When Failure Is Success…And Vice Versa

It was likely in 2001 – though it may have been just after I moved into my new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of King of Prussia in February 2003 – I received this handsome piece of engraved metal from my more off-than-on-again girlfriend.

When I first read the question, I tried earnestly answer it – until I realized the obvious answer: nothing.

Just as the answer would be “nothing” if the last word was “succeed.”

It is the uncertainty of outcome that makes a thing worth doing. The thrill comes in succeeding when success was not guaranteed.

Moreover, I now think the question is purely hypothetical. I cannot imagine an activity where failure is not an option, no matter how seemingly banal or minor it is. Despite what the self-help gurus and the rah-rah-artists and the well-meaning leaders tell us:

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

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In a recent post, I presented an update on the process of publishing the book – Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own – I completed in late January. To summarize, I queried 100 literary agencies between February 5 and May 12, understanding this to the best route to securing a mass-market publisher. To date, 90 agencies have either formally rejected me (22) or have not responded to me within their stated time frame (68). My expectation is the remaining 10 simply have not yet rejected me, though I obviously do not know for certain.

At first glance, though, 100 seems like a large enough number of agencies that success should all but guaranteed. After all, I only need one, right?

Well, the likelihood of at least one agency accepting me as a client depends upon two things: the probability of being accepted by each individual agency, and the extent to which those probabilities are statistically independent; the latter being a fancy way to ask whether being turned down by one agency implies being turned down by other agencies.

Being of a quantitative bent, I calculated this probability as best I could, primarily to reassure myself as the days, weeks and months passed. To simplify matters, I assumed a constant probability of acceptance across all agencies AND the decision Agency A makes has nothing to do with the decision Agency B makes which has nothing to do with the decision Agency C makes…and so forth.

These are not great assumptions: it was obvious I fit better with some agencies than with others, meaning my probability of acceptance likely varied across the agencies. And while the agencies themselves want to you think each makes its own “highly subjective” (to quote nearly every rejection e-mail) decisions regarding new clients, the reality – apparent from a close reading of agent wish lists, emphasizing diverse voices, indifference to “serious” non-fiction, pre-existing platforms, “similar” (high sales) books and the constant refrain of how many queries each receives – is that nearly every agency is approaching those queries through a broadly similar lens.

Still, as a first approximation, we use this formula:

P(Acceptance by 1 or more agencies) = 1 – (1-p)n,

…where p is the probability of being accepted by any given agency, and n is the number of “trials,” in this case 100.

Going into this process, I naively thought my educational background (“I am an EXPERT!”) and the fact of completion (“No worries about me not finishing here!”) would boost my chances. Maybe to, you know, 1 in 100 – or p=0.01.

Well, that translates to a P of 63.4%. Even with 100 queries, the odds were only about 5:3 in my favor.

Lowering my expectations to p=0.005 – 1 in 200 – lowers P to just 39.4%, or about 3:2 against.

Lowering them further to the more realistic levels I should have understood in February (or in July 2017):

At p=0.001, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0005, P=4.9%.

At p=0.0001, P=1.0%.

And so on.

Now, this is when the bluntly American “can-do” mindset responds with “Well, then, you need to keep querying agencies.”

And that is not unreasonable. Except, I had just queried (excepting one with no e-mail address) every agency in WRITER’S MARKET 2019 that met my basic criteria: no reading fees, represents adult non-fiction, accepting new clients.

It can seem noble never to accept failure – to keep trying despite the long odds one faces because there is nothing we cannot do if we blah blah blah – but math does not lie.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

But, for the sake of argument, let us say I found 100 more agencies to query. Here are the corresponding increases in P:

At p=0.01, P=86.6% (still 13.4% chance of failure).

At p=0.005, P=63.3% (still 36.7% chance of failure).

At p=0.001, P=18.1%.

At p=0.0005, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0001, P=2.0%.

You get the idea. Even at the rose-colored glasses probability of 1% and 200 queries, the probability of at least one acceptance is only slightly better than Hillary Clinton’s chances of beating Donald J. Trump going into Election Day 2016.

Clinton lost that election.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

**********

But, of course, so is success. There will always be a non-zero probability of both outcomes, no matter how much we – and, again, this is a particularly American perspective – try to “round” to 0 and 1.

