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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
Let know, for I don’t…it’s…is…it…
Not forgets…don’t do…let about who, for to time
By can, it’s gonna
Girl, how…what’s to him, say him, do, make.
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?
It’s about do me – I is brand
You, but I’ll understand…to know
To…what’s gets him for
Want forgets see have…if one
Ooh…she – and smokes him – she want, get, have
Would to…to own her?
I, I, me…behind him
Ooh…that why know looks?
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!
 Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA), March 13, 1981, pg. 17