Visting professor seeks obsessed writers

By Eric Benson

No one seems to know exactly how to categorize Ron Rosenbaum, the incoming Vare Writer-in-Residence at the University. Is he a narrative journalist, a creative nonfiction writer, or a cultural essayist and critic? Whatever you call him, it’s clear that Rosenbaum’s idiosyncratic and diverse career defies journalistic orthodoxy, moving—often in the same piece—between first and third person and between speculative and investigative writing. Over the past four decades, he has written deep historical research (his 1998 book Explaining Hitler), in-depth reporting (dozens of lengthy investigative stories including one of the first exposés on Yale’s Skull & Bones), and opinionated polemics (the “Edgy Enthusiast,” his longtime column for The New York Observer). While Rosenbaum’s work spans across a multitude of journalistic traditions, he sees a unifying structure, or at least a driving force, in his polymath output.

“I think what transcends first person versus third person for me…is storytelling. The storytelling impulse, the ability to shape even a cultural essay into a kind of story, one that begins with a question, follows a trail, comes to a conclusion and a conflict. I think there’s something almost genetic in people that responds to storytelling, and it’s always something that I think is the most important thing that distinguishes writing of the kind that I’m talking about from term papers, distinguishes writing of the kind I’m talking about from many academic works—[it’s] the effort to shape a narrative.”

This spring, Rosenbaum will teach a course entitled, “Never Too Soon: Getting Your First Book Underway,” which seeks to help students “identify and develop their own ideas into a book magazine piece with book potential, a persuasive first chapter, or a detailed book proposal that has a chance of finding a publisher.” With the decline of long-form narrative journalism in magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone—which helped foster the careers of “New Journalism” writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson—Rosenbaum sees short books as the best avenue in which to pursue the kind of nonfiction writing that combines cultural insight with inventive storytelling.

“I don’t know whether to call [these kind of books] long-form nonfiction anymore, or short-form books,” Rosenbaum said. “But it’s the kind of book I like to read, and I feel like—I know—that there are a number of young writers—ambitious, talented—who’ve managed to make the leap from a brilliant book proposal, or perhaps a magazine article, or a smart chapter, or something like that, to get a book contract. And then they’re on their way.”

Rosenbaum cites works like Laura Kipnis’s Against Love, Susan Orleans’s The Orchid Thief, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Families, and former Vare Writer-in-Residence David Hadju’s Postitively Fourth Street as some of the finest and best known examples of this genre of snappy-yet-serious nonfiction books.

Indeed, Rosenbaum’s instincts on the desirability of these books have proved dead-on at least once. Harry Bruinius, one of Rosenbaum’s students at Columbia’s Journalism School, recently published Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity, a work that serves as an example of the kind of writing that Rosenbaum seeks out and teaches.

While Rosenbaum champions these kinds of books, there is by no means a consensus in the journalistic establishment that narrative cultural essays are the best way, or even a particularly valid way, to approach society’s problems and issues. In several articles and comments, Rosenbaum has fought back against what he calls “unwarranted, ungrounded prejudice” against first-person, narrative-based journalism by the champions of “hard news”—the conventional brand of reporting that privileges sober third-person accounts of political, economic, and corporate issues. Rosenbaum is not opposed to this kind of journalism; indeed, he is careful to acknowledge its continuing importance. He does, however, want a broader acceptance of an inventive, often narrative-based “journalism of ideas”—writing that examines the clash of ideas, whether in politics, art, or academia.

It is in this brand of journalism that Rosenbaum has made his mark, and these kinds of issues continue to drive him. The “journalism of ideas,” Rosenbaum believes, is where the kinds of nonfiction books he loves can distinguish themselves from other kinds of investigations. In his own Explaining Hitler, a book that took him 10 years to research and write, Rosenbaum examined a debate between famed historians Alan Bullock and Hugh Trevor-Roper over Hitler’s view of his own moral culpability in the atrocities of the Nazi regime. While investigating this debate, Rosenbaum “realized that [Hitler] scholars disagreed on really basic questions, and that my task was not necessarily to solve a question, to come up with a better answer, but to give people a sense of what the arguments were.”

Rosenbaum’s mission to “follow the ideas” results not only in investigations of areas of historical and cultural disagreement, but also in his exposure of “the fallacies [and] the unexamined assumptions of conventional wisdom, the bogus expertise that often underlines politics and culture.” Rosenbaum traces his devotion to this journalistic creed to a piece he wrote for Harper’s Magazine in the mid-’80s attacking the excesses and fallacies of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory of the five stages of death and dying, popularized in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.

“I challenged [Kübler-Ross’s theory] kind of sharply. It seemed to me to have no basis except for her anecdotal evidence, and it became the basis for training courses for nurses, for hospices—it became the culture’s accepted way of dying. And I wrote about that and the fact that mortality was being channeled in this way, and it was in some way imposing on people a proper way to die that in some way was suited to people who worked in hospitals—acceptance, being quiet, and not [to follow] Dylan Thomas, [who] said, ‘Do not go gently into this good night.’ It was basically saying to people, ‘Do go gently into this good night.’ [My piece] became very controversial, but it made me realize that there are a lot of people who are proclaiming themselves experts whose expertise, whose ideas need challenging by smart journalism writers.”

This passionate, investigative impulse and a keen attention to narrative define the kind of writing that Rosenbaum loves. When I asked him to give advice to aspiring writers, he recommended writing early and often as the best way to develop authorial voice and discover the things that fascinate and drive you. “I’m big on obsession,” Rosenbaum said. “Writing is difficult, and you need something to drive you to do it. Writing itself is difficult, getting published is difficult—you have to have something that you really care about. It’s not just enough to say ‘I want to be a writer.’ You’ve got to grab hold of something and start writing for it.”