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.