting the fraught emotions of the moment signify more than fiction addressing complex perspectives?
Less compelling sections of In the Land of Men cathartically recount the author’s relationship with writer David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest and Pale King fame. Miller’s association with Wallace appears to have deeply affected her and, besides examining the intricacies of their intense relationship, possibly the intent in devoting so many, many pages to this particular erudite, seemingly charismatic, and probably difficult man is to cast him as an example – exhibit A, if you will – of a woman editor’s travails in the testosterone fueled publishing world of that time. This memoire might have been entitled In the Land of Difficult Men. About half of the book is, charitably, a dialogue between Miller and Wallace offering some insight into the multifaceted relationship between this editor and author. Less charitably, this reads as pillow talk. Quarter-century old conversations are repeated and big chunks of this could have been pruned to the betterment of the overall narrative.
The interesting parts of In the Land of Men are the descriptions of how ego, talent and magazine publishing intersected at the turn of the century in a world not welcoming to women in its upper echelons. Other parts of the book can be skimmed or skipped.
I can’t resist an addendum:
One wonders how Wallace would have described the relationship with Miller? Per film producer Robert Evans, “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently.”
Speaking out of school, In the Land of Men might have worked better as a literate, romantic novel.