'How To Become A Scandal' Is Smart, But Timid In her new book about bad behavior, Laura Kipnis explores why we can't look away when a public drama unfolds. But critic Susan Jane Gilman says her approach is a bit too timid for such a titillating topic.

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'How To Become A Scandal' Is Smart, But Timid

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Ever since the ancient Greeks told stories about their gods behaving badly, people have been entranced by scandal. Why do we love reading about it so much?

A new book by Laura Kipnis tries to answer that question, and Susan Jane Gilman has this review.

Ms. SUSAN JANE GILMAN (Author, "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven"): If scandals teach us anything, it's that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. A priest can be a pedophile. An all-American golf pro can cheat on his wife. A sanctimonious politician, well, how much time do you have? Yet Laura Kipnis's new book is like its cover.

The provocative title, "How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior," leads you to expect a lurid, splashy package with bold lettering. Instead, with its neat, white jacket, the book looks almost prim. And this isn't off-base. Kipnis has taken on a big, titillating, inflammatory subject rather timidly.

To be fair, "How to Become a Scandal" is spirited and smart. Kipnis is a professor attempting to break new ground in scholarship. We lack any real theory of scandal, she writes. There's no scandal philosophy or psychology. Intellectually speaking, it's pretty much virgin terrain.

Given how much bad behavior is making the headlines these days, her call is spot on. Why not try to understand what compels so many smart people to do stupid, immoral and degrading things. And what does compel us, the public, to salivate over their downfall?

Because scandals remind us of our most carnal selves, Kipnis explains, they trigger conflicting impulses, both to indulge and to punish. When a few hapless figures are caught with their pants down, we get to live out our own taboo desires through them vicariously. At the same time, we get to experience a rush of indignation and righteousness.

Her book profiles four tabloid stars in-depth: the lovelorn astronaut caught stalking her romantic rival in diapers; a New York judge jailed after bizarrely trying to extort money from his mistress; Linda Tripp, reviled, wire-wearing whistle-blower in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal; and James Frey of fake-memoir infamy.

Yet, like her subjects, Kipnis doesn't always fulfill her best intentions. Although "How to Become A Scandal" takes an intelligent look at the psychology behind bad behavior, the second part gives way to deconstructions of Linda Tripp and James Frey, at which point the book's thesis blurs.

And Kipnis also leaves many American scandals unmentioned. I've avoided the glitziest cases, which tend to become too encrusted with opinion to yield surprises, she writes. Fine, but this feels like a copout. Why not take on the most infamous scandals and recast them with fresh insight? Isn't this precisely what new scholarship should do? Besides, you're discussing scandal. Don't pussyfoot around.

Furthermore, some scandals are not delicious. They expose true hypocrisy, rottenness and crime. Again, think Catholic Church. These scandals have not been greeted with secret nasty glee by the public, only horror and a call for justice. They're a different breed to be sure, and they serve a loftier purpose, but Kipnis never addresses them.

In "How to Become a Scandal," she's launched a promising new field of inquiry. But she needs to expand upon it and, like her subjects, grow bolder and more brazen.

BLOCK: Susan Jane Gilman is the author of "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." You can read an excerpt of the book "How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior," that's at our website, npr.org.

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