David Foster Wallace, the fiction-writer and essayist who died in 2008, was several things at once. Adrienne Miller, the literary editor at Esquire who dealt with him, sets them out.
“I like the big outré person,” she says on the phone from New York. “And David was one of those people. His talent was one thing, but as a human being he was riotously funny. He was entertaining. He was brilliant. He was sweet. He was generous.”
A beat. “But he could also be conniving. Manipulative. Cruel. He possessed all those characteristics.” When they appeared, it was no surprise. “That’s who he was. He was not going to change.”
Wallace was already a cult figure when Miller met him in 1998, thanks to his novel Infinite Jest. A sprawling work of over 1,000 pages, it’s set in a semi-dystopian North America, and revolves around the young tennis player Hal Incandenza and his dysfunctional family. Its extensive footnotes and riddling digressions have lent it a certain mystique; it’s a rite of passage, a signal of intent, like taking on novels by Proust or Joyce.
(When the New York City subway introduced wi-fi in 2017, a cartoon did the rounds, showing a Brooklyn literary type riding with Kindle in hand. There’s a post-it note on the back of the device: “I’m reading Infinite Jest.”)
Miller’s memoir, In the Land of Men, tells of her career at GQ and then Esquire, where she and Wallace became first professionally, then romantically involved. They met when she was 26; he was 10 years older. On their first day out together, they tried and failed to play tennis – a sport at which Wallace, at the junior level, had excelled – and ended up watching it on TV in a hotel room. He tried to tempt Miller into the shower, insulted her intelligence, and took her out for lunch.
Miller already knew of Wallace’s work. They first met in 1996, at the party for Infinite Jest. (They barely spoke.) Miller was still an editorial assistant at GQ. Later that year, Esquire published Wallace’s essay on the tennis player Michael Joyce, “The String Theory”, an intricate, agile piece of writing about the sport and those who watch it.
Talking today about Wallace, that essay comes to Miller’s mind. “Isn’t there a line in the Joyce piece, something like: ‘Maybe I’m an a--hole’?” She laughs. “Well… yeah? David’s non-fiction was tough on people, it really was.”
(“What I discovered,” Wallace writes about watching the Canadian Open, “was that I can be kind of a snob and an a--hole and that Michael Joyce’s affectless openness is not a sign of stupidity but of something else.” It’s hard to say how much of this admission was performative. “There is,” as he pointed out in a later interview, “a lot of narcissism in self-hatred.”)
Miller would edit four of Wallace’s short stories for Esquire. The first was “Adult World”, about a housewife’s sexual desires – this travesties the complex plot, but it’ll have to do – and the last was “Oblivion”, an even knottier piece which didn’t make it to press. “Working with David was the high point of my career,” she says. “Well, then the low point, when they killed ‘Oblivion’.”
But by the time Miller was editing that story, it was 2001, and her romance with Wallace was dead. It was remarkable that she was working with him at all. When they broke up, as she relates in the book, Wallace’s behaviour had been toxic.
They had always lived apart; her in New York, him where he taught English in Illinois. In their break-up call, he told her he was seeing someone else, then countered that at least the other woman was as old as him. (“Not a student,” he added. He was also seeing his students.) When she started dating someone new, he sent “a hostile letter” to the man. (She doesn’t know what it said.) She “woke up crying nearly every morning from August 1999… through November”.
And yet, two years later, she was willing to edit his work. “It was a safe space,” she explains, “editing his pieces. And when he would send me manuscripts, too – that was neutral ground for us. I respected him, and he grew, I think, to respect me as an editor and as a reader. Everything was OK – when we were in the world of his writing.”
“Had I actually been involved,” she writes in Land of Men, “in an emotionally abusive relationship?” Talking to her now, she sounds to me like someone more interested in the question than the answer. “I think,” she says coolly, “we have a problem with ambiguity now, and people who embrace ambiguity.”
She cites not only Wallace’s contradictory qualities, as enumerated above, but the example of Norman Mailer. One of her book’s funniest moments has her, shortly after taking the Esquire job, meeting him at an event:
When my turn in line with Mailer came, I’m sure I burbled something to him as nuance-free as “Hey, you should write for Esquire again.” As a matter of fact, that is exactly what I said.
