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Talking of Talk

ISSUE:  Winter 1986
Gossip. By Patricia Meyer Spacks. Knopf. $18. 95.

When Australian actress Coral Browne encountered Guy Burgess in Moscow in 1958, seven years after his defection, he told her the only thing he missed about England was the gossip. Burgess clung fastidiously to his Oxbridge manners amid the alien kasha, but one can prattle comfortably only in the familiar tongue of a godparent—old English godsibb, the derivation of gossip. If, in Lionel Trilling’s exuberant definition, manners are “a culture’s hum and buzz of implication,” gossip might be termed its hum and buzz of explication.

Patricia Meyer Spacks hears this din as irreducibly ambiguous: both subversive and despotic, playful and restrictive, benign and malign. In a series of chapters examining gossip primarily as the content and paradigm of English literary texts, she analyzes its power to magnify and to trivialize. It gives voice to the dominant and to the dominated. Gossip, she reiterates, “possesses a double valence: enemy and agent of desire.”

And yet Spacks’ polemical imagination is animated most by the whiteness of the noise. She chooses as buoyant epigraph to her book an Emersonian effusion in which he affirms that: “The best of life is conversation.” She might as easily have selected Thoreau’s cranky indictment of journalism: “If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” I suspect that, though they may buy The New York Times, most readers of a volume by a Yale professor that expatiates on Horace Walpole, George Eliot, and Henry James will share Thoreau’s aversion to what the world calls gossip, to allowing the world in fact to make unlimited local calls. Serious readers know that backbiting is not nutritious, that there is nothing to add to Marianne Moore’s assertion: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/ not in silence, but restraint.”

While Spacks carefully balances the ledger of gossip’s vices and virtues, her rhetorical legerdemain is enlisted to defend gossip against the malicious things people have been saying about it. Her extensive literary examples demonstrate a logical and chronological progression from gossip as venomous and demeaning to a realization that the unspoken life is dumb. Part of it is feminist resentment over the traditional, misogynist association of women with idle chatter; Thoreau’s image of “old women over their tea” might have provoked Spacks to an even more impassioned defense of women, and gossip. The early novel was a suspect genre, not least because of its alliance with women, as readers and writers. As Spacks illustrates in her discussions of Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s Emma, the novel appropriated both the preoccupations and the strategies of gossip, and for that reason was scorned by a male literary establishment. Gossip, fiction, and fictionalized gossip provided an agency of power for the culturally dispossessed.

The epic question opening Erich Segal’s slight 1970 novel Love Story is: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” If you answer: “Nothing,” you are neither a novelist, nor a gossip, nor, Spacks would surely reply, a fully human being. She is intent on valorizing and on reclaiming for all of us that attentiveness to experience and that sense of shared observation that the dominant culture has, to its own detriment, dismissed as womanish. Sex, violence, and money are, according to Spacks, the three engines of gossip. Those who delight in commenting on any of these are doggedly despised as “catty,” as if the feline species were exclusively female; or else they are vilified as “bitchy.” Spacks would champion the conventionally feminine values of trust, intimacy, and bonding by exonerating gossip,

When she is not celebrating gossip, what Spacks is characterizing as its ambiguity is perhaps merely a function of its amorphousness. And this accounts for much of the resiliency of the discussion. Gossip is opprobrious talk, but it is not just that. Or it is vapid talk, though it could be something else as well. At times, Spacks seems to be willing to accept gossip as simply talk (or its written representation) an sich. As such, it is what Bronislaw Malinowski called “phatic communion,” the talk-for-talk’s-sake that is a necessary social cement regardless of its ingredients. Spacks’s contention is that utterance in itself engenders and sustains community—as if gossip were the paradigm of poststructuralism, the world coterminous with the word, and as if a primal throat-clearing were more essential than the precise wording “Let there be light!” to the creation of the universe. Such a view of course sanctions a vast variety of talk about talk.

In her apologia for gossip, Spacks tries to parry the charge that it can be pernicious. As everyone knows how innocuous book reviewers are, she declares: “It is as difficult to call to mind anyone killed by gossip as to find someone murdered by a negative book review, but beliefs in language’s lethal force require no evidence. Like the notion that taking a photograph of someone endangers his spirit, the view that saying something bad has the force of doing something bad wells from pre-rational depths.” She does concede, in a parenthesis, that: “Often, of course, the view is quite accurate, ” but it was more than a parenthesis that incarcerated a man recently released after six years on a spurious accusation of rape. The egregious National Enquirer has been found legally responsible for the anguish its calumny has caused to more than one celebrity victim. In her enthusiasm for colloquy, Spacks slights the perils of obloquy, the considerable damage inflicted by the malice of spies, tenure committees, and political tricksters. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a gracious principle that ought to be more generously applied to the living.

