A young woman—observant, self-conscious, harboring literary aspirations, though not quite sure where she wants to end up—meets an older novelist, and they start dating. He is as famous as it’s possible for a contemporary writer to be. He is obsessed with his privacy: She is not to draw any attention, occupying a hidden corner of his life. In fact, he sets all the terms of their relationship; the age gap benefits him. While there’s plenty of desire, it’s tinged with condescension (even spite), which contributes more than it should to their sexual tension. In return, he allows her to soak up some of his brilliance, as if by osmosis. Of course, she will have to leave him if she wants to be the star of her own life. The experience is only worth having if it is the precursor to something bigger.
This is, loosely, the arc of Adrienne Miller’s new memoir, In the Land of Men. The book is a recollection of her career as an editor at glossy men’s magazines from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, and of the sexism she encountered on the job. A large part of that story is dominated by David Foster Wallace, the writer she met when she was 26 and he was 36; she published a long and difficult short story of his in Esquire in 1998, and soon after they began an affair. A May-December romance is also the starting point for Lisa Halliday’s 2018 novel, Asymmetry, which draws on the relationship she had with Philip Roth in the early 2000s, when she was in her early twenties and he was in his sixties.
Both books were met with high expectations. Halliday’s novel, a piece in The New York Times noted, attracted enthusiasm from publishers early on, “fueled partly, no doubt, by Ms. Halliday’s intriguing back story.” A review by Parul Sehgal in the Times praised the novel for transforming Alice, Asymmetry’s central character, from a “handmaiden to genius” into an artist in her own right. Adam Kirsch in The Atlantic considered the book a response to Roth’s The Ghostwriter that emerges as its own “masterpiece.” The novel did not only succeed as a work of literature, critics proposed, but also performed an act of social justice, putting the hierarchy of talent in a new order. Miller’s memoir came with a similar promise. The book expands on a personal essay she wrote for Vogue in the midst of the #MeToo movement in early 2018. Recounting the sexist putdowns (“You don’t have any authority to do this job,” an agent informs her) and unwanted come-ons (“You should dress sexier,” says a writer) that she endured in the magazine world, she reframes her experience as an education in subtle power dynamics. If there’s a form of liberation to be gained from all this, it’s in seeing the phoniness of the whole system.
The appeal is undeniable: a simple story of coming out of the shadow of a Great Man. Yet I don’t think that’s the process either of these books is really describing. There’s nothing straightforward in finding independence by way of dating a famous man. There are also tangled questions of agency and desire, of what’s in it for anyone who attaches herself to a celebrity.