In response to an interviewer who surmised that she did not relish self-reflection, Elizabeth Hardwick once told the Paris Review, “In general I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis.” Taking unwelcome personal attention and focusing it elsewhere had an appeal that Benjamin Franklin, who despite other callings was one of America’s first gossip columnists, recognized two centuries earlier. “Most people delight in censure, when they are not the objects of it,” Franklin noted, adding, “If they are offended by my publicity exposing their private vices, I promise they shall have the satisfaction, in a very little time, of their friends and neighbors in the same circumstances.”
Legal theorists and philosophers, less concerned with the joys of Schadenfreude, have celebrated gossip for upholding communal harmony. Every society has norms that must be followed, and when those norms are broken, society must act. But no one has an interest in seeing every violation of a norm resolved in a duel at sunrise; there are more convenient ways to discourage unwelcome behavior. The threat of being gossiped about is often just enough to keep people in line.
Joseph Epstein, the conservative essayist and editor, is not immune to the lure of his subject. In his new book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, he affirms Hardwick’s contention that gossiping is often a means to a perfectly understandable end: interpreting human behavior. He even literally recommends gossip as a way of meeting that high standard set by Henry James: to be “a person upon whom nothing was lost.” Epstein is particularly admiring of those gossip hounds of old, from the Duke of Saint-Simon and Hugh Trevor-Roper, to Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, who raised the practice to what he calls an “art form.” (After Cyril Connolly caught his two mistresses cheating on him, Mitford reported to Waugh that Connolly muttered, “It is hard, here I have been absolutely faithful to 2 women for a year, they have both been unfaithful to me.” [sic]) Epstein finds these stories irresistible, as he phrases it, “A man or woman without any interest in gossip may be impressive in his or her restraint, but also wanting in curiosity, uninterested in the variousness of human nature, dead to the wildly abundant oddity of life, and thereby, in some central way, deficient.”
Despite the subtitle of his new book, Epstein willingly concedes that gossip can be insignificant or frivolous or worse. In his telling, what was once a more refined custom has degenerated into a tabloid-infested culture of Internet slurs and an obsessive focus on the personal lives of public figures. If this is a slightly tired narrative of decline, it does allow the author to have everything both ways: He is equally comfortable scolding today’s gossip-peddlers and telling gossipy stories; every chapter of the book ends with overheard tidbits, some more enjoyable than others, from his own life. “I cannot condemn gossip, at any rate not with a good conscience, if only because I enjoy it too much, even while I understand that too much of it lowers the tone,” Epstein writes.
While gossip is an activity that almost everyone partakes in, it's hard to define. The first step is distinguish gossip from rumors, with the latter being “less specific, more general, more diffuse, less personal in content and in the manner in which they are disseminated. Rumors can lead to gossip, and gossip can reinforce rumors. But gossip is particular, told to a carefully chosen audience, and is specifically information about other people.” Gossip can be false—Epstein uses the example of boys from his school days exaggerating or inventing sexual exploits—but the crucial part of his definition traces back to what Hardwick and Franklin understood: Gossip is not about politics or celebrity, but rather people, even if they happen to be politicians or celebrities.
The definitional problem arises because of the myriad reasons that people gossip. There is of course the wish to harm someone else’s reputation by spreading stories of moral failures or sexual liaisons (here gossip and rumor can supplement each other). But there is also the simple desire to better understand another person. If I tell a colleague about a mutual acquaintance with emotional troubles, I may simply be seeking to comprehend why my troubled friend is ailing. In one instance gossip is told with the hope that it will spread, while in the other some care might be taken to ensure that private information stays only with its immediate recipient.
Sometimes gossip has more to do with the gossiper: Witness the joy people take in swapping titillating stories. In this case, it is the act itself that brings a certain amount of pleasure, with the subject (sex, frequently) taking priority over the object. And then of course there is telling gossip to make oneself feel better, or superior. Why actively raise yourself up when you can tear someone down? People engage in this type of gossip daily, even if the real motivations for doing so are only sometimes conscious.
The four figures who together best explain gossip’s downfall, at least in Epstein’s story, are Louis de Rouvroy, commonly known as the Duke of Saint-Simon, Walter Winchell, Tina Brown, and Barbara Walters. Saint-Simon, the French memoir writer of the late 17th and 18th century, transcribed all the gossip he consumed, and did so with enough verve and wit to register in the minds of Flaubert and Proust. He enjoyed circulating information about the court of Louis XIV, and his scent for the kill is apparent in his writing. Here he is on the son of the king’s chief minister: “He was of average height, his face long, with sagging cheeks and monstrous thick lips, was altogether disgusting, and deformed as well, since smallpox removed one of his eyes." Epstein says this is an example of gossip raised to the height of literature, although if you are wondering how these quoted passages fit Epstein’s definition, you see part of the problem with the book. Cruelly delineating someone’s physical characteristics barely qualifies as gossip.
The next several hundred years are for the most part elided by Epstein. But the early decades of the last century saw the simultaneous rise of a muckraking press, and a more cheaply produced and consumed mass-culture. Winchell is a transitional figure, the New Yorker who thrived in print and on radio, and devoted himself to creating and then feeding the public’s voracious appetite. After being told that he lacked “ethics, scruples, decency [and] conscience,” Winchell replied, “Let others have those things. I have readers.”
By infecting serious media organs with the tawdriness of celebrity life, Winchell not only blurred the line between news and entertainment, but transformed a more intimate activity into broadcasts heard by millions. (Epstein’s original claim that gossip is “told to a carefully chosen audience” would by definition mean that Winchell, Brown, and Walters have no place in his narrative, but let’s leave that aside). Winchell’s time—the early and middle decades of the 20th century—still left room for great gossips, although Epstein’s examples (Trevor-Roper, Waugh, Mitford), tend to be English, which is not the first or last hint of his somewhat dreary Anglophilia. Epstein also seems to err by claiming that these three, and Waugh in particular, are purveyors of gossip who were “disinterested, devoid of personal ill will,” who told gossip “for the pure delight it brings to its auditors.”