Reading for All Mankind: Is Gossip a Good Thing?

You’ll never guess what Andrew Ladd said about Joseph Epstein’s Gossip.

Ironically, I have very little I want to tell you about Joseph Epstein’s new book, Gossip—except, maybe, that if you don’t care about the sex lives of obscure dead literary figures, you probably won’t get much out of it.

To his credit, Epstein tries to write the incisive analysis of gossip the book’s cover promises: he has chapters “about” the history of gossip, and why we do it, and its different forms, and all the other things you might expect in such a book. Unfortunately, he doesn’t try very hard. In fact, as soon as those chapters hit anything requiring original research or real thought, Epstein gives up and instead dishes dirt on the B-list liberal arts celebrities of yesteryear, with as much glee as a retiree watching the neighbors through a gap in the curtains.

This is particularly infuriating if you weren’t middle-aged and in the upper middle class between 1960 and 1980, because, as Epstein himself acknowledges, gossip about people you don’t know is pretty dull. But what Epstein really seems to mean is that gossip about people he doesn’t know is dull, because he sure expects us to be riveted by the stories of his friends and acquaintances that pepper the book.

There’s a vignette several pages long about some unnamed academic he used to work with, and most of it describes them gossiping about multiple third parties, also unnamed, and all the rather dull skeletons in their closets. One of them has a boring wife. Another likes to send bragging emails about the poetry prizes he’s always winning. Scintillating stuff!

Meanwhile, the interesting questions he poses, especially “How has gossip changed today?” and “Is gossip a good thing?” get only cursory, unsatisfying answers. (To wit: “it has gotten stupider” and “hard to say for sure.”) You’d have about as much luck asking a Magic 8 Ball.

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So let me try and answer those questions myself, starting with how gossip has changed. My answer: not very much, and mostly in scale. That is, we all still gossip about the same things and in largely the same ways as even the Ancient Greeks did. We just do it faster, and more, mostly thanks to TV and the internet.

The “stupider” part is mostly subjective, of course, and it’s easy to see why today’s gossip feels stupider to Epstein; the most visible gossip these days is the stuff on E! about the Kardashians, and that does seem kind of lowbrow compared to his wry anecdotes about Lionel Trilling. But the topics of today’s celebrity gossip are ultimately still the same as Epstein’s stale literary gossip—sex, money, power—so his complaints don’t seem very valid. Whatever else you think about Kim Kardashian you can hardly blame her for giving people what they so clearly want.

And that’s the thing about gossip: people do want it, all the time, probably as much as they want the sex and money and power it’s always about. Epstein’s own obsessive retelling of so many stories is as good a piece of evidence about the universal allure of gossip as any. Clearly, even the highest of the highbrow like a good scandal.

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In answer to the second question, then—“is gossip a good thing?”—I’m tempted to say: who cares? If it makes people happy, let them have it.

I promised a satisfying answer, though, and “who cares?” ain’t it. Besides, even if gossip makes the tellers and recipients happy, it often makes its subjects equally unhappy. Nobody likes the feeling that people are trashing them behind their back.

And yet there are still plenty of reasons to think gossip is a good thing. Social scientists have come up with several over the years: gossip helps establish morals, for instance, and encourages people to actively behave better to avoid being gossiped about later. Gossip helps establish group solidarity. It relieves stress, by letting you vent your frustrations about a person who’s been bothering you, but in a low-stakes situation. (Some linguists have even suggested that humans evolved the ability to speak mainly so they could gossip, which would have been helpful in maintaining social hierarchies in early primate groups.)

All that strikes me as a bit pedestrian, though, when the real benefit of gossip, in my opinion, is all the stories it gives us. In these days when people read less, when movie attendance is down, when even soap operas—the gossipiest of TV shows—are being cancelled, real gossip, whether the kind peddled on E! or the kind shared with friends, is the only chance a lot of people have to be purely thrilled by a good yarn.

And yes, sometimes gossip can hurt. But if you really can’t shake off a few behind-the-back whispers every now and then, you shouldn’t be doing stuff worth gossiping about in the first place.

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One final word on Epstein’s book, since this is, after all, supposed to be a review: like gossip the activity, whether you’ll enjoy Gossip the book depends mostly on your interest in the subject matter. I found it dull not only because I don’t care about what Barbara Walters said to whom twenty years ago, but because I also don’t care much for the sort of armchair, literary analysis that Epstein is admittedly very good at.

If that’s your bag, though, I suspect this book will be a real treat. And either way, we can talk about it behind his back later.

—Photo Bien Stephenson/Flickr

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About Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd is the blog editor for Ploughshares. His work also has appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Memoir Journal, Paper Darts, and The Rumpus, among others, and his first novel, What Ends (New Issues Press, January 2014), was the winner of the 2012 AWP Prize in the Novel. Follow Andrew on Twitter @agoodladd.

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