This is a book about gossip, that much-excoriated yet apparently unstoppable human activity that knows neither historical nor cultural bounds. Educated fleas may not do it, but all human beings seem to enjoy that conspiratorial atmosphere of intimacy in which two or three people talk about another person who isn’t in the room. Usually they say things about this person that he would prefer not to have said. They might talk about his misbehavior in any number of realms (sexual, financial, domestic, hygienic, or any other that allows for moral disapprobation) or about his frailties (his hypocrisy, tastelessness, immodesty, neuroses, etc.). Or they might just wish to analyze his character, attempting to get at why his has been a life of such extraordinary undeserved success or such unequivocally merited failure.
Gossip has of course long had a ferociously bad press. Trivial has its subject matter been deemed, vulgar and wayward its practitioners inevitably designated. The intellectual equivalent of chewing gum—such has been among the many unkind things it has
been called. In the eighteenth century, the Duc de Saint-Simon, that busy courtier at the Versailles of Louis XIV, provides a brief portrait of the type of the gossip, about a jumped-up servant and social climber named Saumery, that reads with the bold caricatural quality of a Daumier drawing: “He put on airs and looked important, never perceiving that he was merely ill-bred. He whispered into people’s ears or shielded his mouth with his hand, often sniggering, and then promptly disappearing, always filled with gossip.” One needs to add here that the Duc de Saint-Simon’s Memoirs, chronicling all that went on in the court of the Sun King, themselves provide one of the most sustained acts of high-grade gossip on historical record. But gossip, make no mistake, always implies a judgment.
Yet however bad the odor it has generally found itself in, gossip persists. More than persists, its power continues to grow, its sway to become more pervasive. Why, despite all the religious and secular strictures against it, does it refuse to go away? How has it come about that gossip has increased its domain extravagantly in recent decades, so that where once it was thought an activity best conducted over a backyard fence, usually believed to be engaged in by women, it now dominates the news and has become all but synonymous with leaks in high places that can help bring down governments, and has found vast reinvigoration on the Internet? Why is the appetite for gossip apparently unslakable? Why is it so enticing? What are its true functions? Who needs it? Why has it increased so in our own day?
These are but a few of the questions that are taken up in this book about an activity whose full meaning not all of us understand—including, as he sets out to investigate it, the author—but that most of us continue to enjoy.
The history of gossip has never been written—and it isn’t, strictly speaking, written here—but if one were to sketch it out quickly, gossip would begin as an intimate and personal act most often carried on between two persons; then, with the advent of the printing press, it soon became public, with men and women earning their living discovering and purveying gossip to a mass audience, which of course continues in our day; the appetite for public gossip having been established, purveyors of it were never found to be in short supply, and in recent decades they have been immensely aided by the spread of cable television and the advent of the Internet. As the means, the technologies, of gossip have widened, so, naturally enough, has its influence.
If the reader of this book comes away with nothing else, I hope he will at least have realized that the major rap against gossip, that it is trivial, is no longer the main thing to be said about it, if ever it was. For gossip has come to play a larger and larger role in public life, and, as I argue, in ways that can thrum with significance and odd side effects.
I was drawn to the subject of gossip, first, because I took such pleasure in receiving it, having over the years had friends who were artful in conveying it, some of them working in fairly high places or living among putatively glamorous people. I am also drawn to the nature of gossip, which, though often false and not less often malicious, can also be a species of truth, deliverable in no other way than by word of mouth, personal letter, diaries and journals published posthumously, and not obtainable otherwise. Just because information is begun in gossip does not mean it can’t also be true. Gossip’s particular brand of truth is beguiling truth: beguiling in the sense of being enticing, charming, sometimes deceptive, and always in need of being strained through skeptical intelligence. Gossip can be mean, vicious even, yet also hugely entertaining, helpful, and important—and on occasion all of these things at once. The book you are about to read attempts to explain how and why this is.
How It Works
Molly was a woman much on the telephone. When it
rang she had just enquired: “Well, what’s the gossip?”
—Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Consider gossip in its bare bones, the mechanics of it, how it works. One person tells another person something about a third person that may or may not have a basis in fact. Like as not, what the first person has to tell goes to the absent person’s reputation. Dealing with his personal life, it usually serves to diminish or tarnish that reputation. Why did the first person decide to tell it? Perhaps because he bears the absent person a grudge. Perhaps because the absent person’s behavior, the subject of the item of gossip, angers or strongly puts him off. Perhaps because he finds the behavior he is describing too amusing or freakish or astounding to withhold telling. Perhaps because he is reasonably confident that he will be charming the person to whom he is relaying the gossip, who will be indebted to him for a few moments of entertainment. Perhaps because he senses that conveying this bit of information will increase the intimacy between him and the person with whom he is gossiping.
