Spoiler Alert!

There was a fascinating discussion over at Lifetime Reader’s site about whether one should or should not post spoilers in discussion of ancient texts that became a conversation about spoilers per se. Some people liked to know what was coming up on the horizon of a novel, some people couldn’t bear it. For myself, it depends on the book. For instance, a few weeks ago I was reading an Agatha Christie novel (The Body in the Library) and loving it, when I happened to flick forward a few pages out of idle curiosity. Instantly, the book fell open at a page where a sentence in italics leapt out at me, containing the major twist on which the solution of the mystery depended. Agh! Of course, that was my own fault, and generally I am happy to know what is going to happen. You could tell me the plot of War and Peace, for example, and I would be grateful. With a thousand pages to plow through, I’d need some incentive of incident or event to keep me going.

But whether one likes spoilers or not is purely personal preference. The more interesting thing is to consider what a spoiler is and how it changes the reading experience. For me, it’s not a spoiler unless it undermines a clear narrative intention. The basic understanding of a plot is that it posits something as missing, or hidden, or a puzzle to be solved, and the story then works to restore what was missing, reveal what was hidden or provide the solution to the puzzle. To give away this sort of literary secret is to spoil the experience a book holds out for the reader, the experience of being kept in the dark in a pleasurable sort of way until such time as one can be dazzled by surprise. So it’s not a spoiler to say that a novel is about a warring family in North Virginia, nor a spoiler to say that it takes as its central theme the damage caused by over-authoritative parents. Nor is it necessarily a spoiler to say that the parent’s divorce is quickly followed by the wife’s breakdown, a hundred pages into its four-hundred-page length, not if the meat of the book is what happens in the aftermath. Things are always going to be happening in books, and most of those happenings are there to make the reader feel compelled to read on, or to add complexity to the developing situation; that’s not the same as the taxi driver who used to yell out whodunit to the crowds in St Martin’s Lane gathering to watch that night’s performance of The Mousetrap. Now, that’s a spoiler.

However, there are some readers (and generally I count myself among them) who really like to know the ending of the book they are reading. Because after all, what happens when that ending is reached? Once we know who the murderer is, once we know whether the lovers ever make it to the altar, once we discover that the parents in West Virginia were at war over an act of unforgiveable infidelity that made one of the children only a half-brother to his siblings, etc, etc, then we have to see what preceded the revelation in a new light.

It’s not just the fallout from events that looks different in the light of the conclusion. More ephemeral but essential elements of the narrative, like the themes and the character development, for instance, can only be judged once the ending is reached. Whether parents should or should not be strict disciplinarians is no longer an open question – an answer of some sort is provided by the final pages. Whether characters are ultimately good or bad cannot be known until all the chips are down and the last climactic events have shown them in their true colors. And so the ending, in a rapid move, throws readers back into the heart of the book, in an instantaneous moment of rereading, mulling it all over again in their minds with a whole new varnish of meaning applied.

Reviews that are essentially publicity for a book, that wish to encourage other people to read it, do well to avoid spoilers. Readings that really want to get to grips with what happens in a book have difficulty sometimes avoiding them. For my own part, I am much more put off a book by a reader’s negative opinion of it, than I am by any kind of revelation, but as I say, such things are purely subjective.

Of course, not all books are plot-driven, or based around a secret or a puzzle. Many revolve around a situation without resolution, or use an episodic structure to promote adventure while avoiding definitive conclusions. Reading such books invites us to pay attention in different ways. Rather than think about what happens in a book, in terms of events that take place, they ask you to think about what is happening in a kind of continuous present. To explain this, I’ll borrow some examples from the critic Elaine Scarry, who contrasts four authors leading their characters up to a threshold:

‘Thomas Hardy, who would say: ‘Eve turned from her worktable and, enveloped still in a haze of silver thread and tiny filaments of wool and silk, walked towards the man at the door.’