Besides, all of this math – as wonderful as math is – misses the larger point: successes sometimes turn out to be failures, and failures sometimes turn out to be successes – at least when considered in the future.

Here are two examples from my own life – I encourage you to do the same with your own lives – where “success” and “failure” proved remarkably fluid.

  1. The unfinished doctorate.

In May 1988, I graduated with a BA in political science from Yale University. That September, I began a one-year stint as a Research Assistant in the Government Department at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. I had enjoyed an unpaid internship there two summers earlier, so I was excited return for a salaried position – my first full-top “adult” job.

I hated it from day one; the success of getting the job later became a clear failure when I was let go the following May. Long before then, though, I had applied to five doctoral programs in government – University of California Berkeley, Harvard, University of Michigan, Stanford, Yale – and been accepted, with generous financial incentives, at all five of them.

Wow, I thought, I am set. Like, golden.

I chose Harvard, moving to the Boston suburb of Somerville in late August. For the first two years, I loved being at Harvard – my fellow students were both impressive and friendly, the classes were excellent, and I felt as home as I had my first few days at Yale.

But as oral and written examinations loomed in early June 1991 – ending the master’s degree portion of the program – something imperceptibly shifted. My romantic life was a bit of a mess, for one thing. Also, I had miscalculated at the end of 1990, when it was the turn of the students who had enrolled at the same time as me to provide the entertainment for the holiday party. We decided to use Saturday Night Live as the frame for our skits – complete with guest host monologue.

In a truly “what the hell was I thinking?” moment, I decided I would deliver the monologue as my academic advisor, Professor Gary King, who had just achieved full tenure at the age of 30. It was a fairly gentle bit of mockery – revolving him stopping wearing ties once he received tenure – but, in retrospect, it may have been unwise to satirize the soon-to-be-chair of my doctoral committee. Next thing I know, I barely pass my examinations – to this day, I think Gary blindsided me during the oral exams when he questioned me about my chosen area of interest, electoral geography.

Still, I put together a doctoral committee – including friend and mentor, Yale Professor David Mayhew – and wrote a dissertation proposal. It was accepted, and I set to work collecting data – even driving to Concord, NH in May 1992 to photocopy town-level results from that state’s 1976 presidential primaries. I wrote some early chapters.

But the joy was vanishing. I had difficulty translating my theory of “differential trait salience”[1] into mathematical models – and articulating it to my committee and fellow students. Moreover, I insisted on applying this model not to general elections – with their highly stable and complete data – but to presidential primary elections – with their highly unstable and incomplete data. I rationalized my creeping sense of failure by quipping bitterly, “Gary’s idea of advising is: go off, do some stuff, bring it back to me, and I’ll tell you why it’s wrong.”

This was garbage, by the way. King was an excellent – albeit socially awkward – political scientist and teacher. I was just not ready to listen, lacking maturity, humility and discipline. It is also likely my yet-to-be-diagnosed depression was kicking in – or kicking in harder – and I began to spend a lot of time in this excellent restaurant only two blocks from my apartment:

As I write in Chapter 11 (A Film Noir Fan is Born), “Credit card receipts reveal I spent at least $418.94 in 1991, $856.40 in 1992 and $554.79 in the first six months of 1993 there; the sum of $1,830.13 equates to $3,335 in 2019—on a modest academic stipend supplemented by teaching and research assistant work.” Self-medicating, much?

A temporary reprieve from my misery came late in June 1993, when there was a knock on the door that opened from the second-floor apartment I shared with three other 20-somethings onto the interior stairwell of our Somerville triple-decker. Two attractive younger women stood there. I recognized the one on the left as one of the female Harvard seniors who had just moved into the third floor apartment for the summer. The one on the right (one of her roommates) – an adorable brunette of just below medium height wearing glasses and a t-shirt advertising Squeeze’s Babylon and On tour – I recognized from the Greenhouse Café in the Science Center. In fact, almost as soon as I opened the door, I pointed to her, smiled and said, “I know you.”

I do not remember what they needed, but within a few days, the Squeeze fan and I had begun to date. To say she saved my life is overly melodramatic, but our rapidly progressing relationship gave me the strength to make one last push to complete my dissertation. Early the following year, I applied for – and received – a Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant. I even began to “joke” to – well, Nell calls her my first wife, so let’s go with that – “Got the Mellon, can’t elope.”