Listening to gossip can be likened to receiving stolen goods; it puts you in immediate collusion with the person conveying the gossip to you. Sometimes the person who initiates the gossip asks the person to whom he is telling it to keep it to himself. Sometimes secrecy is implied, sometimes not. If the gossip has an element of real excitement to it, the request that the item go no further is unlikely to be honored. Some of the best gossip is intramural, taking place within a smallish group: an office, a school, a neighborhood, a village or small town. My first encounter with gossip of this kind had to do with stories of sexual exploits that teenage boys at my high school told to other boys about the girls they went out with. “Kissing and telling” is the traditional term for this sort of gossip. There was during that time, to be sure, a fair amount of not kissing but telling anyway, or of obviously heightening and dramatizing one’s rather pathetic conquests, a clear case of enhancing one’s status by retailing false gossip.
In less intramural settings, often one’s social perspective or one’s politics will direct one’s interest in gossip. Whether one thinks oneself liberal or conservative, one’s field of gossip interest is likely to be very different. Conservatives were blown away by Bill Clinton stories, liberals made uneasy by them. Two persistent bits of gossip about Martin Luther King Jr. are that he amply plagiarized his doctoral thesis and that, though married, he had lots of love affairs, including a steady liaison with a woman who was a dean at Cornell. If one is an admirer of Dr. King’s, one doesn’t want to hear such stories; if one is not, or even if one is skeptical about public heroes generally, such gossip has its natural appeal in bringing down an ostensibly great man. An even better story has King determined to fire Jesse Jackson just before the end of his life—better, that is, for all those people who consider Jesse Jackson essentially a fraud. The same applies to John F. Kennedy stories; if you care for him, you are likely to be less attentive to all those upstairs-at-the-White-House stories with movie stars and Mafia molls, and if you don’t much like him, bring on more such stories. Gossip, as the old New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson once put it, “is hearing something you like about someone you don’t.”
Not all gossip need be malicious, mean-spirited, vengeance-seeking, status-enhancing, though much of it is. All gossip starts out as people talking about other people. The distinction between gossip and rumors is that the latter are more often about incidents, events, supposed happenings, or things that are about to happen to people, and generally not about the current or past conduct of people; rumor tends to be unsubstantiated, events or incidents whose truth is still in the realm of speculation. Cass Sunstein, in his On Rumors, writes that rumors “refer roughly to claims of fact—about people, groups, events, and institutions—that have not been shown to be true, but that move from one person to another, and have credibility not because direct evidence is known to support them, but because other people seem to believe them.” Compared to gossip, rumors are also 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.
Other people is the world’s most fascinating subject. Apart from other people, there can only be shoptalk, or gab about sports, politics, clothes, food, books, music, or some similar general item. Talk is possible about the great issues and events and questions, both of the day and of eternity, about which most of us operate in the realm of mere opinion and often don’t have all that much—or anything all that interesting—to say. How long, really, does one wish to talk, at least with friends, about the conditions for peace in the Middle East, the probable direction of the economy, the existence of God? For most of us, truth to tell, not very long.
So much easier, so much more entertaining, to talk about the decaying marriage of an acquaintance, the extravagant pretensions of in-laws, the sexual braggadocio of a bachelor friend. Most gossip, or most of the best gossip, is about dubious if not downright reprehensible behavior. The best of it is about people with whom one has a direct acquaintance. Served with a dash of humor it can be awfully fine stuff, even if one has never met the person being gossiped about.
Years ago a friend in London told me that the playwright Harold Pinter wrote rather poor poems—my friend called them, in fact, “pukey little poems”—that he sent out in multiple Xerox copies to friends, then sat back to await their praise. One such poem was about the cricketer Len Hutton, the English equivalent of Joe DiMaggio; the poem, in its entirety, runs: “I knew Len Hutton in his prime, / Another time, another time.” After Pinter had sent out the copies, its recipients, as usual, wrote or telephoned to tell him how fine the poem was, how he had caught the matter with perfect laconic precision, how touched and moved they were by it—with the single exception of a man who made no response whatsoever. When Pinter hadn’t heard from this man after two weeks, he called to ask if he had in fact received the poem. “Yes,” said the man, “I have indeed.” Unable to hold back, Pinter asked, “Well, Simon, what did you think of it?” Pausing briefly, the man replied, “Actually, I haven’t quite finished it.”