Thackeray, who would say: ‘He would remember to the end of his life the look of the setting sun shining on her face as she moved to the door to meet me on the eastern porch.’

Samuel Beckett, who would say: ‘Once at the door, she was on her way, to what no matter, she was on her way.’

And Boethius, who would say: ‘Then gliding toward the door, she spoke freely to me of the impediments restraining my capacity for straightforward argument.’

When you slow the consumption of prose down and contrast it in this way, you can begin to see just how much richness of meaning and intent there is in every sentence (particularly from really good authors). All four need to put their protagonists in doorways for various reasons, but how they do it is illuminating. Thomas Hardy’s characters cannot be separated from their daily labours, but look how his romanticized attention falls on the prettified elements of Eve’s back-breaking, eye-straining work. We know she is a heroine and that this is a potential love scene. Thackery is busy erecting flags and signposts around his doorway to tell the reader to remember this moment as definitive in the life of his characters, that his threshold is also a spiritual and metaphorical one. In Beckett, characters and readers alike are quite delighted to see something as real and graspable as a door turn up, so it matters little what happens either side of it – the mere fact of its presence is the important thing. And Boetius uses his doorway as a moment of contrast between the free-gliding, free-speaking female and her restrained, static, confused companion.

So my point here is that it is always possible to read books without ever going near spoilers. In the work of a good writer, every event will be revelatory of the character, the themes, the problems put forward in a story. This is the sort of reading that literature students do, focusing on theme and style and intent, and seeing them as the truly definitive elements of a story, not necessarily what happens in it. Sometimes, knowing the ending can make for a reading that’s too cut and dried, when the real interest of the story was back in the middle of ambiguity and ambivalence, when the issues were all up in the air and the reader could see all the conflicting perspectives without resolution. Of course, no approach is ever really perfect, and hence academics often get told off for the most terrible spoilers. It’s all too easy, when obsessed by the thematic approach to find oneself saying something like: ‘And we can see how the famous 19th century French author, Monsieur Squiggledypoop pursues the theme of duality to its ultimate conclusion in having his protagonists turn out to be identical twins, separated at birth…’  I used to do that a lot more in the early days of blogging! Now, I won’t mark up each review cautiously with spoilers, but I promise not to spoil any genuine literary secret. Being true to the ultimate reading experience of any book is what I would always aim to do.


19 thoughts on “Spoiler Alert!

  1. I agree with much of what you say — and I too am much better at NOT revealing everything as I did in the early days of blogging too. But I like this “Being true to the ultimate reading experience of any book is what I would always aim to do.” That’s what I’m trying for too. Sometimes, it’s better to talk about general themes and plots (like you say, it helps with a novel like War and Peace!).

  2. Wow, great, thoughtful post. I also struggle with spoilers and try to note the fact when I have some in a review. I do feel though when I note that there are spoilers no one reads the review!

  3. I Often find it very difficult to do a book any justice without including spoilers in a post. Some people are allergic to spoilers as they read for entertainment. I read very often purely for the pleasure to read good prose and to see how an author manages different things like point of view, descriptions etc. A spoiler wouldn’t affect this type of reading but then again even some literary fiction still holds a certain charm that is linked to a moment of surprise that would be destroyed by a spol. What I really wanted to say however is that I would often prefer to write an essay or a book analysis instead of a review but to do so properly I would have to include spoilers and I think this is unfair.

  4. What a thoughtful post. I’m especially intrigued with your comment that a reader’s negative opinion of a book might be more likely to “spoil” a book for you than a revelation of plot. Going into a book assuming a character is unsympathetic, for example, could certainly affect one’s likelihood of sympathizing with the character. So I suppose we could say that even the judgment-review could be a certain kind of spoiler, eh?

