In his witty new book of essays “Gossip: the Untrivial Pursuit”(Houghton Mifflin, $25, 242 pp.), Joseph Epstein gleefully tackles the taboo subject of what we say behind other people’s backs.
Epstein explores the social and even biological benefits of gossip and writes about the great gossips of history—the vicious Louis de Rouvroy in the 18th century court of King Louis XIV, the all-powerful columnist Walter Winchell and even the editor Tina Brown. Epstein examines how Tom Wolfe destroyed the composer Leonard Bernstern’s public image by making him look like a buffoon, how the media consciously mixes gossip and news with putrid results and how the Internet is “a vanity press for the demented.” For Epstein, the joy in gossip is exposing individuals’ crude contradictions and pummeling false pieties, though gossip trashes marriages and cuts down social rebels. He quotes one ruthless trafficker in gossip as saying hypocrisy “is the only modern sin.” Epstein’s gossip runs thick, but the book’s insights are penetrating and diverting.
Epstein, 73, was the editor of The American Scholar. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Evanston, Illinois.
Q. You admit to enjoying gossip, as well as receiving and transmitting gossip. Why did you want to write about it?
A. Writers are always looking for good subjects. I came to this book because I was asked to give a talk on celebrity at the University of Virginia. I realized that without gossip, celebrity almost doesn’t exist. More of the world is now gossip. More of journalism is now gossip. There has been a shift in decorum. People now give details they wouldn’t give before.
Q. You note that there are intense social benefits from gossip. What kind of gossip do you enjoy?
A. Vicious gossip doesn’t interest me. There is gossip that details people’s foibles, hypocrises and pretentions. That to me is the most delicious gossip. I don’t know if I’ve committed any vicious gossip in this book. I did not write this book saying, “I’m going to get that S.O.B.”
Q. Where does the viciousness of academic gossip come from?
A. There is that famous quote, “Why are academic arguments carried out with such intensity? Because the stakes are so low.” When I worked at Northwestern, I noticed the petty rivalries. In academics, the pretention rates are very high. There is a high degree of disappointment among these characters. They were so good at school. They thought they would create great books and become inspiring teachers, then neither happened.
Q. You hammer a recent past president of the National Endowment for the Arts as a power-grabbing, middling poet. Why?
A. I don’t hate him. What I was doing was skewering his pretentions. I met him for lunch when he was up for the job. “I have this Jeffersonian sense of public service,” he said. Complete bull. He was really saying, “I want this job for it will give me power and advance my career.” I would have had much greater regard for him if he had said that, instead of putting Jefferson on his side.
Q. You also take the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross apart for exposing her five-decade affair with the married editor William Shawn. Do you think Ross’s motivations were revenge?
A. I think she was morally clueless, especially with Shawn’s wife and children still being alive. It’s “Look at me, I’m still alive. Look at who I’ve been bonking with gusto.” This goes back to decorum. Fifty years earlier, her book would not have been published. Her book was the betrayal of all betrayals, for Shawn was a great editor who specialized in not being known. The nature about what we gossip about has changed greatly.
Q. With gossip flooding into the mainstream media, do you think that modern journalism has been irreparably corrupted?
A. I don’t think it is irreparably corrupted, but it is widely corrupted.