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Malicious gossip enthralls listeners; sensationalized storytelling enthralls readers

There’s No Such Thing As Good Gossip

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By —— Bio and Archives November 16, 2017

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There’s No Such Thing As Good Gossip
Recommending a book he had just finished, a friend said, “You will love it. The author rattles skeletons in the closets of some well-known folks. The juicy gossip it contains has made the book a bestseller.”

His comment confirms what we all know: With shameful regularity, gossip attracts even the most virtuous souls, and for those of us nowhere close to being in the most-virtuous-souls category, its appeal reaches intoxicating proportions.

And, just like liquid intoxicants, gossip generates hangovers of a sort. After gulping down baseless hearsay and garnishing it into execrable exaggeration, gossipers confirm what English poet Alexander Pope once said: “And all who told it added something new, and all who heard it made enlargements too.”

Bad gossip and good storytelling share a characteristic that makes the former more injurious and the latter more interesting: Malicious gossip enthralls listeners; sensationalized storytelling enthralls readers — both for the same reason: Listeners and readers want to know more.

To illustrate this similarity and to demonstrate gossip’s deleterious potential, students in my creative writing course designed a gossip project.

First they drew names to determine who would be the project’s target. Candace was the unlucky victim. Then they invented nasty pieces of gossip about her and passed them on to other students, who in turn added their own embellishments. 

Although everyone, including Candace, thought the project was enjoyable and educational, they realized that if any of the contributions had been truthful, they would have severely damaged the targeted individual’s reputation; combined, they would have destroyed it. By the time the exercise had circulated through the whole class, what had begun as a mere ripple of hilarious hearsay evolved into an avalanche of aspersions.

Students used such expressions as, “You are not going to believe what I heard about Candace!” which generated such responses as, “I always suspected she was low-life trailer trash.”

Had the project been real instead of staged, those too gullible to doubt the false claims would have been convinced that Candace shouldn’t be allowed to continue roaming the streets and tainting society.

If only gossiping worked the other way! But gossip cannot be about goodness. People don’t gossip about other people’s virtues, a truth reaffirmed a few days later, as I walked into a mall to Christmas shop and was hailed by a familiar voice.

“Hello, Mr. Reed.” It was Candace, wearing a Salvation Army apron and jingling a bell, soliciting donations for the needy.

“Good gracious, young lady, it is freezing out here! I hope someone takes your place soon.”

“Yes, sir — my shift ends at four.” She had been standing there since eight that morning.

I hugged the young woman, dropped money in her bucket and walked away, reminding myself to tell the creative writing class about Candace’s volunteer work. When I did, no one seemed interested, which proved the project’s point. Then I asked, “What is the ultimate lesson of this project?”

No one ventured to surpass Candace’s response: “There’s no such thing as good gossip.”

Jimmy Reed -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Jimmy Reed is an Oxford, Mississippi resident, Ole Miss alumnus, Army veteran, former Mississippi Delta cotton farmer, and retired college teacher.

Jimmy’s latest book, One Hundred by Five Hundred is available at Amazon.

His collection of short stories is available via, telephone 662-236-2262.