  5. I love the examples you’ve given and the way you thread out the different types of spoilers and books. It’s a dilemma (a pickle as my kids used to say around kindergarten). I like to read reviews, but on occasions where I’ve forgotten what I’ve read or haven’t read any, there is a freshness to everything that occurs that I then realize is rare because blurbs and reviews have to reveal something. That’s why it’s so much fun to discuss a book with other people who’ve read it. No worry then about spilers.

  6. Rebecca – it’s nice to know I was not the only person to stumble about blindly giving out spoilers in the early days! 🙂 And yes, I really feel it all depends on the book. If you are going to read a chunkster, then plot is undoubtedly important, but it’s going to take more than plot to get you through it!

    Kathy – I completely understand – I feel exactly the same. If you say there are spoilers then so many people steer clear because they assume anything could be said. I find the same thing happens if I say up front that a book is a translation from the French!

    Caroline – isn’t it difficult? Some of the best fun I’ve had has been on readalongs or reading groups where everyone is in possession of the same knowledge. Then you can let rip and just say what you please. It can be really hard sometimes not to talk about the ending, particularly when it alters the way you think and feel about a story.

    Lifetime reader – you are very kind! I was most dissatisfied once I’d finished the post and felt I hadn’t said what I wanted to and that the discussion on your site was much better to read on this topic! But as for spoiling books, absolutely, there are two things I hate: one is the sort of review that says, this book did not please me and therefore it is terrible and I don’t understand at all why anyone ever said anything nice about it and maybe they got paid by the publisher? Or the review that very cleverly fillets up a novel and proves how unsatisfactory it is about race or gender or something that I myself might not have noticed or been affected by so much. So for me, definitely, judgement is a real spoiler, whereas I like to know what a book’s about because there are several kinds of topics I generally avoid.

    Lilian – you are so kind, and while I’m on that subject, thank you so much for the lovely comment you left at Open Letters. You are a darling. I completely agree that the nicest way to enjoy books is to discuss them with people who have read them. And read them recently. I so enjoyed your review of Molly Fox’s Birthday but realised that I had completely forgotten the novel since I read it! (Although I knew I loved it). Still, I can look forward to the pleasure of a reread of that one.

  7. I feel very guilty–since I know the real power in my post was the brilliant comments made by the readers. You wrote a terrific post and also have such thoughtful comments. Even after all this thinking here and across the web, I’m struggling with my efforts to come up with something to say in the sidebar about spoilers. I wrote my posts about the Iliad assuming folks hadn’t read it and were not intending to–but I exhausted myself in the effort and certainly bored the people who were not interested–as well as those who were. These discussions about spoilers and reviewing practice are so useful to me as I try to figure out a style that will work both for me and for blog readers. Thanks.

  8. Lifetime Reader – do not feel guilty at all! Your post was a perfect springboard for discussion, which you handled just as an ideal blog host should. I personally would call what you do analytical or interpretative readings of the classics, rather than reviews, and I was very impressed by them (what you do is very like the latter examples I give in this post, of close reading). But I quite agree that trying to write and please or placate as many people as possible is an exhausting exercise! And often a thankless one. Do whatever really pleases you – I don’t doubt it will be of value.

  9. I agree with you.
    For instance, I find it very difficult to talk about a short story without giving the “spoiler”. How can you discuss Wilde’s “The Sphinx without a Secret” without revealing that Lady Alroy doesn’t have a secret? I always try my best at not giving too much, but sometimes find it pointless.
    On the other end of the spectrum, I don’t mind reading spoilers (within reasons), but I rarely read reviews of a book I intend to read soon as I like to form my own opinion about first and then see how others have interpreted it.

  10. Lots of great ideas here that I will dwell on. I particularly liked the examples of the different writers and the way you explained what they showed, because it was like a short, very focused class 🙂

    Personally I think I’m terrible at romantic spoilers. I just assume everyone else already knows who will end up getting together after a couple of loaded descriptions from the author. I guess I think there are tropes which lots of people should recognise if they’ve consumed huge amounts of entertainment like me, so lots of things other people might call spoilers (it’s the vaguely disturbing little kid with the old fashioned style whose responsible for the murders, the guy next door is secretly ‘the one’)just seem obvious.