Mailer’s blue eyes considered me with distaste. After a rich pause, he intoned: “I feel about Esquire the way I feel about an ex-wife: I don’t care.”
Recalling it now, she laughs. “It was an awful thing, what he said, but it was also hilarious. I was like: ‘Wow, you just dressed me down in a way that’s staggering, but hats off to you for that comparison.’
She mimics the outrage you’d imagine more common today: “Norman Mailer is now the worst person ever! …well, maybe he was. But we can’t accept that someone can be both the worst and the best – and that most people are actually somewhere in the middle. Even these outsized personalities.”
She began writing In the Land of Men for reasons she either isn’t able, or inclined, to articulate. “Well, I guess the answer is: why does a writer write anything? I just felt compelled to do it. I never had any sense that I would ever write about this time in my life. I write fiction. A part of me always thought of memoir as a lesser form.”
“After David’s suicide in 2008,” she goes on, “I had a really hard time. I was really angry. I was shut down. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I was married by that point, and I talked only to my husband. And I separated myself from writers, editors, that whole community, because I did not want to be in a situation in which it came up as a topic.”
As Miller puts it in the book, she has lately realised that “my career had been built around protecting male egos”. That career was precocious; at the age of 25, she was the literary editor of Esquire, in the dying days of the age when literary fiction appeared in glossy magazines.
“I expected that world to be more Gore Vidal-ish!” she laughs. “More witty, more erudite. I didn’t expect it to be so chest-thumpingly, crudely sexist. I thought: ‘These are intelligent, sophisticated people, therefore they will treat us all with dignity and respect.’ Not quite true.”
In one of the book’s most and least shocking stories, she goes to lunch with another female editorial assistant, a GQ writer and “a notorious restaurant maître d’” at a German beer garden in New York. The men order for the women; the maitre d’ has brought his own black truffle, and shaves it onto their plates. In the taxi en route back to Condé Nast, he forces his tongue into both women’s mouths.
“I actually heard from the other assistant,” Miller says. “I hadn’t been able to track her down, but we’ve been in touch for the last several weeks. And her experience of that is as vivid as mine – but she wasn’t as emotionally scarred by it. It seems a little grandiose to say ‘scarred’. But it didn’t have as much of an emotional impact on her as it did on me. And she’s now questioning her own response to it.”
It was the moment where Miller realised that the mental world of men’s magazines – the fantasy of wealth and sex – was being lived out, in seedy fashion, by the men who made the pages. “That particular episode was like Plato’s Cave. That was when everything was revealed, and I said: ‘Oh, I understand it now, it’s all about power.’
“And these guys are going to assert their power in whatever way they feel permitted to.” She’s dry: “In that particular instance, it was sexual assault in the back of a taxi.”
Twenty years later, Miller is equivocal about whether the magazine industry is a better place. “I don’t know if the characters of the people have changed. But they’re trying to control their behaviour. Certainly more than they did before MeToo.
“Look, human character is what it is. And human beings aren’t really going to change. But maybe we can rein in people’s behaviour and maybe people in positions of power are starting to think with more empathy… I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a hope.”
In any case, Esquire and GQ are no longer what they were. “What I valued in my youth,” Miller says, “the literary part of the magazines, the fiction, the serious book coverage – that’s all gone.” She gave up fighting its decline, and quit Esquire in 2006. In her final year as literary editor, the magazine had published no short fiction at all.
“I made a grimly sarcastic joke to friends that I edited the ‘Please Don’t Read Me” parts of Esquire. The parts that were not appealing to advertisers. Really, so much of a general-interest glossy magazine is product placement. The fashion pages, et cetera.”
She began the interview by saying that one realisation of which In the Land of Men was born was that “my story with David and the story of my career [have] turned out to be one and the same”. Her description of the industry culture sounds like her description of Wallace, too.
“It was great, it was exciting. We did fabulous work. We published amazing writers. But it was also kind of dreadful in a lot of ways. A lot of the content was crude and sexist.”
Even so, she steps back into balance. “We took the good and we took the bad.”
In the Land of Men is published by Ecco at £20. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop