Thursday, July 11, 2013

Literary Scholars and Gossip

Scientists and philosophers are not the only people singing the praises of gossip. Some scholars of literature love it, as well. The fullest and best treatment of gossip in literature is the concisely titled Gossip by Patricia Meyer Spacks.1 Spacks’ book is a masterpiece of scholarship, at turns both formidable and inviting, comprehensive and subtle, and amazingly insightful. At times, it can be hard to follow, especially when the reader doesn’t share Spacks’ prodigious vocabulary or encyclopedic knowledge of the literary works being discussed. But Gossip is worth the effort, a fascinating read.

Spacks explores the idea of gossip both within literature and in life. She starts with gossip’s reputation in and out of literature, moves towards the experience of gossip–how it feels to give and receive it, and then meanders through several different genres: published letters, memoir, biography, stage comedy, and finally the novel. Spacks not only explains the role of gossip within each genre but probes into how that genre explains gossip outside of literature in real life.

What is gossip to Patricia Meyer Spacks? Initially, she declines to offer a definition. “[Gossip] means many things to many people and even at different times and in different contexts, to a single person.”2 Eventually she offers “a minimal definition of gossip: ‘idle talk about other persons not present.’”3 From that, she differentiates between

two typical modes, at opposite ends of a continuum. . . . At one extreme, gossip manifests itself as distilled malice. It plays with reputations, circulating truths and half-truths and falsehoods about the activities, sometimes about the motives and feelings, of others. . . . At the opposite end of the continuum lies the gossip I call “serious,” which exists only as a function of intimacy. It takes place in private, at leisure, in a context of trust, usually among no more than two or three people. Its participants use talk about others to reflect about themselves, to express wonder and  uncertainty and locate certainties, to enlarge their knowledge of one another.4

Spacks claims to be much more interested in the latter kind of “serious” gossip than the former. She decries the “distilled malice” mode of gossip as well as the “circulation of slander,” “betrayal of secrets,” and “penetration of privacy.”5 She points out, “Even ‘innocent’ forms of gossip objectify the person considered; those talking communicate at the cost of another, whom they reduce to a kind of fiction.”6 This is a valuable insight. Spacks has sharp things to say about the gossip printed in magazines. “Such gossip exists because it sells; it sells brief illusions of intimacy and power. It thus corresponds rather precisely to prostitution.”7

And yet, Spacks is enamored with gossip. She says, “even malicious gossip may possess positive value.”8 Her book is crammed with breathless affirmations of gossip’s benefits.9 A short sample: Gossip “‘substantializes’ human relations by exploring them.”10 It provides “point of view, information; also reassurance.”11 “Literature and gossip alike, amuse, amend, and instruct.”12 It subverts oppression.13 Gossip heals. “A psychoanalyst friend of mine defines gossip as healing talk.”14 It “expresses impulse and satisfies need.”15 Gossip comforts. “Gossip feels good: a form of closeness, a mode of power.”16 It can achieve many benefits simultaneously. “The reader can feel at once envious of and superior to the rich and famous: they may be rich and famous, s/he knows all about them.”17 Gossip has “value as an agent of preservation, even of glorification (turning lives into stories declares their importance), as well as of reification.”18 When we gossip, we “gain pleasure by judging,”19 “penetrate other lives,”20 and “generate meanings.”21 Gossip “helps to enforce agreed-upon values.”22 It teaches. “Gossip, taken seriously, teaches the same lessons as Wuthering Heights: people endlessly interest one another; but although natural affinities create illusions of understanding, one never grasps the full dimensions of another consciousness.”23

These are just a few of the assertions Spacks makes and are limited to the more literary and personal features of gossip, not the social benefits.24 Spacks ends her study by declaring, “Gossip will not be suppressed. It thrives in secret, it speaks what needs to be said. . . . Gossip surveys the field through a peephole, but sees a great deal; its perspective shows the world from a new angle.”25

It is difficult to analyze such a broad and comprehensive body of work in a simple summarization. There are many subtle complexities that could be explored for profit. And yet, I suspect that the “bottom line” for Spacks is that gossip is good because it is the spice of life. Gossip makes life interesting.

In the very center of the book, Spacks discusses a few eighteenth and nineteenth century works of moral teaching for young ladies and gentlemen that come across as dull.

The suggestions to young ladies about appropriate subjects for conversation evoke a mode of informal discourse rather like that practiced by the Houyhnhnms in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels. The noble horses confine themselves to such matters as friendship, benevolence, order and economy, the bounds and limits of virtue, the rules of reason: unlike decorous females, they can transcend the personal. But the two kinds of conversation . . . share an atmosphere of restriction. Generations of readers have felt dubious about taking the Houyhnhnms as ideals for human beings; they sound among others things, boring.26

I get the sense that, in Spacks’ estimation, there are few things worse than boredom.27 And, literarily speaking, I share her scorn for boring books. Who wants to read a flat, dull, muffled book?

But life and literature are not the same. Virtue and grace are not dull. Heaven, a place where there are no dark and dirty secrets, will not be colorless, odorless, and drab. It will be sense and experience itself. Because heaven is “a world of love.”28 The story we are in right now does include sin and shame as key story elements, but the story that will be is much more interesting. And that is the story we are encouraged to be telling right now (Eph 4:29).

The story of love is also the story that we should be living right now. In the same chapter, Spacks discusses Emma by Jane Austen and highlights the role of boredom. “People talk a great deal about other people during Emma, for one main reason: to alleviate or forestall boredom.”29 This makes Emma interesting, but it gets the title character into a lot of trouble. One thinks how much better it would be for everyone if Emma Woodhouse chose loving service to others instead of meddling.

How much more is this true in real life. The Bible presents service as an antidote for idleness.

And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:14-18).

Now, that is truly interesting!

1Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: A.E. Knopf, 1985). Another interesting book along the same lines, though limited to medieval literature, is Susan E. Phillips, Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).
2Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: A.E. Knopf, 1985), 4.
3Ibid., 26. By “idle,” she means, “lack of announced purpose.”
4Ibid., 4-5. This definition has many similarities with Louise Collins’ feminist paradigm discussed above.
5Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: A.E. Knopf, 1985), 33.
6Ibid., 34.
7Ibid., 68.
8Ibid., 34.
9And she doesn’t always differentiate between her two “modes.”
10Ibid., 20.
11Ibid., 22.
12Ibid., 23.
13Ibid., 45. This corresponds to Maryann Ayim’s feminist arguments discussed above.
14Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: A.E. Knopf, 1985), 57.
15Ibid., 47.
16Ibid., 63.
17Ibid., 67.
18Ibid., 77.
19Ibid., 84.
20Ibid., 93.
21Ibid., 103.
22Ibid., 141.
23Ibid., 206.
24Her book could be called Good Gossip! See pages 34 and 258 in her book for a list of social benefits of gossip that Spacks endorses. These are similar to the lists found in Westacott and Ben-Ze’ev discussed above.
25Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: A.E. Knopf, 1985), 263.
26Ibid., 143-144.
27Interestingly, a decade later, Spacks would write the definitive work on boredom in literature! Patricia Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 1995). [See a meditation by Ed Welch on this here.]
28Jonathan Edwards, Heaven, a World of Love, Pocket Puritan Series (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2008).
29Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: A.E. Knopf, 1985), 165.

Continuing to "take sides" on gossip with more proponents.