George Jonas

Seduced by gossip

by George Jonas
National Post

"For what do we live," muses the cynical father of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet in the novel Pride and Prejudice, "but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?"

Mr. Bennet may have exaggerated to make his point. Obviously we live for a few other things besides gossip. And there may be the odd saint or hermit who would deny any interest in gossip whatsoever.

But whether the rest of us feel guilty about it, or embrace it (as I do), Mr. Bennet raised an undeniable truth: Gossip is not a trivial phenomenon, and most of us would find life very dull indeed if we were deprived of its pleasures.

But what exactly is gossip? How does it work? Why do we find it so tempting? What is it good for? How has it changed over the years? These are the questions Joseph Epstein sets out to answer in his recently-published book, Gossip.

An essayist and short story writer, very popular amongst urban middle- to high-brows, Epstein is an intellectual who wears his erudition lightly and espouses no ideology whatsoever. The human comedy is what interests him. Former Epstein bestsellers include Snobbery, Friendship, and Envy.

Succinctly, gossip is something one person tells another person about a third person. Unlike rumour, which concerns events happening to people, gossip targets character or reputation. The gossiper may have any number of motives in imparting the (not necessarily true) information -- revenge, self-aggrandizement or a wish to curry favour -- but its effect is to bond gossiper and gossipee in momentary intimacy.

Gossip is, by nature, pejorative in impulse -- as Bertrand Russell said, "No one gossips about other people's secret virtues." Yet gossip can have salutary social effects, especially in culturally homogeneous communities, where fear of being gossiped about deters people from breaking social norms. When it is more than idle curiosity, gossip reaches the level of social analysis (that's what we call it in my gossipy family, anyway). We believe dissecting the follies of others helps us lead smarter and better lives.

Epstein is a lively, discursive writer, and can be counted on for the pithy observation that sparks further reflection. Listening to gossip, he says, "can be likened to receiving stolen goods; it puts you in immediate collusion with the person conveying gossip to you." And: "Every first-class gossip is, when one comes right down to it, a spy in business for himself."

The book is divided into three sections: private gossip, public gossip, and private gossip that becomes public. Additionally, Epstein expands on some famous historical and contemporary gossips: the Duc de Saint-Simon in the court of Louis XIV, Barbara Walters, and Matt Drudge amongst others.

Epstein makes no bones about his own love of gossip of the higher sort ("I prefer my gossip analytical and refined"). Ideally, it should expose phoniness: "The best gossip for me is that which confirms my own views of the essential fraudulence of certain people, especially people who present themselves as a touch -- and usually more than a touch -- more moral than the rest of us."

As an example (and one of the pleasures of this book is the plethora of juicy real-life gossip on offer), he tells us that the playwright Arthur Miller, "a man always ready to offer moral lessons to others," had a son with Down syndrome with his third wife, shipped him off to a "less than first-class institution" and never saw him again. "I like this bit of gossip," Epstein says, "because it illustrates deep hypocrisy, and since the best gossip tends to be about hidden behavior, this qualifies, with four oak leaf clusters."

Gossip can never be suppressed. But before literacy spread to the lower classes, gossip was a private affair. With the invention of the steam press, and the mass production of human interest stories, gossip took off as a public phenomenon and a career for many journalists. The lives of the aristocracy were the cynosure of fascination for the British, and for Americans it was the peccadilloes of the plutocracy -- and later Hollywood -- that excited the popular imagination.

Gossip's public high-water mark was the powerful merger of gossip and the essay in the works of talented New Journalists like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. Especially the latter, whose take-downs of the rich and famous are nonpareils of dishy satire with real consequences. Epstein claims that Wolfe's essay, "Radical Chic," a richly detailed account of a high-society fundraiser composer Leonard Bernstein threw for alleged Black Panther terrorists, forever destroyed Bernstein's reputation for moral seriousness.

The Internet changed gossip, and not for the better. Writing about the Internet, and the entire history of gossip, Epstein's insights and musings are often original, always provocative and invariably entertaining. Gossip is not for saints or hermits, but a safe recommendation to all others.