Adrienne Miller was the literary and fiction editor of Esquire from 1997 to 2006.
Berthold Woltze, Der lästige Kavalier (The Irritating Gentleman), 1874, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 22 1/2″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
A man said to me, “I’ve always wondered why it is that your sisters aren’t better writers.”
A man asked me, when discussing the work of a female author, “Is she a ‘big’ girl?”
A man asked, “Why is there always a scene in every women’s novel with a female character making snow angels?”
A man asked me why it was that women writers seemed to be capable of only two things: sensation on one hand or attitudinizing on the other.
A man told me that he didn’t believe I’d read enough books to be able to do my job effectively.
A man told me that only someone with an M.F.A. should have my job. (The real answer: someone with an M.F.A. definitely should not have had my job.)
A man, someone probably actually lower on the status totem pole at Esquire than I, took a story I had acquired and had already edited—and did his own (very poor) edits to it, returning it to me as if he were some sort of conquering hero.
A man said that no one would take me seriously until I won a National Magazine Award for Fiction.
A man told me that he couldn’t believe the literary editor of Esquire had never read anything by Anna Akhmatova.
A man seemed to believe that he needed to routinely explain my “mission” with regard to the literary section of the magazine: “The stories can’t be perfunctory,” he’d say. This was his trademark word: “perfunctory.” Naturally, my private code name for this guy became Perfunctory Man. And was he ever. As Simone de Beauvoir put it: “The most mediocre of males feels himself a demigod as compared with women.” (And, indeed, I was one happy individual when Perfunctory Man was finally fired.)
A man—okay, men were Hobbesianly snaking around, trying to get in their own short story submissions. There were always men after my job, and I would come to feel as if I were constantly whipping a lit torch around to protect my territory. But had these men ever actually read any of the fiction published in the magazine? Unclear.
A man referred to a woman who worked at the company as a cunt.
A man said to me, “I wish my groupies were of a higher caliber.” Me: “You have groupies?”
A man told me that I should “fucking spit” on a notoriously demanding female media professional.
A man brought a coffee-table book of high-end pornographic art to me at a work lunch.
A man said, at another work lunch, “You’re not so young anymore, you know.” The man was my father’s age. My age: twenty-eight.
A man asked, at the end of a professional drinks appointment, if he could kiss me.
A man asked me, after he’d moved my hand close to his crotch at another professional drinks appointment, if something he’d done had made me seem so close to crying.
A man—one of the most celebrated writers in the country—sexually assaulted me. After a professional drinks appointment, when we were standing together on a sidewalk waiting for a light to change, he put his hands down my pants.
(After that, I pretty much stopped doing professional drinks appointments with men.)
A man rated, in terms of purported attractiveness, the women—the brilliant and judicious women—who read our unsolicited short story manuscripts.
A man said that “everyone wondered” whom I had slept with to get my job.
It would go like this: I’d find myself at an event, standing or sitting next to some man, illustrious in this or that sphere; another man, unknown to me, and assuming an air of importance, would come up to the first man. I would note how often the second man would look through me, around me, over me, to something much more important. People are ghosts until you actually have to start taking them seriously.
My view: these men were, as Kate Millett wrote of Norman Mailer in her masterwork Sexual Politics, “prisoner[s] of the virility cult,” and their chest-thumping machismo was, more or less, a pose—even if they didn’t know it. It’s always hard to gauge how self-aware other people are, but the overall sense usually seems to be: not very. We are unknown to ourselves. (Recall, in an extreme but useful example, that Mussolini wanted his epitaph to read: “Here lies one of the most intelligent animals who ever appeared on the face of the earth.”) So I attempted to take a nuanced view, even when the actions of the men were abhorrent. I tried to approach the behavior with a spirit of irony, leniency, and good humor … when good humor was musterable.
The truth: my career had been built around protecting male egos. This was the world I lived in. This was the world I knew, and I never believed this world could, or would, change. It seemed incomprehensible that the system could ever collapse. So I started trying out a new approach. I would change myself. I would become unattackable. I’d train myself not to let other people’s—men’s—opinions of me penetrate. I’d become a fortress to be approached, a Soviet tank of the spirit.
This was a strategy. This was a deeply antisocial strategy, in fact, and philosophically in direct conflict with the central precept of my job. When you’re trying to cultivate appreciation, you have to maintain an open heart.
Adrienne Miller is the author of the novel The Coast of Akron. She lives in New York City with her husband, son, and Italian greyhound.
From the book In the Land of Men, by Adrienne Miller. Copyright © 2020 by Adrienne Miller. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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