…In which I perform a Ron Rosenbaum on Ron Rosenbaum.

Ron Rosenbaum, who writes an occasional column for Slate.com, exemplifies that species of criticism that I complained about a while back, the kind that is altogether too angry about its subject, to the degree that you worry for the author’s cardiovascular health. In recent months Rosenbaum has fulminated against:

Granted, the Billy Joel and crossword puzzle pieces were intended to be humourous – I think – but that doesn’t excuse the chainsaw zeal Rosenbaum brings to levelling his midget foes. I mean, crossword puzzlers?

I’m waiting for Rosenbaum’s devastating attack on little old ladies who keep cats. In the meantime, he has written this article on nuclear war in popular literature. (I didn’t read the entire piece, warned off by a spoiler warning for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road near the end.) I have to admit to occasionally enjoying Rosenbaum’s writing, at least when he has taken his mood stabilizers, and this is an interesting article. But I think as usual he overstates his case; his case being that there is a definable genre of “second-generation nuke lit” that is more graphically pornographic – in the sense of violence-as-pornography – than earlier novels about nuclear war. He writes:

Instead of the anticipatory excitement (Fail-Safe, Strangelove) or the post-coital tristesse (On the Beach) of First Era nuke porn, we get real-time blast-burns and melting flesh.

To back him up, Rosenbaum musters a two-man lineup of modern-day airport thrillers: Critical Mass by Whitley Strieber and One Second After by William A. Forstchen. Then he wanders off down The Road, where I cannot follow.

I’m guessing that the germ of the article was this yucky scene of nuke-melted flesh that Rosenbaum found in the Strieber book:

[O]ne could say that a girl called Sally Glass feigned a moan of pleasure in the bed of a man whose soul was tired and found that the man’s face spattered her like hot grease.

Rosenbaum points out that “spattering is a common term for the money shot in porn of the filmed or literary variety.” Maybe so. But Strieber’s money shot is hardly new to the genre. You can’t get much more hardcore than Philip Wylie, writing in Tomorrow! (1954):

Ruth Williams still carried her dead baby. Its insides had come through its back, slowly, as she walked, and finally they’d jiggled so loose and slack that she stepped on them now and again.

Or (a different woman, a different baby):

[H]er insides must have popped. At least, she was sitting in a great puddle of blood, trying – his gelid eyes saw – to push things back inside her. But what stopped Ted was the fact that her organs seemed to be moving with a convulsive, blood-camouflaged, separate life. She kept pushing them against the rent across her abdomen and all of a sudden the biggest object let out a blat and Ted knew what it was: a baby, unborn – born, rather, right then, when she had stood up to run out – and the woman was trying to get it back within herself …

philip wylie tomorrow

Wylie’s Triumph (1963) has more scenes of carnage, which I quoted in an earlier post.

I can’t say that Rosenbaum is wrong – he never claims that Whitley Strieber is the first nuclear pornographer to deploy scenes of melting flesh – but he doesn’t give enough examples to support his claim that “the genre has entered a new era”. On the basis of such limited evidence it seems to me that the new nuke porn is pretty much like the old.

At the risk of committing the kind of thesis creep that causes Rosenbaum to turn three seemingly dissimilar novels into “literary canaries in the dark coal mines of our paranoia”, I’d say that the nuke porn article is characteristic of the Rosenbaum style: he takes a little ember of aggrievement (the supposed smugness of crossword puzzle-solvers, the continued semi-popularity of Billy Joel, the spattered face of Sally Glass) and he huffs and puffs until he’s blown it up to a thousand words or so.

Done right, this can be a lot of fun. I was just reading the new article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, and marvelling at the way he can rig a flotsam of anecdotes into a seaworthy whole. Gladwell’s article is about David-versus-Goliath contests: underdogs, he says, overcome superior foes when they adopt non-conventional strategies, but often they throw away their best chance of winning because of internalised social pressure to “play by the rules”.

Gladwell seems to be extending the argument he made in Outliers, that what we call genius is really the product of old-fashioned elbow grease, available to everyone. Talentless scrappers like the Redwood City junior girl’s basketball team, he demonstrates, can humiliate athletes with superior innate skills – if they’re willing to put in the effort.

Rosenbaum’s article illustrates the opposite case. While Gladwell floats downstream on the river of his inspiration, Rosenbaum, for all his huffing and puffing, can’t get his dinghy to float.


Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker