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.