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.

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6 thoughts on “Reading, Writing, Gossiping, Blogging

  1. This way of thinking about novels is intriguing Tara, and it makes me wonder about the importance of novelty as a category that relates to both the novel and to gossip. I am recalling that scene in “Stopped Payment at Cranford” when Miss Pole, possessor of the news of Lady Glenmire’s engagement, is consumed by a fit of coughing before she can relate the gossip to Mrs Forrester. Mary recounts how her eyes said “Don’t let Nature deprive me of the treasure which is mine, although for a time I can make no use of it”; the gossip’s value is all loaded into its first use and once it’s out (i.e. if Mary had told Mrs Forrester before Miss Pole was able) there would be nothing left for Miss Pole to enjoy. Is there a similarity, I wonder, between this dimension of gossip and those novels being produced for the “ravenous reading public” — who, we might deduce, were more interested in the quick consumption of a novelty than repeated re-readings and careful consideration?

    1. In a word, yes! Thanks so much for reminding me of that scene from from Cranford. It’s hilarious and Gaskell doesn’t get enough credit for her sense of humour. I think you’re right about the importance of novelty to both gossip and popular fiction (and specifically the sensation novel). In fact, Palgrave complained in his article that people no longer kept books as treasures to be studied and memorized. Part of the reason that this shifted was likely due to the appearance of sensation novels — novels with secrets to be discovered. I wonder, though, (and this might tie into your post) if people ever reread sensation fiction? Once we know Lady Audley’s secret, is there anything left to enjoy or study in Braddons’ narrative? As someone who is currently working on sensation fiction, I certainly hope so. I must realize, however, that I am interacting with these texts in very different ways than the Victorians. While they might have read and reread Middlemarch or David Copperfield, they likely would not have thought of giving a novel by Ellen Wood or Braddon sustained critical attention. You’ve given me something to think about — thank you!

      1. Tara, yes, this discussion likely has a lot of parallels with critical approaches to detective fiction. Once a mystery is solved, a narrative is effectively sealed up, and sensation fiction often revolves around a mystery or secret, as you point out. At the same time, both sensation and detective fictions might offer, precisely through their focus on detection and revelation, a model for reading that encourages self-aware scrutiny and close attention to the reading process itself. If readers know that they are on the track of a mystery then perhaps they are more attuned to reading as a process of collection and ongoing analysis. As you say, a lot of this depends on how these novels were actually consumed, and our practices as scholars are likely distinctive in this regard.

  2. One of the things that most interests me about the Floating Academy project is the opportunity it gives us to trace out 19 / 21st century convergences, and I think the best starting point might be to puzzle out some of the affinities between Victorian and Web culture. In its critical reflection on the disciplining of information and communications (a question that intersects with our own academic practice), I think your post identifies one of the sites where Victorian experience grants us a revealing “backstory” on the influx of unfettered writing that blogging represents.

    Reading your commentary on gossip, and thinking in particular about how often these floods of information are distinctly gendered, I was reminded of the Victorian medico-cultural diagnosis of “graphomania.” This writing maniac was one of Max Von Nordau’s “degenerates,” a being “with an insatiable desire to write, though he has nothing to write about except his own mental and moral ailments” (Degeneration 18). Outside of Communist Europe, “graphomania” disappeared throughout most of the 20th century, but it’s resurfaced within critical discussions of blogging, particularly in response to the exhausting repercussions of the democratization of authorship (conditions that, critics argue, leave readers overstimulated and uninspired). Todd Napolitano, writing for the Electronic Book Review about online journals and “women’s writing,” caused a minor controversy with his essay “Of Graphomania, Confession, and the Writing Self.” Here’s a representative passage from Napolitano’s essay:

    Now, I certainly do not wish to squelch creativity (I am not quite as abject as Adorno in this regard), and I by no means want to dismiss women’s writing per se. Quite the contrary, I am an advocate. What I am lamenting is how anyone with a computer and access to the Net fancies themselves a writer who simply must be read. Like an assembly of crazed narrators from a Poe anthology, this new generation of hacks simply grab you by the shirt collar and refuse to let go until their story has been told.

    Kundera has the perfect term for this sort of writing – Graphomania. As Kundera describes it, graphomania is not “the mania to create a form,” that is, not a mania to create challenging new aesthetic forms and media, but rather a mania “to impose one’s self on others” through already established modes of “received ideas” and pervasive non-thought [ idées reçues ]. Graphomania reflects a singular neurosis common to modernity: namely, the need to have an audience, “a public audience of unknown readers.” Graphomaniacs aspire to make stories out of their lives and thus presume to do a lot of people good. Writing four love letters a day is not graphomania; xeroxing your love letters so that they may be published one day is.

    1. Gregory, this is such a fascinating connection! Todd Napolitano’s article is 12 years old and, as you say, caused a minor controversy, but I think these ideas are certainly still circulating. I’m really intrigued by his notion that “this new generation of hacks simply grab you by the shirt collar.” When are we ever forced to read a website (or, for that matter, a book)?

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