But it was all for naught. In the spring of 1995, after a disastrous search for a university teaching position,[2] I made the hardest decision of my life: to resign, ABD, from Harvard. My last-ever day as a doctoral student – or so I thought – was June 30, 1995.

For the next decade or so, I thought of this – and, in a way, the seven years prior to it – as the greatest failure of my life. Heck, I did not even have a Master’s Degree to show for it, despite completed the requirements; in the spring of 2015, I finally received that A.M.

Here is the thing, though. I am now thrilled I did not pursue an academic career in political science. Does the end of my six years at Harvard still sting? Absolutely. But do I regret not having to deal with the “publish or perish” nature of academia, with its petty squabbles and bureaucratic nonsense. Heck yes!

Even as I was ending my time at Harvard, first-wife and I found an apartment just a few blocks from the triple-decker we had briefly shared. We moved in over the summer; she had since graduated Harvard and enrolled in a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she focused on atmospheric chemistry, earning her doctorate in four years. Not only is she one of the warmest people I have ever known, she is one of the most brilliant.

That summer, I worked a mundane data analysis job, and I was happier than I had been in years. After a disastrous stint in the Registrar’s Office at Brandeis University, in early October 1996 I landed my first health-related data analysis job at now-defunct Health and Addictions Research Inc. (“HARI”) in downtown Boston. This launched a six-position, 19-year career – ending in June 2015. Even with its abrupt end, I am immensely proud of this career – and the long-term friendships it yielded. But this professional “success” only happened because I “failed” to obtain a doctorate at Harvard.

2. Selling my mother’s condominium

On the evening of August 11, 2004, I stepped from the SEPTA commuter train onto the Radnor station platform. Descending the few steps to the parking lot where I had left my car that morning, I noticed some police officers clustered near my car. Walking closer, I realized they were standing by my car. As I approached, one asked if this was my car. Yes, I replied. That is when I understood someone had broken into my car – literally bending back the front passenger side window of my Buick Century from its rubber frame – and stolen the radio and some other ephemera. They eventually arrested the thief, and I testified against him in court, but did not recover my stolen property.

That weird, roller coaster day – I had had a terrible ice cream date then met a fascinating young woman while waiting for that very same train in Suburban Station – was the low point of one of the lowest periods of my life.

Backing up slightly, after meeting the woman whose gift opens this essay, I ended my relationship with first-wife in late November 2000. Yes, this was cause and effect. In early February 2001, I returned to Philadelphia. Four months later, I began a series of increasingly-important positions in the Research Department of what was then called the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”), the best professional profession I have ever had. The next few years exemplified “lucky in money, unlucky in love.” Gift-woman and I pursued a tempestuous, ill-defined long-distance friendship/romance that confused everyone, even us. This surrounded short-term flings that went nowhere.

Still, things looked promising early in 2003. I moved into the King of Prussia apartment, I was earning a good living, and the Phillies showed promise after some great off-season moves. But just one year later, in early January, my mother’s ovarian cancer returned with a vengeance. On March 1, 2004 – after a few weeks of hospice – Elaine Kohn Berger died at the age of 66. At the tender age of 37, I was an orphan.

Grief does strange things to people. On the day of my mother’s funeral – when I apparently drank most of a bottle of whisky, prompting a friend of my stepfather Eddie nicknamed Yo to declare, “If you try to drive home, I’ll rip out your fucking distributor cap” – my stepfather’s married step-granddaughter (my step-step-niece?) was clearly trying to seduce me. OK, I was not exactly fending off her advances; she was wicked hot. Nothing – much – happened, though she did put a bug in my ear about needing to cut bait and get on with my life. Realizing she was – not wrong – I ended my relationship with gift-woman in the most brutal telephone conversation I have ever had. I lied about my feelings, among other things. Even now, as I write this, I am filled with regret. Not that I ended the relationship, but the utter cruelty with which I did so.

And while all that unfolded, I was trying to settle my mother’s estate. For her own reasons, she had made Eddie and me co-executors. Embittered – and jealous of my relationship with my mother – Eddie decided to contest the will. He hired a lawyer, I hired a lawyer – and a 16-month ordeal began. The sticking point was a condominium my mother owned. She was living there when she and Eddie began dating around 1994 or so. They married in 1997, but my mother continued to earn rent from the condominium. When she died, I began to collect that rent – clearing $1,100 a month. I do not really understand why this made Eddie so upset – maybe grief, maybe the brain tumor that felled him a few years later – but he would not relent.