    ‘Or the review that very cleverly fillets up a novel and proves how unsatisfactory it is about race or gender or something that I myself might not have noticed or been affected by so much.’ Oh no, I fear I am doing this.

  11. Totally agree with your sentiment that “it’s not a spoiler unless it undermines a clear narrative intention.” Mysteries, sensation novels, etc., are easily spoiled because they rest on surprise in a way other books might not. With most other books, I find the journey every bit as interesting as the destination, if not more interesting, and I’m rarely bothered if I know how a book is going to end. (Though I don’t seek out such information unless I’m hitting a wall with a book and want to see if the resolution will be worth the journey.)

    I also really like how you make a distinction between reviews that are about getting people to read a book vs. reviews that are trying to get at what a book is doing. As much as I love it when people read a book because of my review, more often than not, I’m really trying to work out my own views on a book when I write–and to have a conversation with others about it. I try to flag spoilers if I think the surprise is essential to the experience, or I might discuss in vague terms people who read the book might understand. But it is a challenge, especially when the idea of what “spoils” a book is so subjective. I figure that there are so many bloggers out there with so many styles that we can all find blog writers and readers who fit our preferences.

  12. I know that my way of reading is abnormal BUT I do find it makes my reading experience better to know what’s going to happen at the end. I don’t have to worry so much about whether the answer to a specific question (will they or won’t they, who done it, or whatever it happens to be) is going to be to my satisfaction. Knowing the end frees me up to think about the other parts of the book. Narrative intention is not the boss of me.

  13. I love surprises and hate spoilers. I always include an alert if I am blogging about a book and have all but stopped reading reviews because of their shameful tendency these days to summarise the plot. Sometimes I even hesitate to read on here, and if it is a title I particularly plan to read, I won’t risk it. Certain revelations elsewhere have ruined too many books for me.

  14. In Beckett, characters and readers alike are quite delighted to see something as real and graspable as a door turn up, so it matters little what happens either side of it – the mere fact of its presence is the important thing.

    Hehe, love this.

    And I love all this interesting discussion being generated around LifetimeReader’s original post on this subject. I like to do a lot of the type of close reading you’re discussing in the latter part of this post, but at the same time I think the richness and complexity one discovers in that kind of detail feeds back into the larger themes that can be tied to (spoil-able) plot details. On the other hand, I love your point that sometimes we place too much emphasis on the supposed “resolution” that comes with the turn of the final page—Nymeth at things mean a lot made this point a few weeks ago about Victorian sensation fiction in which the endings usually punish the female characters who have dared to diverge from social norms, but at the same time you have that middle section of the book where the author allowed himself or herself to depict a complex, possibly subversive woman.

    In any case, I try in general to avoid large spoilers, despite sometimes being a little cranky about it. 🙂

  15. Like Emily I love the Beckett comment. As to spoilers I think they depend on the book and the reader’s purpose in reading. When I see one for a dectective fiction in the puzzle mode I stop reading, but one for a different kind of work allows me to decide what to do.

  16. Have any of Monsieur Squiggledypoop’s books been translated into English?

    Maybe because I come from a literature background I don’t mind spoilers much unless as you noted, the point of the book is solving a puzzle or some kind of mystery. I’ve yet to read Anna Karenina but I know what happens at the end and I have no doubt that when I do read it knowing about Anna’s end won’t dampen the experience one bit. However, if you tell me who the killer is in The Body in the Library I might not appreciate it so much 🙂

  17. Em = I feel the same, in fact, about reading reviews just before reading the book. There comes a point, about two-thirds of the way through, when I am hungry for a review or two, but I’m not interested in the run-up to reading at all.

