In an 1860 article, Victorian critic F.T. Palgrave likens Victorian novels to social conversation. He explains that contemporary readers “go to books for something almost similar to what they find in social conversation. Reading tends to become only another kind of gossip” (488). He writes with a certain degree of nostalgia for the past, when readers from a century earlier looked for “amusement of a kind higher and more amusing than could be expected from living gossip” (488). In contrast, books from 1860 “now become daily more and more a mere other person’s conversation, a voice from another speaker who does not happen to be by” (488). His comments seem to beg the question, when was the novel not another “person’s conversation, a voice from another speaker who does not happen to be by”? This definition of the novel doesn’t exactly apply to gossip, where the speaker is present, but the person being spoken about “does not happy to be by.” His critique seems to confuse agency: if reading is gossip, who is the gossiper, the reader or author? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, as long as both reader and writer are taking part in this social conversation.
Palgrave’s real criticism comes out not when he compares books and readers to social conversations but to the far more loaded term gossip. Gossip is usually associated with women, and Palgrave was likely imagining female readers and writers when he complained of the state of the contemporary reading public. Also implied in his criticism is the contemporary fear that books were being published quickly and unsystematically in order to meet a ravenous reading public. In this book market, any one (any speaker or gossiper) could publish a novel.
As I write my first blog entry, I couldn’t help but consider how Palgrave’s anxieties about the state of the Victorian novel and reader mirror some of our own anxieties about blogging. Andrew Sullivan, in an article for The Atlantic, calls blogging “writing out loud.” His comment points to the freedom and lack of formality allowed in blogging, but also links it to speech. And of course many of the most popular blogs focus on gossip and are targeted for young, celebrity-obsessed women. (I will admit to looking at a few of these…purely for research purposes of course.)
Palgrave doesn’t convincingly answer the question, what is so bad about books that sound like real conversations and feel like “living gossip”? But perhaps contemporary anxieties about blogging – based on the fact that anyone with access to the internet and an opinion can “publish” their writing, that personal information becomes broadcast in a public forum, and that there is virtually no end to the number of blogs available online – show us that his anxieties are alive and well, especially when it comes to academic blogging. Palgrave is not around to defend himself (does that mean I’m gossiping about him?), but I’m not convinced that “living gossip” need be such a bad thing. The OED defines the conversation of a gossip (the noun) in two ways: as “idle talk; trifling or groundless rumour; tittle-tattle,” but also more favourably as “unrestrained talk or writing.” I hope to channel the later definition in future posts.
F.T. Palgrave, “On Readers in 1760 and 1860.” Macmillan’s Magazine 1 (1860): 487-89.