Flash forward to early December 2004. Yet another short-term relationship had come to a crashing halt, and I was beginning to see the writing on the wall at FPC – they were going in a more qualitative direction, my beloved projects were ending, and there was no room for me to advance. Meanwhile, trips to western Massachusetts the previous two summers had reminded me how much I missed the Boston area.

Even though I had done nothing wrong – other than be an absolute jerk to a woman I loved, for the second time in four years – I felt like an utter failure, trapped and lonely.

Then, soaking in the bathtub one Friday night, I had a brainstorm: why not sell the condominium, split the profits and end the standoff? With my proceeds, I could move to Boston, study biostatistics or epidemiology – maybe finally get that damned doctorate.

I presented the idea to my lawyer, who presented it to Eddie’s lawyer, who presented it to Eddie. Who – to everyone’s astonishment – agreed.

Huzzah! I cried, if only metaphorically.

The first six months of 2005 are a blur now – other than feeling absolute liberation and optimism. The condominium sold fairly quickly. I narrowed my choices to two schools of public health: Harvard, which seemed a bad idea, and Boston University (“BUSPH”), about which I had heard good things at a HARI reunion the previous summer. I arranged to retake my GRE’s. Having missed the deadline to apply to their epidemiology doctoral program, I applied to the one in biostatistics. Deciding I had been away from “higher math” too long, I was instead accepted into their master’s program. Which was fine; the process would just take a few years longer.

In March, a chance meeting at my local laundromat turned into a much-needed, if necessarily short-term, romance. I literally told her “I am moving to Boston in September” within minutes of meeting her. Looking back, she was the perfect transition relationship – even if she did move to Boston a few months after I did. That got – weird, though only briefly.

On June 30, 1995 I tearfully ended my game-changing four years at FPC. In August, I drove to Boston to find a new apartment, settling on a complex in Waltham not that different from the one in King of Prussia. Having not yet received my share of the settlement, though, I was forced to borrow the necessary first-last-security deposit payments from a close Yale friend. He graciously obliged.

Finally, at the end of August, I drove to a lawyer’s office in Philadelphia, where I was given a check for – let’s just say it was low six-digits. I immediately paid off – well, my Yale friend – my student loan debts and three credit cards, keeping only the Discover Card. It pays you back, you know.

The rest is wonderful, serendipitous history. Four days after moving to Waltham (with laundromat-woman) – hiring a moving company for the first time – the used Buick Century Eddie had given me when I moved to Philadelphia died. On September 6, I wrote a check for something like $34,000 to Cambridge Honda so I could drive away in a brand new black 2005 Honda Accord. Still in great shape, I hope to pass it on to our older daughter in a few years. I settled happily into my new classes, though I had to drop one – four was just too many; I finished the MA in three semesters, not two, as I had planned.

And on Halloween night 2005, a radiant elementary school teacher named Nell wrote to me on Friendster – and that is how I met my wife. She pretty much had me when she used “Persiflage” as the subject of her first e-mail to me.

In short, had I not reached a point of utter despair – grieving the loss of two women I loved, sensing the end of my most rewarding professional job, seeing no end to the fight with my stepfather – I would not have made the drastic, albeit smart in retrospect, decision to sell my mother’s condominium. Had I not made that decision, I would not have returned to Boston, earned both an MA and a PhD, bought my beloved Honda and met my astonishing wife. And without Nell, there are no incredible daughters.

And no Just Bear With Me…or Interrogating Memory.

Failure may always be an option, but it can also have a way of leading to successes, just as seeming successes can end up feeling like failures.

Now, back to the work of getting my book published!

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Essentially, the idea that the overall demographic composition of a geographic area – a state, a county, a Congressional district – determined which demographic traits were most politically salient within an individual. This acknowledged that each of us has a race AND an ethnicity AND a socioeconomic status AND a religion (or no religion) AND an age AND a marital status AND an education level AND so forth. More often than not, race is the primary predictor of partisanship. But if an area is, say, 95+% Non-Hispanic White then a trait like education level or religion might be the primary predictor. Or something like that – I have not thought deeply about in more than 25 years.

