Being a woman in a culture of men is central to Adrienne Miller’s memoir.
As the title of her book implies, being a woman in a culture of men is central to Adrienne Miller’s memoir that begins when she moves from Ohio to New York City to take a job as an editorial assistant at GQ magazine. Being a woman working at a men’s magazine subjected Miller not only to judgments of herself, but the ways that men judge women, constantly, in the pages of the magazine. This took its toll. Miller sums up her experiences early on, writing that she quickly “became accustomed to providing protection to brilliant, narcissistic, charismatic, fiercely ambitious men” who never quite thought about extending the same protection to her.
The book is also fundamentally Miller’s memoir. Establishing her background through anecdotes from the years through childhood to college allows Miller to create credibility, along with a connection with the reader. She does not seek empathy, but she does want to be understood as a reliable narrator. Having landed a job at GQ just before finishing college, then being the first woman to serve as literary editor at Esquire, at the mere age of 25, seems so inconceivable that many of the men (and perhaps some of the women) who Miller encounters tell her that she must have her job because she knew someone or seduced someone who gave it to her.
Miller establishes herself as a resourceful and inevitably flawed human being, and that she does not belabor her embarrassing moments is a relief. For example, when her tuxedo-clad date fails to tell her in advance that one should dress formally for the Metropolitan Opera, she is only bothered that she missed the opportunity to wear the John Galliano fishtail skirt she just purchased at a sample sale. Miller proudly embraces her identity as a midwesterner who graduated from a public university, yet when her date’s friend says at intermission, “So you are the Vassarian,” she shrugs off being mistaken for another woman and for being mistaken as a Seven Sisters graduate. The coming-into-one’s-own memoir can be painfully awkward for both reader and author, yet Miller seldom takes herself too seriously.
In the Land of Men is also the story of the decline and decimation of the magazine industry. Miller notes that the issue of GQ on newsstands when she started her job there featured James Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer,” now considered a classic piece of true crime writing. Miller is initially awed by the lavish parties and events she attends, but the power and prominence of the magazine industry doesn’t last. She documents the lessening interest in quality fiction as part of American magazine culture as part of her own narrative. The study of wealth and power, especially with regard to powerful men and how they interact with the world, is another theme that runs through the book.
Power is of particular interest when Miller turns to her relationship with lionized writer David Foster Wallace. Because she was at various times his editor, his lover and his friend, the dance of power between Wallace and Miller is central to the narrative she shares about their relationship. She writes about committing to review Infinite Jest, Wallace’s influential and monumental novel for GQ, giving herself only the six days of Thanksgiving holiday to read the 1,079 page book. Years later, she notes that reading the book was “much like the experience of knowing David Wallace himself–joy and delight, countered by exceptional frustration and disillusionment.”
Her first direct encounter with Wallace comes in 1998, when Miller has been at Esquire for six months. His agent submitted Wallace’s story “Adult World” to the magazine, and Miller fervently wanted to publish it. As she edits the piece with him, Miller and Wallace talk on the phone quite a lot, and their friendship develops as she shows him to be brilliant, funny, needy and conniving. After the story is published, Wallace announces he is coming to New York, and ends up commandeering Miller’s time and attention for the entirety of his visit. She meticulously details their interactions, while also offering the reader insight into her work at trying to figure out his intentions. She also makes clear to the reader recounting that first date: “In many ways, I was as rasa a tabula as there ever could have been. Maybe this appealed to David. Or maybe it didn’t, who knows? This is my story, not his.” This rings true, as Miller maintains a distance from Wallace in the ways she writes about their relationship.
Her expertise as an editor is clear in her writing about Wallace: she tells the reader only what needs to be known, and is also deliberate about showing where she draws the line to protect her subject and herself. In her introduction, Miller explains her decision to write about Wallace in this book, saying that in the eleven years since his death, he has been “reduced to a darkly glamorous suicide doll.” In filling in the gaps about his work and evolution as a writer, Miller inevitably tells her own story as well.
There is a philosophical thread that runs alongside Miller’s prose. Initially, it seems undeserved, but as the complications of life unfold in front of her, she earns the right to her worldly contemplations. When the reader is first getting to know Miller as a nine-year-old, the idea that “I guess a part of me has always half thought that everything we see in front of us is a prop and that the true nature of the world is hidden from view” is met with some skepticism. By the book’s end, however, her reflections on writing, sexism, depression and the everyday ambiguities we all face resonate deeply. Her writing is both sharp and generous, and her careful attention to language and story result in a powerful book.