Monday, March 8, 2010

The Spoiler Manifesto

How long is a book's shelf life? A novel doesn't come with an expiration date; it's why the convention is to use present tense when we talk about fiction. As I've said here before, I think the purpose of owning books is to be able to reread them. So I don't worry much about "spoilers."

More and more frequently, I see online reviewers doing fancy technical things to hide what they call "spoilers," revelations that they believe might spoil another reader's surprise at the plot of a book. And I'd like to say that, at least for me, talking about books is not one long sales pitch. Although I do occasionally review newly published books, most of the books I discuss are pretty widely available. I'm assuming that you've read some of the books I talk about and when you get interested in my ideas about them they make you think of ideas of your own and we can go back and forth about it in the comments.

Sometimes I want to talk (and by "talk" I mean "write with the hope of getting comments") about a book that has secrets, and I don't give those secrets away. You might notice that I rarely reveal an ending--my review of Wish Her Safe At Home mentions her "eventual fate" without saying what it is (although anyone who has also read or seen A Streetcar Named Desire has a pretty good idea). On those rare occasions when it's clear that a novel has so many secrets that it would be more fun to read without knowing much about it, I don't give away too much, as in my review of Liar. Even in a review of a mystery/thriller novel that hasn't yet come out in translation in the U.S. (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), when I reveal that the heroine of the series is alive at the beginning of this third volume and that she "takes care" of a brother at the end, I don't think I've given anything away that will spoil anyone's pleasure in reading this particular book.

I agree with Laura Carroll, who says that spoiler warnings "make her heart sink" in her article at The Valve (2005). The comments are also worth reading through; I have to admit that the two tombstone cover for Wuthering Heights mentioned in those comments is one of the Worst Ideas Ever. It's one thing to pout about having a surprise spoilt. It's another to have any possible dramatic tension drained out of a novel by its cover art!

Maybe I'm assuming too much in assuming that anyone who would read a blog whose very name could be said to be a spoiler of sorts--"Psst! Necromancy never pays!"--would have the same view on this issue that I do.

Do you disagree? Tell me about it.

22 comments:

Harriet said...

I think you are correct. Anyone reading book reviews should expect some things to be given away. It's impossible to have a meaningful conversation about a book without doing so. I think I've given spoiler warnings on my blog once or twice. But I am not primarily a review blog and the few reviews I do are generally couched in something else, so it's conceivable that someone could wander into it unexpectedly. In that case, I think warning is fair. The tombstone cover, though...what were they thinking?

Amanda said...

I generally don't like the surprises of a book to be given away, no matter the age of the book. I read many classics and often don't know what's supposed to happen in them. When I picked up Wuthering Heights a few years ago, I didn't know a thing about it. Same with Jane Eyre. Unless I've seen a movie or somthing (Little Women for instance) I rarely know what's supposed to happen.

I prefer to discuss what books have done for me and what I learned from them, and I can usually do that without spoilers. In the case that I can't - like for instance when I talked about Camus' The Stranger - I warned people in advance so they could choose what they wanted to do. I personally don't think The Stranger can really be "spoiled" as it has very little in the way of plot. The book focuses on philosophy, not plot. But some people might feel differently, so I warn them ahead of time.

On the other hand, I thought the "surprise" from Never Let Me Go was so obvious (I figured it out within 5 pages) that I thought readers were SUPPOSED to know right away. I revealed it in the first paragraph of my review, never thinking I was giving away spoilers. I guess it's a good thing I didn't have too many readers back then...

kittiesx3 said...

I read the very beginning of your Hornet review and then stopped. I don't think it's the reviewer's responsibility to control whether or not I read the review--in fact I expect that I'll find out details if I do choose to read a review. That's on me if I do so.

FreshHell said...