[2] The disastrous – at least for a tried-and-true Democrat like me – 1994 midterm elections hurt as well. I realized how difficult it was going to be to separate my strong partisan lean from my need for professional objectivity.

Moving, Non-Publication…and Dada?

I rarely break the fourth wall here: personal stories I tell are usually contextualized within some larger theme, like interrogating memory.

Today, however, I speak directly to you – to explain why, after 16 posts in 3½ months, I have not posted since June 25. I will not, however, explain why I did not post at all between November 17, 2020 and March 8, 2021 – other than to say I was burned out from the 2020 elections, finishing my book (see below) and dealing with some serious family health issues.

On March 14, 2021, meanwhile, the owners of the two floors of a Brookline house we had called home since August 2018 – informed us they were selling the unit and we had to vacate by June 30. My wife Nell, who had skillfully located our prior two apartments, put her mind to the task of finding a new apartment. She succeeded brilliantly: our new home, two floors in Brookline much closer to our daughters’ middle school, is a little bit of very spectacular. We both feel liberated by the move for reasons we are still deciphering.

My task, meanwhile, was to start another purge. Nell’s mother moved to Memory Care at her senior living center in March 2020, precipitating the cleaning out of her small apartment. Moreover, Nell had moved her from a packed brownstone in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC nearly seven years earlier. A rented storage unit helped us manage this influx of stuff – a combination of high-value antiques and the normal detritus of 70+ years of living.

Still, unneeded stuff was strewn throughout our spacious half of the basement, so that is where I began to make things disappear, after which I proceeded to the apartment itself. Some disappearance was via normal trash pickup, some via these kind folks, and some…suffice to say I know where the nearest industrial-sized trash bins are. In the end, we removed at least 40 large green trash bags filled with stuff from our home. At the same time, large piles of books, clothes and dishes made their way to stores and Red Cross bins. And Nell contacted purchasers of antique silver and furniture, who seized upon much of it, some of which we transported in a rented U-Haul van with poor shock absorbers – our eldest daughter has vowed never to travel this way again – on a particularly hot and sunny June Saturday. Not all of it, but enough to make our actual move a little bit easier.

To wit, we cannot sing the praises of Gentle Giant movers enough. After a few weeks of packing, four strong handsome men arrived at our apartment with TWO trucks early on the morning of July 1. It took them nearly 10 hours to pack some final things, load their trucks, then unload them in our new apartment, but not once did they lose their sense of humor, their good nature or their camaraderie. They politely placed anything where we requested – including up and down numerous flights of stairs. They were professionals in the very best sense of the term, and they did not charge us nearly as much as we had feared.

Our younger daughter – who gets very anxious with substantive change – stayed with a cousin for a few nights, while Nell, older daughter and I set to work constructing our new home. The three ladies (our beloved golden retriever Ruby died from lymphoma at the end of April, a few weeks before her seventh birthday) then departed for the family home on Martha’s Vineyard on July 6. Over the next 10 days, meanwhile, I finished the last 90% of the “construction,” loudly singing to iPod playlists blasted through computer speakers as I unpacked – then deconstructed before tossing them into a special bin in Brookline – box after box after box. I repositioned bookcases, ordered and shelved a few thousand books, washed glasses, rearranged the kitchen multiple times, collected like items into one place…and so forth. I essentially completed the job two days ago, with only a few old bins of clothing left to explore – or not.

There is absolutely no rush at this point. And I will leave most of our artwork – including eight pieces we never unpacked in our last apartment – for Nell and her stud finder to hang. The piece we most missed the last three years is this self-portrait of my cousin, the artist Lois Lane. Yes, Ervin and Celia Lane named their only daughter Lois back in the 1940s; her husband’s last name, Bark, improves matters only slightly.

But having finally constructed our apartment, it is time for me to get back to my regular job – writing.

**********

The other thing I have done this year is query literary agents about publishing my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. A well-worn copy of WRITER’S MARKET 2019 (“WM2019”) informed me most mass-market publishers no longer accept submissions directly from authors. Instead, prospective authors contract with an agent to do that work for them. Why this changed, I do not know, but Christopher Vyce of the Brattle Agency pithily summed up what this new “rule” has done to literary agencies.

