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At twenty-five, I became the first female literary and fiction editor of Esquire. It was 1997 and Esquire had for decades been one of the country’s most significant magazines; home to the writers who defined “masculinity” (if you will excuse the term) for the twentieth century: Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, and the practitioners of New Journalism.
My mission was to help the magazine find its new voice. I understood that I was following in the footsteps of two legendary editors, Gordon Lish and Rust Hills, men of extraordinary vision and taste. Of course, I knew that I was, in every way, a baffling choice for the job: I was a woman, I was notably young, and I had had no sparkling editorial career behind me. But I was passionate about writers and writing, I was eager-eyed, and, I believed, I had taste.
During my tenure, I discovered many new writers, I worked with many giants. But it was with the formally audacious David Foster Wallace story “Adult World,” which, according to David, every other magazine had rejected, that my journey—professional, personal, artistic—really began. David and I met in 1998. I was twenty-six and he was thirty-six. I had been at Esquire only a few months and was doing what I could to refurbish the magazine’s moribund literary section. Infinite Jest had been published two years before and David was on his way to becoming the most influential and imitated American fiction writer since Hemingway.
I would acquire and edit four of David’s stories for Esquire. I read his manuscripts, we were friends, we dated. After his suicide, my private approach to him, already well honed during his lifetime, became ever more entrenched; my preferred modes: “avoid,” “shut down,” and “avoid” some more. I couldn’t talk about him, I couldn’t read anything about him, and I couldn’t read his work. I certainly couldn’t write about him. God knows I never planned to, and couldn’t have imagined a world in which I ever would.
What has changed in my thinking? So much has been bothering me in the eleven years since David’s death. It’s nothing new to suggest that as his persona has been processed by the culture industry he so loathed, the living man has faded from sight. Nearly everyone gets him wrong—but that’s beside the point. Whether he’s presented as a hero or a monster, he’s been reduced to a darkly glamorous suicide doll. There are also significant lacunae in the public record of David’s life and in the public record of his evolving thinking about his own work during the period of time we were friends.
With these thoughts in mind, I started writing about what it was like for me to know him, but also, crucially, about my own personal odyssey: a young woman trying to do good work and trying to get herself taken seriously in a world of men.