Over the years Joseph Epstein has turned his keen eyes and pen to broad subjects with which all of us are familiar — snobbery, friendship, envy, ambition — so it should come as no surprise that he now addresses himself to gossip. This tantalizing human activity no doubt can be traced back to Adam and Eve — who presumably gossiped about God — and today is so much with us as a commercial enterprise that even yetis on their Himalayan peaks surely have People magazine airmailed in every week and read the Daily Beast on their iPhones.
Epstein, an old-fashioned and conservative man, predictably (and correctly) finds gossip in its present manifestations distasteful, but he is critical without being censorious. He clearly enjoys gossip as much as the next person, and in the opening pages of “Gossip” he feeds the reader a number of tidbits, most of which unfortunately cannot be published in a family newspaper. This one can:
“Someone recently told me . . . that a gynecologist told him that when his patient Elizabeth Taylor came in for a minor surgical procedure she brought along security men to make sure that all her pubic hair, some of which needed to be shaved, would be swept up and properly disposed of, lest any of the nurses or orderlies on the job attempted to scoop it up and offer it for sale on eBay. This story feels mightily like gossip, yet I do not feel the least disloyalty in passing it along; instead I feel myself merely lapsing into wretched bad taste in retelling it. I also feel that, in the current age, it is probably a true story.”
Indeed, the story is classic gossip, because telling it entails several of the most basic motives behind gossip. It enables the gossiper “to do dirt to the person he is gossiping about.” It entails “sheer jolly prurience.” It presents the gossiper as “up to the moment, in the know.” By no means least, it reminds us that “part of the delight of gossip, after all, is, to use an old-fashioned word, its naughtiness.” Another good old-fashioned word for it is mischievousness. Both words have almost nothing to do with evil and a great deal to do with fun.
Whether gossip in its most common contemporary forms really is fun is, I suppose, a matter of definition and taste. Much as I enjoy salacious stories and unpublishable tidbits, I am at one with Epstein in finding nothing interesting about the “personalities” and “celebrities” who are prime fodder for the gossip machinery in print and on-line. Epstein, who has read almost everything and seems to remember it all, for once trips up. He cites some rather lame comments by John Podhoretz about the “inexhaustible maw” of the gossip industry but misses Nora Ephron’s defining words on the subject, published fully three-and-a-half decades ago: “The celebrity pool has expanded in order to provide names to fill the increasing number of column inches currently devoted to gossip; this is my own pet theory, and I use it to explain all sorts of things, one of whom is Halston.”
The gossip that most interests me, and apparently Epstein as well, is gossip either about people whom I know or about people whom I do not know but who move more or less in my own circle. Working at home as I have for nearly four decades, I must await gifts from those on the outside. A few years back, when my wife was still this newspaper’s book-review editor, her return from the office each evening was occasion not merely for the pleasure of her company but for the gossip she regularly brought home. Now that we both work at home, the pleasure level is higher but the gossip level, alas, is deplorably low.