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Loose Lips

March 5, 2012 | by

It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.

—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I spent a recent Sunday morning at the baby shower of a friend made in adulthood. The other attendees all went back to Catholic school, so after the obligatory oohing and aahing over the onesies, conversation turned to Jessie, the surprising no-show of the high school crowd. “She must be hungover again,” said one girl with a knowing shrug.

“Yeah,” another chimed in. “Scott must’ve been on the late shift again, if you know what I mean.”

Snickering all around. “Ugh, Scott,” one said with a theatrical shiver. “That guy is such a loser, my God. If Jessie doesn’t move on soon—”

“Jessie will never move on,” another girl emphatically interrupted. “She finds his gigantic forty-year-old beer belly and pathological fear of commitment totally entrancing, and really who wouldn’t?”

What followed was another ten minutes on the subject of the absent Jessie, who, at thirty-three, all agreed, was definitely way too old to keep answering the midnight booty calls of the ne’er-do-well weeknight bartender at the Harp. Finally, the hostess noticed me nibbling quietly on my teacakes in the corner. “Oh, God, I am so sorry!” she cried. “I forgot that you don’t know Jessie! This must be so boring to you—we will change the subject.” A pause. “So, um, what else should we talk about?” She gazed down at her belly doubtfully.

In the thudding silence that followed, I was allowed to insist that Jessie’s sleazy sexual predilections and Scott’s ironic collection of too-tight NASCAR T-shirts were infinitely more interesting than bump-circumference guessing games or the extortionate price of strollers these days. Several hours past the official end of the party, I left in the glow of new friendships made: it was truly the most fun I’d had in weeks.

Because that’s the thing: gossip is fun, one of the most profound and satisfying pleasures we humans are given. If Eleanor Roosevelt was right that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people,” then count me among the 99 percent. I don’t even care if I’m unacquainted with the parties being dissected; if anything, total strangers make a purer sport of the conversation. I experience a similar frisson reading a Dear Prudence column as learning that my childhood dentist was once arrested as a Peeping Tom (fact!).

Several writers have weighed in recently on this age-old human foible that is gossip, with varying levels of success. In The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits, philosopher Emrys Westacott examines the ethics of several conventionally frowned-upon social transgressions and “moral failings” like rudeness, snobbery, and, of course, gossip. He begins his examination of the subject by posing the big-picture questions: Should we condemn all gossip? If gossip isn’t an “inherently pejorative” act, can it ever be acceptable or even beneficial?

Westacott finds compelling ethical justifications for the innocent pleasure so many of us take in slamming our friends and loved ones. Yes, when it’s malicious and untrue, he allows, gossip can ruin reputations and damage lives. But the right kind of gossip—about, say, unwarranted salary discrepancies, or sketchy undisclosed conflicts of interest—can be a force of good. Behind-the-scenes murmurings build relationships, provide emotional catharsis, counteract secrecy, and upend existing power structures, to name just a few benefits. In the end, Westacott concludes, “a willingness to talk about people—which at times will involve gossiping—may be an integral part of the ‘examined life.’”

Another recent book, Joseph Epstein’s Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, takes Westacott’s claim that there’s no such thing as “no one else’s business” to new heights—and depths. The extended essay takes as a given that “[o]ther people are the world’s most fascinating subject,” which I for one certainly wouldn’t dispute. From there Epstein veers back and forth between disquisitions on the meaning, importance, and history of gossip to delectable tidbits on everyone from Arthur Miller (who dumped his disabled child in an institution for life!) to Fidel Castro (who did it with Kenneth Tynan’s wife!).

But Epstein’s anecdotes are marred by an old-man-on-his-sinking-porch crankiness that’s especially evident in his disparaging of the modern cult of celebrity, a section rife with declarations along the lines of “I care a lot less for gossip about Conan O’Brien than I do for gossip about Conor Cruise O’Brien.” Yes, well, so? “Today’s Hollywood stars, rock musicians, and comedians,” Epstein decides, “no longer generate the intense interest that older movie stars once did.” Tell that to the Bravo programmers. Perhaps it’s equally accurate to say that Epstein doesn’t have the same intense interest in today’s stars.