Thank you for your interest in the Brattle Agency. Since the founding of the agency in 2008, the Brattle Agency has prided itself on accepting unsolicited submissions for consideration. The industry is founded on discoveries. There are many great writers out there who have never had an agent or somehow escaped an agent’s radar and that was why we were always interested in hearing from prospective clients. Unfortunately, the industry has changed in that nearly no publisher will accept a manuscript unless it is submitted to them by an agent. This institutional change has meant that nearly every hopeful writer has had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to secure an agent to start (or in a few cases further) their career. That has led to a tsunami of submissions to the pool of agents who are willing to read and evaluate unsolicited proposals. That tsunami has engulfed the Brattle Agency. On any given day our inbox of submissions numbers in the hundreds. It is untenable. It has to change.

Between February 5 and May 12, I submitted 100 queries, using the list in WM2019 –members of the Association of Author Representatives (i.e., do not charge “reading fees”) who represent non-fiction writers and are open to new submissions. As Mr. Vyce predicted, I spent an inordinate amount of time drafting these queries – there is little-to-no query uniformity across literary agencies.

As of this writing, I have been formally turned down by 22 of them – including Brattle; Mr. Vyce, as did nearly all of the other rejecting agents, wrote an encouraging note emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of the process. One agent, though, was remarkably rude, writing “Hi, Matt, normally when I read a proposal I have a lot of ideas about where to take the project. In your case, I have none.” Ouch!

Nonetheless, these were the “polite” agencies, those that took the time to e-mail even a form-letter rejection. I have passed the “if you don’t hear from us by…” date for an additional 68 agencies. A further four allow you to follow-up or contact a new agent after a certain date; I will do so shortly. That leaves only six other agencies who are still “in the running,” one of which has apparently not yet made a decision about my query after 151 days. Like every reputable literary agency, they are trying to dig themselves out of an avalanche of queries – and so it is still possible those deadlines are extremely loose, and I will finally hear something positive from one or more agents soon.

I am not holding my breath, however. In fact, I am already brainstorming how to get this book published – I believe that strongly in it – without a traditional literary agent. Assuming that is possible; I may eventually have to accept the fact it is not.

Back in early April, when I could first sense finding a literary agent was going to be challenging, I began to write a post in which I ruminated on the nature of failure. In this still-unfinished post, I primarily critiqued the absurd, particularly American notion that if you somehow keep trying just a little harder, you can achieve anything.

Horse manure.

There are often profound structural barriers that prevent even the most talented and “deserving” persons from achieving their goals. Reading dozens of loose descriptions of what agents – the vast majority of whom are female, interestingly – seek to represent, few were a good fit for me: an Ivy-League-educated cisgender white heterosexual male in his 50s raised in the suburbs of a northeastern American city.

Bor-ing! I can hear them cry.

Now, given the deliberate vagueness of the 22 formal rejections, I do not know with any certainty why any given agent declined to represent me. The most direct answer is a nicer version of “I have no idea where to take this book”: s/he simply could not figure out a way to market a 400-page book about Jewish immigrants to West Philadelphia, the backstory of my adoption and genetic families, film noir and my suburban childhood – complete with dozens of illustrations, three appendices and 30 pages of endnotes – to a mass-market publisher. I had not realized, for example, going into this process that having a large, preexisting platform from which to promote your book is apparently a prerequisite for publication. It sort of strikes me that is the job of publishing house Marketing Departments – and is yet one more example of the rich getting richer.

As an aside, the formal proposal question with which I struggled the most related to “similar works published in the last few years.” Huh? When I began to write Interrogating Memory in July 2017, I was simply telling a related set of cool stories, stories illustrating what an epistemically-sound critical thinking approach to one’s own life can yield. Because, wow, did I learn some stuff – both new stories and debunked old stories. But I did not set out to write another “XXX” book, I set out to write the first “Matthew Berger” book. Now, I was certainly heavily influenced by a wide range of books – some relatively recent, some dating back to the 1970s. I discussed those books, of course, none of which were massive sellers – but the clear subtext of the question was not lost on me: we only want books guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies.