What kittie said. If a book's been around awhile, I can't expect to not know the plot though I'd prefer not to know anything that would dampen the "surprise". But, I take it upon myself to avoid reading reviews about it. Like your Hornet review, I chosse not to read further...just in case. I want to enjoy the next two books in that series without knowing much about them going into them. Once I've read them, I can go back and read reviews but some books I want to go into with no preconceived notions, a blank slate. I don't want my experience, the discovery, spoiled, if I can help it.

Jenny said...

I try to remember not to put spoilers in my reviews, but I often forget. Because I always want to be spoiled myself, I have a hard time being sure what counts as a spoiler to people who (unaccountably!) don't read the end before they read the middle, like me. So my input's no good here. :P

readersguide said...

Actually, I'm the sort of person who hates dramatic tension. I rarely get beyond page 100 of anything without having extremely strong urges to read the end of the book. Sometimes I resist. So I sort of like spoilers. But, as someone said, it's impossible to review a book without giving something away.

Aarti said...

I always read the end of a book before reaching there! I like to know how things end. It never spoils the story for me to know ahead of time, but I think I am just very impatient. A lot of people have pointed out to me when I give away spoilers, so now I try to be more careful. But I personally don't mind :-)

farmlanebooks said...

I hate spoilers. Sometimes even the back cover blurb gives too much away for me. A lot of blog reviews give away too much so for that reason I avoid reading reviews of books that I plan to read soon. I'm lucky in that my memory is quite poor so it doesn't matter if I read it a few months in advance.

I do love a good discussion of a book I've read though. I like spoilers to be mentioned clearly and then I can enjoy discussing it with everyone else.

Florinda said...

Plot details are "spoilers," by definition, if they "spoil" the surprise and experience for the reader - and for me, they rarely do. Just because I know WHAT happens doesn't mean I lose interest in seeing HOW it happens.

Still, I know not everyone feels that way. I try to be careful about revealing too much plot in my reviews, but sometimes I probably say too much for some people's tastes.

readersguide said...

I always tell myself that I'm more interested in how things get where they're going than I am in the actual destination, so I'm not really spoiling anything by reading the end of the book. But I do see how it changes at least that first reading experience. Still, I cannot help myself.

Teresa said...

I find this such a hard thing to balance. Some people don't seem to want to know anything that happens in a book at all, but I find it extremely difficult to discuss how I felt about a book if I don't give away some plot and character points. Otherwise, it's just "I liked it; it was suspenseful/interesting/funny/whatever" and that's just not very useful to people who don't share my exact taste. My rule of thumb is to try to confine any plot reveals to the first 1/4 to 1/3 of the book. If there's something that occurs later that strongly affected my opinion of the book I might resort to vagueness or, yes, spoiler warnings.

But, on the other hand, I'm not terribly bothered by spoilers myself, unless they give away something that's obviously meant to be a surprise twist. Good books can't be easily spoiled, IMO. And as others have said, if I know I'm going to read a book soon anyway and am concerned about spoilers, I won't read reviews.

Jeanne said...

Thanks for all your thoughts on this. I will consider them as I continue to ponder the issue in terms of how I write future reviews.

Amateur Reader said...

A Watched Plot Never Spoils.

Jeanne said...

Oh yes! Amateur Reader (at Wuthering Expectations) has a wonderful, thoughtful post from 2008 about the issue of spoilers. One of my favorite parts is when she quotes the author of the blog Novel Readings about how knowing the ending or a turning point can change reading: "Once we know what happened, we risk forgetting what might have happened."

A must-read post for anyone interested in this issue. I've only been following Wuthering Expectations since last fall; obviously I should have browsed more in the archives over there!

Eva said...

I do disagree. :) (Although I completely agree w/ the aesthetic opinions in the post you linked to.)

