The Rosin Gambit


Michael Drew

Michael Drew is a Wisconsinite currently residing in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He enjoys thinking and writing about politics, history, and philosophy, listening to music and podcasts of all kinds, watching and occasionally playing sports, and playing the cello.

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24 Responses

  1. I may have related this anecdote before and if so, my apologies, but here goes:

    In a graduate seminar discussion, we (the class) were slamming a book for not living up to the promises in its title/subtitle. The professor said, “a title is not a contract.”

    I think she was right, but I usually don’t like misleading titles.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      I don’t think the problem lies with the mismatch between the body and the title. And if it’s a title that isn’t a fairly outlandish claim on its own, then I don’t think there’s any potential problem (with the title). I.e. if it’s a plausible claim that the work simply fails to establish, then there’sno problem, and the work just establishes what it does and doesn’t what it doesn’t. But if the title is outlandish like this one, then it really relies on the work to back it up, otherwise it’s just an outlandish claim sitting out there unjustified. The title may not be a contract, but if it makes a claim, then it makes a claim. If it’s an outlandish claim that the work then goes on not to substantiate, I think that reflects very poorly on the author (of the title). This is mitigated by the marketing realities of advancing provocative claims in titles, but that only goes so far. When it’s a very outlandish claim that is then not substantiated, to me you’re left with a marketing gambit that ends up reflecting very poorly on its author.Report

    • Avatar j r says:

      It’s a contract of sorts. It’s just not much of an enforceable one.

      Rather, it enforces itself in that your readers will begin to lose faith and abandon you if you go to that well too often.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      I do like the quip, “A title is not a contract,” and I agree with it. As I say, the issue isn’t failing to meet the promise: the problem actually is trying in earnest to meet a promise that isn’t a serious one, rather than admitting straight-up that it’s not in any way a serious promise, which is something that inevitably makes the promise-maker look foolish. Which is something that I have believed since hearing the title that this excellent author did to herself by choosing.

      To me, the whole point of provocative overstated titles like this is to sound canny for choosing a claim that is out there enough to make the potentially reader wonder, “Hmm, wow. How will he defend that claim?” without going so far as to just sound goofy in a way that makes her think, “This can be nothing but a transparent attempt to goad me into seeing what her argument actually is, since it’s clearly not that.” I’ve been inherently interested in this work all along because I think Rosin is a good-to-fantastic writer when she’s not playing dumb defending #Slatepitch-inspired headlines and book titles, but this title clearly falls into the latter category, and it’s a shame that she further distracts from the true and important arguments and reporting in the book by doubling down on the goofy claim in the marketing-ploy title she chose with articles like that one in Time.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I find that the issue with slatepitch is that slate seems to get writers who might truly believe in their contrary counterfactuals.

        They have turned slatepitch into a badge of honor.

        Of course the rest of us use slatepitch in a completely bad wayReport

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      I think the only reason for claiming a title is not a contract is to obviate any claims of fraud, because normally selling something and delivering substantially less than promised is, in fact, fraud.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        Ah, that makes sense. I was here wondering what part of a book or article actually is a contract. Really, only a contract is a contract.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Yes, only a contract is really a contract. I’m not advocating any kind of legal pursuit of the author. But there is an element of truth in advertising, outside the legal realm but within the ethical realm, here.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      I’ve said similar things about Tennessee WIlliams for years. If you’re not going to make a play about something really cool like iguanas, you shouldn’t tease people with titles like that.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater says:

    The difference between an academic article and a popular essay is that only one has to fit into the well-established pop-culture paradigm of making absurdly definitive politically compelling claims in order to get sales. It puts hacks in a tricky situation: either concede that they’re motivated by sales and eyeballs, or concede that they’re arguing something absurdly definitive.

    In this case, I guess it’s the second option.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Freddie’s point is that in the Rosin Gambit, you mouth the concession, but then make pretty clear clearly your heart is really in the claim at almost the fully literal level, and, after the concession, you proceed as though you’re fully committed to the claim and intend to back it up. If you want to cop to it being a ridiculous marketing ploy, then you have to cop to that and go on to say, ‘Here’s what the book is really about,’ not, ‘No, really, I mean it. Men are coming to an end. Here’s what I mean by that,’ and then advance a ridiculous account of why your ridiculous title is in fact true in an important and real sense, rather than just being a ridiculous marketing ploy. So the problem is really failing to do either of those things.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Well, she doesn’t think it’s a ridiculous marketing ploy, since she thinks the title reflects the thesis of the book. She also admits that proving her thesis isn’t possible. But that’s par for the course when it comes to social science theories. She has a theory, she has a title, and she’s sticking to them both. I don’t see the problem with any of that. The problem I have, as I said above, is that she’s making absurd claims. Her expressed incoherence regarding the title and content is just another example of it.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        I think we agree, SW. The problem is making ridiculous claims that you should admit are nothing but marketing ploys (and maybe in a cursory way do admit that), and then going on to treat them like serious claims and trying to back them up. Maybe we disagree whether it would be better to make them but admit they’re just marketing, but I think we agree that making crazy claims and trying to back them up and failing makes you look… crazy.Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    It seems to me that the central feature of the Rosin gambit is a form of equivocation that is farily common. Basically Rosin is making using two different assertions: a strong one (that men are going to become obsolete) and a weak one: (the nature of masculinity is going to change somewhat). She wants to use the rhetorical power of the first assertion, but only wants to actually come up with evidence for the weak one. And so she treats the two claims as equivalent, shifting between the two as expedience dictates.

    The most common situation in which I find this kind of argument is when someone will claim that their god is an utterly ineffable mystery, and then explain in great detail what the preferences of that god are.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      It goes to the fairly commonly-occuring nature of this move that it’s apt for Freddie to have given a name to it. YMMV, but to me it’s just that this is a fairly far-out-there example of it in recent publishing history (though I’m sure even better examples can be provided, even recently), the likes of which I haven’t been aware of since Liberal Fascism. Perhaps the salient question for Hanna Rosin is whether she’d rather have the Rosin Gambit be named for her, or to have her title be a member of a category of rhetorical/marketing ploys named for Jonah Goldberg. Knowing her penchant for wanting to see women like herself as trailblazers, I’m guessing she’d be as happy with this situation as with the other one. Also, technically, I’m not sure Goldberg’s title is exactly a member of the same species, as I’m not sure he ever admitted technical-though-not-substantive speciousness of his title (though he may have, I’m not sure).Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      She wants to use the rhetorical power of the first assertion, but only wants to actually come up with evidence for the weak one. And so she treats the two claims as equivalent, shifting between the two as expedience dictates.

      Yes. And not necessarily in any insidious way. The first time I learned of the title of the book, it seemed obvious to me that she was using the word “men” to refer to a particular type of masculinity, or cultural conception of masculinity, or etc. What she clearly was not doing is using it to refer to human males.

      I really don’t know why people are so tweaked about this.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        it seemed obvious to me that she was using the word “men” to refer to a particular type of masculinity, or cultural conception of masculinity, or etc. What she clearly was not doing is using it to refer to human males.

        It was never clear to me what she was doing except going for some kind of over-the-top provocation.Report

  4. Avatar Vikram Bath says:

    As someone who writes titles I don’t back up, this hits a bit close to home. In my defense, I think I write my strong-form titles purely for marketing, and I abandon it for the weak form in my posts, and I don’t later pretend like I ever actually proved the strong form.

    Of course, that’s just what I think I’m doing in my own head. I know the habit does bug some readers.Report