The point is, I did not start with a marketing strategy, I started with an idea: turn this essay about why I love film noir into a full-length book. I then wrote the book that resulted from that process. It is, if I may say so, an excellent book. But it was not designed with readers in mind, not sales. And, to be fair, I do see a market for this book, as I summarized in many of my query letters:

Interrogating Memory is both objective history and deeply personal, informed by a meticulous curiosity and rigorous academic training. It is a love letter to investigation, film noir, Philadelphia, Judaism, true crime, the immigrant American experience and, of course, my families. While fans of these specific topics–and presumably of my families–will enjoy it, so will a wider audience, drawn to its core conceit: every life is fascinating when framed properly and investigated thoroughly. 

I do not want to sound bitter; I am not. Rather I feel frustrated and let down by a broken system. I recognize that traditional publishing – hardbound books sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores or online – is being challenged on many sides. I also recognize we live in a time when diversity is being actively sought; this is an excellent thing. I represent the very opposite of that diversity – simply put, my timing stinks. I could also argue – as I may do in a later post – that fiction and what I might term “coffee table non-fiction” (celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, pop psychology, self-help, etc.) is vastly more popular with mass market publishers than more serious non-fiction. Not that Interrogating Memory is especially academic or ponderous. Quite the opposite: it is eminently readable, despite its emphasis on careful research and critical thinking. If anything, it may not be rigorous enough for the university presses who typically publish this type of non-fiction. To be fair, I do not know that my book is not right for these presses, as I do not know if the literary agents I have thus far queried typically interact with those presses.

Still, for now, I appear to be caught betwixt and between – too non-diverse for literary agents, too academic for mass-market publishers, not academic enough for the university presses and unwilling to self-publish. Having devoted 3½ years of my life to this book, I want the full backing of a reputable publisher, even if that publisher is relatively small.

Well, and it is now a matter of pride – this has become personal.

**********

So…what does ANY of this have to with the early-20th-century artistic movement known as Dadaism? Perhaps nothing at all, which would please the original Dadaists.

Dadaism – a kind of anti-art – emerged in February 1916 when five artists from France, Germany and Romania, all fleeing the horrors of World War I, converged in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. Disgusted both by the unprecedented carnage of the war and by the establishment “rules” that led to it, they designed an art that was in opposition to war, to traditional rules – in many ways to art itself. In a world where suddenly nothing made sense, where traditional ways of thinking had led to millions of pointless deaths, the idea of “making sense” seemed pointless. These five artists opened the Cabaret Voltaire, where – among other things – they dressed in paper outfits, read absurdist poetry and engaged in Dadaist soirees. “Dada” is itself a nonsense word whose origins are obscure.

It is one of the great personal ironies that I, a highly-trained researcher who just wrote a paean to critical thinking and who revels in a kind of ritualized order and structure, have always been particularly drawn to art influenced by Dadaism and its immediate successor, surrealism – art that defies rational, conscious structure and meaning. To begin with, my cousin Lois’s work is clearly Dadaist-influenced. From a young age, meanwhile, I was drawn to Salvador Dali (“borrowing” a book about him from my maternal grandmother) then to Man Ray. I have long loved the comedy of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python – heavily reliant on non-sequiturs, bizarre juxtapositions and joyous anarchy – and, more recently, anything directed by David Lynch. Animator Terry Gilliam, the lone American-born member of the Python troupe, is clearly influenced by the photomontage style pioneered by the Dadaists. As for Lynch, easily my favorite director not named Alfred Hitchcock, his work explores the buried, the hidden – the unconscious, as the surrealists would call it – within the everyday. And his penchant for letting ideas lead where they will is extremely Dadaist, as we shall see. Finally, one of the best books we ever bought for our children reflected the surrealist art of Rene Magritte.

I myself have mastered a kind of Dadaist sense of humor.  I love to intentionally mishear things, replacing the banal with the absurd – even going so far as to say, “Nah, my version is funnier.” I sometimes vocalize a series of ululations of varying volume, pitch and tone and call it “opera;” one such opera apparently glorifies the Treaty of Ghent. And, in December 2019, I constructed what I called “a surrealist epic” poem: a sampling of lyrics from every track on that year’s Thanksgiving clean-up playlist. In retrospect, given that it repurposed existing art into a new piece of art, it is actually Dadaist, not surrealist.

The point is that I am drawn to art that challenges my ordered, button-down nature, ignoring and even disdaining artistic “rules.” I did not even mention the avant-garde music of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and cinema of Koyaanisqatsi. I love all of it.

