GOSSIP IS a splendid subject, and ought to make an amusing as well as an interesting study. It is an intimate activity, in which everybody indulges one way and another, and about which most people have mixed feelings. Dictionary definitions suggest some reasons for the bad reputation of the word and the deed: it is described as "idle personal talk; groundless rumor; trifling or petty scandal." Formless, fluid, almost intangible in itself, it bears affinities to a great many other human activities; it is a variety of conversation, it is akin to all the multiple forms of storytelling. But it is distinguished from them primarily by that string of pejorative adjectives -- idle, personal, groundless, trifling, and petty. No doubt because of these demeaning and disparaging connotations, gossip has not attracted a great deal of critical attention. Professor Patricia Meyer Spacks has attempted to remedy this deficiency with a volume of critical analysis that not only scrutinizes gossip itself and its literary uses, but tries, on several different scores, to rehabilitate its seedy reputation.

The first of her procedures in this project is to minimize, so far as possible, the pejoratives and to emphasize the analogies that gossip bears with other, more reputable, and more literary activities. She distinguishes "good" gossip, which tries to understand and explain the behavior of its subjects, from 'bad" gossip, which demeans and tries to vulgarize its subjects. "Good" gossip is then analogous to biography, autobiography, collections of personal letters -- indeed, to most varieties of history, to practically all fiction and drama, to myths, legends, folktales, psychoanalysis, and to any form of conversation in which people try to represent or misrepresent, understand or misunderstand, other people. (Of course these are all highly purposeful forms, and one could argue that so far as gossip has an equivalent purpose it is no longer gossip in the dictionary sense of the word -- idle, groundless, and so on; but this is to question the definition Spacks has chosen to use.) Her emphasis on the respectable analogues of gossip perhaps explains why there is nothing in the book about famous instances of real-life gossip campaigns -- nothing about Henry Ward Beecher, for example, or Charles Stuart Parnell, nothing on heroines of the scandal-sheets, like (let's say) Peaches Browning, Aimee Semple McPherson, or those earth-goddesses whom the French used to call les grandes horizontales.

In her second campaign for gossip, Spacks has a social point to make. She argues that gossip, as a secret, anonymous weapon, has often been an engine in the hands of the underprivileged and socially helpless -- specifically, in the hands of women against the cabal of male privilege. (This rather overlooks the fact that women, rather than men, have been the prime sufferers from gossip.) Among its other social benefits, we learn that gossip may be a form of self-reinforcement, that it may generate narrative power and stabilize meanings for communities.

As these generalizations suggest, a third way in which Spacks elevates gossip is by discussing it in an array of solemn abstractions and sweeping but rather remote propositions which are hard to pin down to specific occasions. I found it useful to fix my mind on a specific book in which gossip plays a major role, and use it as a measuring rod for Spacks' generalizations. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis came in particularly handy. When I read of gossip as a form of heightened understanding, or as a means for a community to define itself, I thought of Gopher Prairie and its gossippy devices for skinning poor Carol Kennicott alive and reducing her to abject conformity.e was, after all, a way for the community to define itself.

Spacks' approach, which is very textually oriented, doesn't allow her to say much about how different social circumstances color gossip very differently. In a small town with fixed standards from which there is practically no escape, and for a victim without resources, it may be horrible; among cosmopolitans, who understand the pleasures of malicious wit, scandalmongering may feel like a game or even an art- form, to which the prospect of blood-letting just adds a special fillip. In short, there's no such thing as "good" gossip and "bad" gossip; too much depends on the social circumstances, on whether one's the gossiper or the gossipee, and on something only to be described as accident. For the effects of gossip are largely unpredictable; as Don Basilio proclaims in a memorable aria of The Barber of Seville, calumny begins as venticello, a little breeze, but it grows (through "a natural, though corrupt, love of the lie itself") to be a tremuoto, un temporale, un tumulto generale that with a flick of its tail destroys Edward VIII, the president's men, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or whom it will.

Remains to be said that large sections of Gossip are written in the worst sort of indigestible academic prose. In the latter part of the book, where Spacks has largely disposed of her subject, and writes at relative liberty about some random books that interest her, things pick up a bit. She is a clever reader when she lets herself be; but the early chapters are heavy going indeed. One mannerism that holds things up is the author's impulse to quote snippets from all the trendy authorities, from Kierkegaard to Walter Benjamin to Hannah Arendt to Roland Barthes. She cannot tell us that sex and money are forms of power without assuring us that Michel Foucault is her authority for this unsurprising truism. Behind this sort of inflation, it's possible to see in the author the rudiments of good sense; too bad she didn't give them freer play.