I was having a sitdown with ole Pheme the other day, asking her what her deal was. She’s very insistent, you know. And busy. And of all the old Greek gods, perhaps the most persistent. Perpetual, one could say. Steadfast. Reliable.
Unlike Zeus, whose thunder we’ve explained, or Poseidon, whose equator-crossing offerings are as meaninglessly superstitious as barring bananas from the boat or not leaving port on Friday, the goddess of fame and renown is as ubiquitous—and unfathomable—as ever. People from every corner of the earth chase after her, begging her favors of nobility and respect, and dodging her wrathful rumor and gossip. One of the strange aspects of our modern age is that people attempt to achieve the former via the latter—stranger still, how often they succeed.
But our little chat was more personal than that. You see, we’ve always had a bit of a strained relationship, Pheme and I. I don’t mean my own pursuit of the old gal’s good graces, though that’s fraught enough for its own think piece or two, maybe even a bad, sad novel. Nor was I taking issue with any aspersions she might have cast on my good name. A) I’m not sure how “good” it is. B) I know better than to think that I or anything I might do would be worth her wasting her breath whispering it into many ears. C) Even in the off chance she were to slip my name into her wrathful mill, I’m not one to care so much what the effect might be. When anything along those lines does happen to happen, and it kinda sorta did not too terribly long ago, everyone within earshot usually recognizes it for what it is and moves quickly on.
No, this tête-à-tête had more to do with Pheme’s more cunning wiles. That sort of sireny song she’s always singing. On the one hand, I don’t much care for the people she uses as tools—blabbermouths, scandalmongers, flibbertigibbets or finks, chatterboxes, informers, meddlers or yaks, parrots or prattlers or tattlers or rats—but on the on the other, I often find the things they have to say simply delicious.
I don’t love to admit the latter, and Pheme can tell, so she teases me about it. Hence the strain. I’m no Oscar Wilde, you see—I recognize that people’s hurt feelings are more than just a bore—but my blood does run rather Tru. There’s great power in secrets—nation states and novels and careers of every kind are built on them and their perpetuation—and that feeling of being in the know, of understanding someone’s true motivations or feelings, of identifying hypocrisy and passing judgment feels a lot like power. And being a bit of a god myself—for what are novelists but omnipotent Creators of our own diminutive universes?—I’m drawn to that particular varietal of power like sharks and vampires are to blood.
I was tempted up there, just two sentences ago, to separate myself from the main and qualify that judgment bit. To say that I’m interested in motivations alone, that “I don’t judge,” that I get no joy out of people’s hypocrisy. But that’s not true. It’s true that I don’t like passing the rumors on, that I feel like I need a shower after, or a cat o’ nine tails, if I do. I consider myself a sponge more than a conduit. I even take a little bit of pride in that, and for the most part it’s honest pride because I keep more secrets than I pass on. But there is a somewhat self-serving side to even that: I think if I can guard that secret, if its spreading stops with me and I can pretend that I don’t know it, then maybe I can use it. Not against someone, for social gain or political leverage, but in a story.
In this mercenary approach to the goings-on about us, we writers have convention on our side; once someone knows you’re a writer, the old adage goes, everything is fair game, and if he doesn’t want to show up in print, he should act accordingly.
That convention is bullshit to those involved, of course. John Cheever was a master American storyteller who relied heavily on his immediate family’s frailties, neuroses, and the kind of common, everyday regrettable behavior that makes up family life. I knew Cheever’s nephew or grand nephew at university, and my enthusiasm upon finding out about the connection was met with a reluctant shrug. “Eh,” the guy said, “everyone in the family thinks he was kind of a dick.”
I’m thankful for that lesson, though I didn’t know at the time that’s what it was. For although I watch and wait and scoop and absorb and ferret things away, and while it’s true I luxuriate in a really choice piece of gossip, I’m hesitant to use it #nofilter in a story. Not because I think it’s cheap or a shortcut— I’ve repurposed all manner of my friends’ and family’s and familiars’ more valiant actions and behaviors with little more than the barest tweaking that context requires, and some things really are just too damn good not to use—but because I don’t want to be a dick.
I’ve had to learn this much closer to “recently” than “a while ago.” I’ve had to teach myself to drop the habit when in certain company or circumstances, to leave the pen and notebook behind, figuratively and literally.
Not that I always succeed, of course. Just last month I heard, somewhat by chance, the one missing piece of this soap-operatic, this tangled-Mexican-telenovelística web I’ve been standing back and surveying for a couple of years. It was this small-town, small-world confirmation of a whole host of things that seemed almost too brilliantly plotted to be true. After dancing around some of the more general features of this story, the person who told me the thing and I realized that one another knew all but the ten percent of the rest of the story we each were able, ecstatically, to provide the other. “Holy shit,” we each said to each other, beaming, too many times to count.
But there was no one else I could tell it to. Well, no one I would, at least, because of that whole developing-conscience thing—and, yes, since I’m being honest, that maybe-I-can-use-this thing. So, I told my wife. And she said, “Oh! Damn!” (once, not too many times to count), and then made this face that she makes, and then said, “That really wasn’t his place to tell you that,” and I sighed.
But I didn’t roll my eyes, because I know she’s right. And this is why it’s good to have people you love and trust in your life, so you don’t go off pissing off everyone who loves and trusts you. Or used to.
Life and character are like formulae in advanced physics, or like electrical-mechanical-computer codes, and you make little calibrations to them as you go along, and you try to balance what they produce with the joy you have in assembling them.
And Pheme, that sphinx, is the mischievous mistral that blows through the whole works.
I told her as much, the other day, to bring our little conversation to a close. “Okay,” she said, getting up with a smile. “I’ll see you after a while.”
rumor (n.) late 14c., from Old French rumor “commotion, widespread noise or report” (Modern French rumeur), from Latin rumorem (nominative rumor) “noise, clamor, common talk, hearsay, popular opinion,” related to ravus “hoarse,” from PIE *reu– “to bellow.” Related: Rumorous. Rumor mill is from 1887. Dutch rumoer, German Rumor are from French.
gossip (n.) Old English godsibb “sponsor, godparent,” from God + sibb “relative” (see sibling). Extended in Middle English to “any familiar acquaintance” (mid-14c.), especially to woman friends invited to attend a birth, later to “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk” (1560s). Sense extended 1811 to “trifling talk, groundless rumor.” Similar formations in Old Norse guðsifja, Old Saxon guþziff.
blab (v.) mid-15c., apparently from Middle English noun blabbe “one who does not control his tongue” (late 13c.), probably echoic. Related: Blabbed; blabbing. The exact relationship between the blabs and blabber is difficult to determine. The noun was “[e]xceedingly common in 16th and 17th c.; unusual in literature since c 1750″ [OED].