If it’s true that, as a Supreme Court justice once said, you know pornography when you see it, then it’s also true that you know gossip when you hear it.
Simply put, gossip is talking about another person when that person is not present, and typically in unflattering (and even vicious) terms. It’s about telling secrets, an act of betrayal. If you love to gossip, as author Joseph Epstein admits in his latest book, “Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit,’’ does that make you a bad person? Not necessarily.
Epstein looks at gossip both from a thematic and historical perspective, weaving in stories of famed practitioners throughout history, defining different forms of it, and arguing for a more nuanced view.
According to the author, gossip has its virtues in society. (It can enforce the norms of a community.) Heidegger dismissed gossip as trivial and shallow, yet Epstein - who in previous books has examined topics such as snobbery and friendship - notes that analyzing the problems, flaws, and motives of friends can prove fascinating and educational. Perhaps hearing of one’s troubles can sometimes stir empathy as well.
He also describes how sociologists have studied the uses of gossip within certain settings, such as corporations and universities. In such places, gossip may be an important source for information about “what is happening in the inner sanctum of an institution’’ - say, impending layoffs and promotions, internal disputes, salaries, and so on. It can also be useful, Epstein writes, in assessing the character of a colleague.
In journalism, the line between gossip and “investigative reporting’’ seems blurry - after all, both involve sharing news about things that someone does not wish to be known. Think of the National Enquirer exposing the exploits and scandals of John Edwards, or the media’s delving into allegations of hacking and coverups at the highest levels of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid empire. (In the latter instance, public schadenfreude, especially in the United Kingdom, was particularly potent, as Murdoch finally got a taste of his own medicine.)
Epstein notes that in the modern era, when over-sharing and self-absorption are cultural norms, certain kinds of gossip have lost the “frisson’’ they once had. For instance, suppressed homosexuality seems less of a big deal; and marital infidelity, he writes, “no longer has quite the same moral repugnance it once did.’’ It takes much more than that to shock people these days, yet reports of Hollywood breakups are still entertaining to many people.
Although Epstein maintains a suitably lighthearted approach to his subject, he also examines the darker side of gossip, as when false, slanderous accusations are made, resulting in lost jobs and damaged relationships. The author admits his own discomfort with spreading gossip, but confesses that as a frequent practitioner, it would be disingenuous to condemn the act.
Indeed, Epstein offers his fair share of rumor-spreading in the book, concerning the lives of literary types, celebrities, and politicians such as Dick Cheney. The gossip within the book gets a bit tedious, and the author’s commentary somewhat repetitive. Also, it’s hard to care enough about gossip as a reader to endure his laundry list of people throughout history who have “not merely enjoyed but adored’’ gossip.
Among the most compelling sections are those that study gossip in relation to economic status - including how gossip has given the lower classes pleasure in enjoying the bad behavior and weaknesses of the rich. Also interesting are Epstein’s anecdotes about gossip columnists throughout history, some of whom felt they provided moral instruction to their readers.
“Gossip’’ is an entertaining, breezy exploration of the subject, nothing less or more. So what’s the take-away? Upon closer examination, gossip is more complicated than it seems. It is both good and bad, empowering and corrosive. Above all, as Epstein writes, “Gossip is here to stay.’’Carmela Ciuraru, author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,’’ can be reached at email@example.com.