This is gossip on the model of a joke—gossip with a punch line. What is of greatest interest about it as an item of gossip is the continuing need on the part of its subject, a world-famous playwright, a Nobel Prize winner, for these driblets of praise. It is a story about pathetic vanity. One might think so successful a writer had already had more than his share of praise, but no scribbler seems ever to have had enough of what Thomas Mann called vitamin P. This is gossip as analysis, or test, of character, with the character, as in almost all good gossip in this realm, failing to pass.
I’m not sure that merely insulting someone behind his back, a variant of the catty remark, constitutes gossip. Another friend of mine not long ago wrote to me of an acquaintance of ours that his “appalling wife Janice made him the most famous cuckold in New York, but who can blame her?” I had known about my acquaintance’s wife leaving him for another man, so this insult scarcely constituted news. Yet it is unclear whether the material of gossip always has to be new. Some gossip, of the species known as backbiting, can be about no more than two people rehearsing the already well-known failings or sad tribulations of a third person.
“Well, I do a lot of talking and the ‘I’ is not often absent,” the writer Elizabeth Hardwick told the man who interviewed her for the Paris Review. “In general I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis.” Isaac Rosenfeld, a writer who was one of the New York intellectuals of the 1940s and ’50s, used jokingly to call such gossip “social analysis,” and in this group the analysis was of a kind that took the skin off the person being gossiped about. The New York intellectuals brutally mocked one another’s ambitions, sex practices, self-importance, and pretensions, all done behind the back, of course, and with much vicious inventiveness.
“Who is more devoid of human interest than those with nothing to hide?” asks a character in Frederic Raphael’s recent novel Fame and Fortune. Some of us have grander things to hide than others; others may have very little to hide; but very few of us are free of being gossiped about, at least insofar as being criticized behind one’s back constitutes gossip. Not long ago I was with a man who said that he had arrived at a point in life—he was soon to turn eighty—where he feared no gossip. True, he had no addictions, unless that of collecting books; had never cheated on his wife; was a good father; no scandal of any kind attached to him; he was modest in his pretensions—in all, led an honorable and quiet life. Yet, as I told him, he wouldn’t in the least like it if I went about behind his back saying that his taste in food was atrocious (he prided himself on finding excellent, generally inexpensive ethnic restaurants), that his intellectual judgment was poor (he had enormous admiration for five or six writers, all social scientists except for Samuel Johnson), or that his opinions about music and movies were hopeless (he would not infrequently report on how much he enjoyed a concert or a new film). I can of course easily see people doing a similar job on me, attacking my writing, the way I dress, my own less than modest pretensions. If it were to get back to me that someone said that I was ungenerous, or coarse in my aesthetic judgments, or disloyal, it would sting, however low the truth quotient of the accusations. Nobody, the point being, is impregnable to gossip.
One definition of gossip is “bits of news about the personal affairs of others.” These personal affairs are a man’s or woman’s stock of secrets; their ostensible secrecy is after all what makes them personal. Georg Simmel, that most brilliant of sociologists, claims that the secret is “one of the greatest achievements of humanity.” By this I assume Simmel means that societies have erected rules, implicit and explicit, so that we are permitted freedom from intrusion on the part of others into our lives, and without this freedom to protect what we hold personal and most dear, all our lives would be a vast deal poorer. That which is most secret about us—our dreams, our hopes, our small vices, our fondest fantasies, however outrageous or unrealistic they may be—is often what is most significant to us. Intrusive gossip, given the chance, would make a sloppy meal of these, which is why it can be so damaging.
Not all gossip is engaged in for the purpose of hurting people. Gossip can be wildly entertaining. Sometimes analyzing the problems, flaws, and weaknesses of friends, even dear friends, sweeps one up and carries one away in sheer exuberance for the game. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, not everyone’s idea of a whimsical fellow, thought gossip trivial and shallow and falsely authoritative, denying that it had much educational value. Yet I have been in gossip sessions where people delved into the motives of others in a manner that provided more in the way of knowledge than the highly opaque works of Herr Heidegger. Heidegger himself—notably his siding with the Nazis and then trying to cover it up, his love affair while married with his student Hannah Arendt—was the subject of some scorching, demoralizing, and highly entertaining gossip, and there was even more so after his death.
If ever there was a mixed bag, gossip provides it: it can be mean, ugly, vicious, but also witty, daring, entirely charming. It can be damning, dampening (of the spirits), dreary, but also exhilarating, entertaining, highly educational. It pops up in backwater villages among primitive tribes and in great cultural capitals. The only thing missing from the Garden of Eden was a third person for Adam and Eve to gossip about. Despite much railing against gossip, it doesn’t look to be going away, not now, probably not ever.