Gossip delights Epstein—unless, it seems, a certain sort of woman is the one purveying it. In Epstein’s view, Barbara Walters—“the nation’s therapist, our Barbara”—is a vindictive, petty, dignity-trampling lightweight who lives and dies by ratings. Tina Brown fares even worse: possessed of “really quite charming ability to pump up sugar daddies,” she launched her career by “bonking her way up the food chain of Oxford celebrity.”

Given the choice, I’d rather just read a good novel than wade through Epstein’s treatise. Because, at the end of the day, aren’t all novels, or the good ones at least, a rarefied form of gossip? Ian McEwan called novels the “higher gossip,” and indeed, what would Persuasion or Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or basically any great nineteenth-century novel be without the chattering of tongues?

Which brings us to Beth Gutcheon’s Gossip, out this month. The title is rather misleading, or too broad to excite much interest; it’s a bit like calling a novel Food or People Having Sex. But Gutcheon has a more specific meaning in mind, which she spells out early in the novel:

Did you know that the origin of the word gossip in English is ‘god-sibling’? It’s the talk between people who are godparents to the same child, people who have a legitimate loving interest in the person they talk about. It's talk that weaves a net of support and connection beneath the people you want to protect.

(Epstein offers an his alternative etymology for this word, which he says could also refer to General George Washington’s “instructions during the revolution to ‘go sip’ with the enemy in taverns and learn what their military plans are.”)

Gossip charts a series of complicated multigenerational entanglements centered around Lovie French, proprietor of a high-end Upper East Side boutique and longtime mistress of an older married man. Gutcheon reveals this central fact of her protagonist’s biography with tantalizing obliqueness, focusing instead on Lovie’s decades-long friendships with Dinah and Avis, two boarding-school friends who have nothing in common except Lovie—nothing, that is, until their children fall in love and Lovie finds herself at the center of an unexpectedly sordid mess. While its denouement ultimately falls on the wrong side of improbable, for the most part Gossip is as undemanding and enjoyable as a long jaw with an old friend about a former classmate’s repulsive, record-breaking weight gain.

Speaking of weight gain: if you ever find yourself amid the Austro-Hungarian grandeur of Lviv, Ukraine, do yourself a favor and duck into Tasty Gossip, a faux-dive that serves up flawless verenikis and has one of the most memorably hilarious names ever. It isn’t all in jest, though. The more I think and read about gossip—the more elaborate the dissections and the enactments and the defenses—the more convinced I became of its inevitability and even necessity. “Tasty Gossip,” unlike so many other English appropriations I’ve known and loved, actually gets to a basic truth: there’s nothing quite so delicious, or so deeply human, as talking shit about other people.

Laura Moser is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

25 COMMENTS

19 Comments

  1. sarah | March 5, 2012 at 9:29 am

    no, I agree with Eleanor Roosevelt

  2. Jacob | March 6, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    I’d much prefer the straight speaking approach. I would not call gossip delicious, or necessary. I think it’s childish and small. And perhaps, depressingly human. I agree with Elanor Roosevelt too.

  3. Adele Quested | March 7, 2012 at 7:54 am

    There are a lot of ideas in the world that cannot be understood without understanding people. Any attempt to improve one’s understanding of something usually involves discussing the matter with someone who might bring a new perspective to the table. Both deeply involved and rather more detached perspectives have their own merits and blind spots. Neither can ever reveal the full picture.

    Gossip is just another form of story telling and story telling is the main way in which we negotiate meaning. It is important to keep in mind that the subject of our gossip like any subject of a story becomes fictional. Gossiping can teach you a lot about people – not the people gossiped about of course (who, as I said, become fictional, the moment the become the subject of gossip), but the people you gossip with (and not necessarily only negative things. How I judge others reveals a lot about my values, which might or might not be in line with yours – at any rate it’s better to get this information sooner rather than later, and it often takes a while till we are put in situations where our values are actually put to the test and we can reveal them by our actions, not our judgments. Sometimes that situation may never arise. And if it does, it’s often good to know beforehand how they other might approach the problem. Also, actions, at least to a certain degree, at least sometimes, rely on previous judgments).