One could also point out that I am…dissatisfied…with the “rules” and processes surrounding contemporary publishing. While I am not yet prepared to tear down the process and publish my book in some yet-to-be-determined non-traditional way, I am determined to get Interrogating Memory into the hands of anyone willing to pay a reasonable cost.

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All of which brings me to my late-night viewing habits.

Writing Interrogating Memory, I got into the habit of starting to work around 10 or 11 pm, once the rest of the family had gone to sleep. After working a few hours, I would crash on the sofa in front of YouTube – on our big screen HD television – to watch informative videos. Even my relaxation is somewhat educational.

Recently, I have been delving deeper into film history beyond film noir, which is how I discovered excellent channels like Cinema Cartography, 100 Years of Cinema…and Crash Course Film History. Meanwhile, when I was unpacking my books, I rediscovered Mel Gordon’s terrific history of the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. This led me to videos about the Grand Guignol – this one is particularly good – and to Crash Course Theater; Episode 35 is about the Grand Guignol.

It was only a matter of time until I watched the episode (#37) about Dadaism, Surrealism and Structuralism – and here we are. One thing I learned is that in 1920, Tristan Tzara wrote his rules for constructing Dadaist poetry.

TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

For the record, I do not thing anyone who reads my posts is in any way part of “the vulgar herd.”

Having finally constructed our apartment, I decided to entertain myself by applying Tzara’s rules to song lyrics, replacing the hat with a random number generator – this is still a data-driven website. Likely because it has been one of my favorite songs for more than 40 years, I chose “Him” by Rupert Holmes (excerpt from Chapter 10: Night Driving):

“Between my window and the walkway was a small outdoor patio bounded by a rough semi-circle of five walls, alternating brick wood brick wood brick, each about six feet high. Female-first-cousin and I clambered over these walls one night before we moved in. In my memory, Rupert Holmes’ “Him”—still a favorite—plays in the background; one year later, on March 28, 1981, male-first-cousin and I sat near the stage during his performance at the Host Farm Cabaret—my second-ever concert.”[1]

You may find the actual lyrics here. And let me make clear I mean no disrespect to Mr. Holmes, one of my artistic heroes.

To construct the poem, I copied the lyrics into Word then made sure there was only one word per line. Next, I copied the 288 words into Excel. Using the random number generator on my iPhone calculator – dividing each number by 3.47222 to scale values from 0.001 to 0.288, I selected each word below. If I repeated a number, I chose the nearest word – going down one for the first 144 words and up one for the last 144 words when given the choice.

This is what I created – my first Dadaist poem, although the punctuation and line breaks may be verboten:

Leaves about or stays without

Have she?

Ooh!

Let know, for I don’t…it’s…is…it…

Not forgets…don’t do…let about who, for to time

Don’t!

By can, it’s gonna

Girl, how…what’s to him, say him, do, make.

I, with.

Not free, it free, me have her time.

Him gonna, it’s she one, him…him…him wants to.

The…what’s, or do, of to, with her, we get, or do

Goodbye is left – both get without

Hide ways – the?

Me, him, him wants, she once – sometimes him, him do

Of me, a window stays or gonna do the…free him!

It’s gonna…and…and me – it, three?

It can’t, without there’s…without over

Pack cigarettes, many

His have, she without too, me me

To mine, it get she those blind

Who thought – like – she’s without us, him

For him, gonna me, him to, to he, him…or gonna him!

Gets – or gonna – NO!

She’s me, them one, it’s…it’s…him?

Gets do my without back – what’s do?

She’s were…ooh…OOH!

One, the…I…him…free

It’s about do me – I is brand

You, but I’ll understand…to know

Ooh…him…HIM!

To…what’s gets him for

Ooh…I’m me

Want forgets see have…if one

Ooh…she – and smokes him – she want, get, have

Would to…to own her?

Ooh…friend do!

I, I, me…behind him

Ooh…that why know looks?

Just he…oh!

Ooh…me, what’s me without, exactly?

What she’ll know don’t me for…or…or say

For to he, she gonna him or/and do to me…me!

Gets? No to one…no girl, see it’s she

Me, a…me, ah…do about him?

She’s me without – have just, he’s…no

To make girl, it’s me.

Until next time, please by safe and healthy…and get vaccinated if you have not already done so!


[1] Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA), March 13, 1981, pg. 17