While acknowledging gossip’s role as an instrument of repression, a means of ostracizing social mavericks, Spacks also links it to the exercise of individual and group freedom. This is particularly evident in her analysis of novels by two black women, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, in which language provides one means for an oppressed class to declare and enact its independence. Unless it is bitten, the tongue proves mightier than the sword in her analysis of The School for Scandal: “The verbal explosions of scandal in Sheridan’s play, however, declare that not everything can be controlled, that people will create excitement for themselves in talk if forbidden exciting action.” But surely it is naïve hyperbole to declare, as Spacks does in her final paragraph and in italics: “gossip will not be suppressed.” However vaguely the term is defined, there is far less gossip within Nineteen Eight-Four than within Barchester Towers, Vanity Fair, or any of Spacks’ other exemplary fictions. Perhaps samizdat is testimony to the persistence of gossip under adverse conditions. But even if he had been born in the Soviet capital, Guy Burgess would, as a connoisseur of the genre, likely concede a greater vitality to the gossip in London than in Moscow.

Gossip is particularly valuable for its insights into the Anglo-American literary tradition from the Restoration to the present. And it is particularly original in its discussions of what it calls “borderland genres”—published letters, diaries, and biographies. Reading the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague or Horace Walpole does indeed, as Spacks claims, place us in as morally ambiguous a situation as if we were gossips. And rival biographies of Samuel Johnson and of Charlotte Bronte brilliantly illustrate how discourse about others is an exercise of power, a bid for authority. Spacks is so informed and informative about the post-Renaissance English canon and its satellites that the theme of gossip at times seems a mere pretext for a series of shrewd explications.

Gossip is at once entirely too deprecating and grandiose a title for what this book attempts and accomplishes. It is a successful study of the affinities between recent English literary traditions and chatter. But it does not begin to say enough about the larger subject of gossip. For all it states to the contrary, one would think tongues were tied until the death of Cromwell. Surely Anglo-Saxon scops and Shakespeare’s merry wives and conniving courtiers have some bearing on the theme. And Chaucer’s The House of Fame must be the locus classicus of gossip for English literature. But it is not clear that English, a language unknown to Sophocles’ choruses, has a patent on the topic. Petronius, Lady Murasaki, Dante, Madame de Sévigné, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, among others, ought also to be considered. Spacks pays lip service to the importance of oral traditions, but says precious little about bards, skalds, and troubadours.

Moreover, any book that calls itself Gossip ought not to ignore noncanonical literature (e.g., Grace Metalious, Jacquelyn Susann, the scribbling women who exasperated Melville), the electronic media (particularly “news” and “talk” shows), advertising, the sleazy popular press (and/or insidious machinations in the less popular press), and professional gossips like Hedda Hopper and Liz Smith. The Watergate tapes, and the reactions to them, might have made an instructive chapter for Gossip. The contemporary politics of public opinion polls, in which the highest virtue becomes the appearance of virtue, is likewise a function of gossip. So, too, with cinema, not merely because its stars are ceaselessly being brutalized, and not merely because it often portrays the actions of gossip—see, particularly, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Movie theaters place their anonymous voyeurs in precisely that ambiguous relationship that Spacks describes as characteristic of the gossip.

Much of the program of the New Critics in proscribing attention to anything but the text itself can be understood as an aversion to elegant chitchat masquerading as literary scholarship. Yet the New Criticism probably simply shifted the focus of educated gossip. To the extent that Homo sapiens is a playful, social, and curious creature, we cannot avoid the urge to talk to and about one another. Spacks invokes the wayward figure of Eve as a personification of the link between misogyny and loose tongues. But it seems to me that gossip itself is more centrally understood as a conjunction of the myths of Faust and Phaedra, whose slanderous reports to Theseus of sexual advances by Hippolytus resulted in the young man’s death,

One of the most accomplished of English gossips, Oscar Wilde, noted that: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Wilde was to become somewhat less sanguine about the consequences of being talked about. Though both traffic in discourse, there is surely a difference in degree if not kind between supermarket tabloids and The Virginia Quarterly Review. People will not always be kind, or intelligent, or pertinent. But Gossip, if not its reviews, makes a sound contribution to the clamor of conviviality.


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