While I certainly don't think that fiction is 'spoiled' by knowing the plot beforehand, I do prefer to discover the plot the way that the author intended me to. I enjoy seeing the techniques a writer uses to make their narrative unfold, and I like to see how much I can guess ahead of time. I never read a blurb on a fictional book until I've finished it, just in case the publisher gives away half the book in one fell swoop. And I always wait until I've finished a novel to read the introduction. I don't think that makes me a superficial reader. ;)

I find it generally pretty easy to discuss books without giving away plot points that aren't set up early on (like Teresa, I consider anything in the first 1/4 of the book to be fair game). I love to talk about the writing or the setting or the characters or my reaction to all of that. :) If I have a burning desire to analyse a book including it's plot (like when I talked about We Have Always Lived in the Castle), I'll usually do part of the review spoiler-free, then warn those who like to go in blind to avert their eyes and avoid the comments section, and ramble on as much as I desire. (I don't worry about doing any special links or anything though.) That way, those who have also read the book can talk amongst ourselves!

If a blogger were to give away the entire plot of any novel, including classics, without any warning I'd be much more hesitant to read their posts in the future on any book that I hadn't yet read.

Finally, if I do find out the plot of a book I want to read, it's not like I'd then refuse to read the book. Obviously, most fiction is greater than its plotline! But it would affect my reading experience, and I could never have a 'fresh eyes' view, which seems a shame.

Care said...

I agree with most. I personally hate spoilers but it's my responsibility to avoid a review or deal.

Amateur Reader said...

I should have browsed more in the archives over there

I don't know about that. It's possible* that someone is a little too proud of his catchphrase.

One must distinguish between types of writing. Reviews have conventions that are worth following, with rare exception. A review is meant to be an introduction. But there are other ways, other reasons, to write about books.

* Possible? Nay, certain!

Jeanne said...

I love the idea that some readers "like to go in blind"!

Amateur Reader, you're right that there are other ways to write about books, and many of us haven't been varying the review style much. There used to be a cooperative effort called "by the chapter" in which two bloggers discussed their reading of one novel over the course of a week, posting their thoughts about a chapter or two every day. It was hosted by J. Kaye and then by Marcia at The Printed Page, but interest must have flagged.

I'll try to think of some different ways to talk about books over the next year.

kiirstin said...

If they're little plot or character things that I'll get to soon enough, I don't usually mind. If it's something big, though, or something integral to the plot, *especially* if the book is building suspense towards the reveal, or if there are red herrings and the truth is revealed in a plot summary, I have trouble with spoilers. I'm the kind of person who, once having read a certain things, cannot get it out of my head.

What's worse is if I'm reading and I find out ahead of time that something happens that I disagree with, or something that upsets me. This can make me actually lose interest in a book (or a movie, or a tv series) shockingly quickly. Somehow it's not as bad if I get to it in the book myself.

So I have to be really careful about the reviews I read, and I've started to avoid reading back covers, too, after a couple of very obnoxious instances where the *publisher* spoiled a big plot point for me.

Paperback Reader said...

Cathy and Heathcliff both die at the end of Wuthering Heights?! Oh well.

I don't appreciate spoilers and I try to balance my reviews so that I give just enough away. However, I think there is a statute of limitations when it comes to classics; the ending to Wuthering Heights by a bad book-cover-idea is my own fault for not having read the book yet. Some spoilers aren't going to ruin my enjoyment of the book and some shocks/plots have been incorporated into popular-culture so that to an extent they already are spoiled. Not every novel can be a fully blind experience and sometimes I like it that way to fully appreciate the cultural importance behind a particular novel.

By Book or By Crook said...

I do not like reviews that give away too much of the story. If I feel the review is starting to give away too much I quit reading it. I am surprised how many people among the comments here read the ending early. What is the point of that? I would think it would totally ruin the story for me.

Because I don't like to know too much about the story I find reviewing books to be much harder then I thought it would be. I have to find the balance between not giving too much away and telling at least something about the book the reader didn't already know by reading the back cover. This is something I really will be working on.

Jeanne said...

I sometimes read the ending of a book if I'm not sure I want to finish it. In one case, at least, that made me so curious I had to go back and see how the novel had ever gotten to where it ended.

Did any of you consider that it could have been Edgar's and Cathy's tombstones? That would at least be a bit of misdirection!