    I won’t deny the potential damages done by malicious gossip and would never argue for uncritically embracing the notion. There is however a good argument to be made for a more nuanced approach than knee-jerk recection.

    Some people prefer not to bother with nuance. I think that’s intellectually lazy. And perhaps, depressingly human.

  4. Charlotte | March 7, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    There’s gossip and there’s gossip. Idle chatter that centres on the denigration of others to fuel one’s own ego (in my experience, the most common form of gossip) is always pretty pathetic, and rarely produces any real insights about individuals, or humanity in general. The intriguing question of motivations, patterns of behaviour and looking to enter the mind of someone else is an entirely different matter…

  5. Jay | March 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    In the Chester Mystery Play about Noah, Noah’s wife uses the word in the God+sibb sense:
    Unless I have my gossips every one, /
    One foot further I will not go!

  6. Ann | March 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Gossip helps to forge relationships, but can’t be the foundation for a friendship. Those kinds of friendships grow stale, fast.

    Didn’t Shakespeare talk about gossip? Seems the word’s been around since long before the Revolution…

  7. Pulseguy | March 9, 2012 at 12:35 am

    I’m with Eleanor on this one. Gossip is destructive and mean-spirited. It hurts the mind of the gossiper.

  8. Yash | March 9, 2012 at 1:53 am

    Its funny how some people regard the word ‘Gossip’ as derogatory remark. I for one also used to think the same way. But time changes the perspective. Gradually we start to realise that gossip is nothing but a talk about other peoples behavious and thoughts. It can be fun inducing and enlighting also. Yes, there is a form of gossip with which we should keep away but if we take it in the right sense could lead us to understand the personality of others.

  9. George Balanchine | March 9, 2012 at 6:50 am

    “…what would Persuasion or Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or basically any great nineteenth-century novel be without the chattering of tongues?”

    What indeed?
    I really deplore this post-modern/cultural studies/deconstructionist/what-have-you idea that all art is basically the same.
    No Virginia, some art is better than other art and calling Anna Karenin a “higher” form of gossip is quite mistaken.

    Well, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can start my day.

  10. Ken Davis | March 9, 2012 at 7:57 am

    I like another Roosevelt quote on this subject:

    “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody come sit next to me.”
    ― Alice Roosevelt Longworth

  11. Charles | March 9, 2012 at 8:43 am

    No, wrong; there is nothing in life as pleasurable as the music of Wagner.

  12. Rob T. | March 9, 2012 at 9:32 am

    The anthropocentric idea that humans are even a particularly interesting subject of conversation, let alone the most interesting, is simultaneously risible and sickening.

    Ms. Moser’s unexamined assumption is that that which is quintessentially human is also a good thing. That remains to be proven. In the meantime, some persons are, by constitution, better equipped to step outside the human aquarium than others, but everyone would benefit from doing so, at least on occasion. Vulgarians such as Ms. Moser, however, seem beyond hope.

  13. Don Mac Brown | March 9, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Ms. Moser’s choice of words says more about her than it does about her subject. Gossip, in my experience is the source of life’s most common tragedies.

  14. theotormon | March 9, 2012 at 10:35 am

    A five-second reflection on that E.R. quote will reveal how facile it is. The obvious truth is that great minds discuss ideas, events, AND people. So do small minds. They just do so in a less intelligent, less interesting way.

  15. Anon | March 10, 2012 at 7:47 am

    It was Eleanor Roosevelt who quipped “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me.” (a play on the original “if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything”).

  16. Kevin | March 10, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    “There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s NOT being talked about”. I think Oscar Wilde has given us the definitive comment about gossip.

  17. Bob Lince | March 13, 2012 at 10:47 am

    What year was the “gossip” pic made? Who gets credit?

  18. Lynne Davis | March 14, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    If you don’t think that everyone wants to hear gossip leave 10 email messages that say “I have the most amazing gossip to tell…call me ASAP!”. You will receive 10 phone calls in short order..equally from men and women. Come on, guys, wouldn’t YOU call back?

  19. John | April 25, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    I think that Scott may have hidden depths, and that’s why Jessie stays with him.

6 Pingbacks

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