    Jodie – lol! I am always happy when you think you’ve attended a class! I was going to write a bit about the way that we like to have access to our own cleverness when reading, and exercise our knowledge about narrative tropes. It’s fun to be able to say, aha I saw that coming! Which of course one cannot do if a review has pointed it out already. But I really don’t think of you as someone whose critical opinions mess with my reading experience! What you write is always so thoughtful and interesting – not at all the kind of slamming I had in mind.

    Teresa – I completely agree with your conclusion. I think I know the styles of my blogging friends quite well, and go to them for information about books because they give me just the right amount. It’s usually quite easy to tell what will happen in a blog post from the early lines. In fact, it’s when people write that big, capitalised SPOILER that my eye is instantly drawn beyond it! The ‘review’ is the most difficult category because there it doesn’t come with a tidy definition, but if a blogger states they are thinking through what happens in a book, or hosting a readalong then I think all is fair game.

    Jenny – I think the real point as ever is to know what you like and then ensure you have those conditions. And after all, you tried a different reading method, very bravely, and it just didn’t work for you. You can’t do more than that!

    Doctordi – just as I said to Jenny, the real key here is to know what it is you like and want. I quite understand if people don’t want to read reviews until after they’ve read the book themselves. That’s perfectly fair, isn’t it?

    Emily – lol! I must go and read Nymeth’s post again – she is so right that adventure and interest happens to women before the conclusion (often in marriage) of a book’s heroine. I do agree that richness of detail in a review can be a real companion to an ongoing reading. Your review of the Sarah Bakewell book made me very keen to pick it up again, for instance (after Miss Marjoribanks bustled past to take prime position!).

    Bookboxed – well, I quite agree. It does all depend on the book. And those plotless, lingering ones really benefit from the additional reading knowledge that comes from other interpretations (Beckett being a good case in point!).

    Stefanie – lol! He’s on my list of impending research…. And I completely agree with you. That’s just the sort of distinction I would make myself.

  18. Lots of interesting things to think about here. What Scarry book does the discussion of the four authors come from? It sounds like one I might want to read. I’m bothered by the kind of “spoiler” I occasionally find on the back covers of books, which isn’t really a spoiler in the way you define it here (a definition that’s wonderful), but which tells you something that happens on p. 250 out of 400, and I spend those first 250 pages wondering when the thing is going to happen. It’s when spoilers shape my reading of a book by setting up uncertain expectations that I get unhappy.

    Looking up the ending of a book ahead of time sounds like a way of avoiding this feeling I have that in order to really understand a book I have to read it twice. Because you really do end up rethinking a book based on how it ends (with many books at least), and you have to reevaluate everything. If you already know the ending, you can do the reevaluating as you go along the first time.

  19. Thanks for this excellent post, litlove. I read it in eagerness because I always want to learn more about writing reviews. What you’ve presented here is intriguing, I can appreciate the dilemma. The different frames brought out by Elaine Scarry make interesting comparisons. I think a main factor is the genre. If you’re reviewing a mystery, as a reader I wouldn’t want to see the key elements of the plot exposed. But if it’s a philosophical piece, like Proust, I’d surely like you to discuss more thematically and in greater depth.

    If it’s a movie, I’d always try to avoid revealing the plot, especially the ending. I find that film lovers hate to be told the story, they want to be surprised and experience the film first hand. And in my reviews, if I really need to talk about the plot in a way that will give away some of the story, I would always put a ‘spoiler alert’ warning before I go on writing about it. There are some that I must reveal some ‘secrets’ if I’m to discuss it in a relevant and meaningful way, such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Even the author himself condones it. He said in an interview about its movie adaptation: “…I almost wanted the mystery aspect to be taken away so that people could conentrate on other aspects of the book.” If I don’t say the truth about the characters being clones, what’s the significance of the story anyway? But of course, we have to judge on a case-by- case basis.

    BTW, I sent you a tweet with a ‘must-see’ film suggestion: Philippe Claudel’s “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime”. This is another example of ‘tricky’ review writing. 😉

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