Roundtable on Spoilers

This conversation is a spin-off from the earlier discussion of Reviewing.

As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

John Clute

Proposal. Try to think of a single review which lacks spoilers that would be impossible for a trained reviewer to compose out of the toolkit plus 10 minutes in the book being covered.

Proposal: Try to think of a single review without spoilers that, in five years, gives anyone any sense of how that particular book made anything new.

Proposal: Replace the term “spoiler” with the term “recognition”. (Recognition being the realization of what it all means, natch.)

Karen Burnham

Well, for proposal #2, last year I had cause to go back and look at reviews of Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1992). Both Gary and Russell reviewed it for Locus. Neither review had much in the way of spoilers, both had plenty of recognition, and both had a good sense for what it was doing that made it unique and new in the context of the post-Cyberpunk sf field. I found it interesting that while both agreed on what it was doing and what made it important, Gary’s review pointed out several flaws while Russell’s was more enthusiastic. Just goes to show that even when reviewers agree on context, there’s still the matter of taste to consider!

John Clute

Yeah, PROPOSITIONS are a way of shouting to be heard. Corner me and (obviously) I’ll admit I prefer reviews that talk about the endgame of a book because, for me, endgame is what a book does is what a book is about; and will be happy to admit (with a glass of wine) that, sure, sure, many reviews courteous to the seemingly universal resentment against spoilers do convey a good deal (the best reviewers, like all of us here, tend to develop expositional skills that give way more than a semblance of coverage to spoiler-compliant copy). Way more of a semblance, but maybe not the full monty.

At the heart of the PROPOSITION is a feeling that the avoidance of “spoilers” has become something of a shibboleth; that the term itself clearly condemns in advance the nature of what is being done when a reviewer talks about endgame in clear; that there is an arguable association between the fact that most of us eschew talking about how books come to their point and the fact that the climaxes of so many books suck (maybe because so little critical attention is paid them, so there is no readily speakable consensus about what it means to end a story); and that spoiler-compliance radically misprisions the complexity of the relationship between reader-response and the contract to be told story.

Which is not to say that a reviewer should exactly feel free to do a “spoiler” on the (to my mind) exceedingly rare story that depends on the reader/viewer actively following the wrong path, and that their not knowing is what the story is about. The obvious example being Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

The few times I have sidestepped “spoilage,” it has been out of respect for the author of the book, more than out of concern that I’ll be giving away too much for the readers of the book. But I would like to think that authors who have written a good book know that describing the endgame may be crucial to a reviewer discussing why the book is a good one–just as I would like to think that readers know that there are many aspects of a well-written book to appreciate besides the plot twist revealed in a review.

Cecelia Holland

It seems to me the best reviews are those written assuming everybody who reads it has already read the book.

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4 thoughts on “Roundtable on Spoilers

  • November 28, 2012 at 3:14 am

    I find it sad that no-one sees fit to discuss critique which I take to be orderly and balanced evaluation as opposed to criticism which, in its extreme form, can be ad hominem. While not suggesting reviewers should be Kantian or postmodern, there should be a greater interest in systematic analysis which may legitimately incorporate what some may consider spoilers and less superficial praise which glosses over defects and functions as marketing copy. So, at the very least, reviews should be good journalism, i.e. accurately report relevant factual matters, and give an appreciation of the book’s merits as fictional narrative so all readers of the reviews may have a reasoned basis on which to decide whether to read it.

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  • November 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Have to say strongly with those above arguing that reviews should _not_ contain spoilers. Very well said.

    The function of a book review is to act as a pointer for potential readers. Spoilers (as alluded to) shouldbe left to critiques. However some who wite such ‘critiques’ do so in columns headed, or in website sections entitled, ‘book reviews’. Worse some do this within days of a book being published. The only reason for such thoughtless behaviour that springs to mind has to be to do with the critics self ego. Why otherwise would they unpack something the author has carefully wrapped for the reader?

    You know who you are.

  • November 28, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Thoughtful reviewers write to illuminate the text and thereby the reader. Popular reviewers write to entertain the reader by clever praise or pan. Remember Spider Robinson’s Turkey of a Month, a regular feature of his reviews? One of the reasons we started NYRSF 25 years ago was that the Spider attitude was becoming prevalent, and he was certainly the most popular reviwer in SF at that time. It is apparent that most readers appreciate being entertained rather than illuminated.


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