Roundtable on Spoilers

Karen Burnham

Cecelia: I think those fall into the category of ‘criticism’ instead of ‘reviewing.’ But I will say that I get the most out of a review when I’ve already read the book in question.

Michael Dirda

Reviewing and criticism are essentially different animals: Reviews introduce a new book to the world; criticism discusses works that people already know or are presumed to know. To convey too much of the plot or reveal a denouement is to wreck a new reader’s pleasure of discovery. We don’t call books page-turners for nothing. A critic doesn’t have to worry about spoilers–and is thus free to explore every detail of a work’s artistry, where the book succeeds or fails. Nabokov said that an initial reading of a novel was merely a kind of hurdle to get over before you could start appreciating the fullness of its art. In effect, only rereading is real reading. That’s what critics and teachers do. Of course, reviewers do make critical points, but their primary job is to describe, not evaluate, and to do this in as entertaining or intellectually exciting a way as possible.

John Clute

Critics may not need to avoid “spoilers”, Michael, but the shibboleth against them is so pervasive that  a lot of critical work does indeed avoid them, to its huge detriment. As you describe reviewing, I think you almost don’t do it yourself; as you describe criticism, I kind of think you do it, though more chastely than in the reviews whut I rote. Because I can hear you talking about a book, and maybe because I know your voice I know more of what you are actually saying than a stranger to your words could. The voice of the reviewer is a way of conveying meaning.  No “describing” of a book, from a voice like those in this discussion have evolved, is anything remotely “pure”: being far better than pure. Which brings us back to contracts, and reader response theory, and stuff.

But there is still that essential problem of how much to tell. It costs to tell and it costs not to.

And there is also the argument about reader response, which I mentioned en passant earlier.

I guess too there is a confessional note in what I, for one, am saying in this discussion: that I find the efforts involving in pointing at a book without talking about it increasingly headachy. Which is only part of the reason I don’t do many professional reviews any more: but it is certainly part.

Michael Dirda

One reason I like to write about older books, books that have been around a while, is that I don’t then have to worry excessively about spoilers. Anyone who’s written for a newspaper or magazine knows how irate readers become when they feel a book’s plot has been wrecked by telling too much.  Insofar as a review is a service to a reader, giving away key elements of the book, really is a disservice. We don’t just read for style or theme or characterization–plot is central to storytelling. But obviously such caution makes what one can say, as opposed to what one might like to say, problematic. The same is true when writing introductions: You really shouldn’t just blurt out that the Second Foundation is actually that Jewish Ma and Pa Kettle. Telling without telling too much is a headache, but also a kind of Oulipian challenge–how much can one convey of a book’s artistry without revealing, for instance, that the narrator is dead throughout?  Tough, but sometimes exhilarating. When discussing, say, a mystery I generally tell things out of order, avoid precise identification of any subsequent victims, etc. etc. To reveal who killed Roger Ackroyd because you want to discuss the rhetoric of disclosure and concealment would be fine in a critical paper, a travesty in a book review.

Peter Straub

Yes, Michael is of course correct, it is bad form and lousy judgement to spill the beans about what happens at the end of a conventional mystery novel. Otherwise, however the whole “spoiler” matter seems sort of childish to me. What kind of readers would feel betrayed by a review of The Fortress of Solitude that mentions the magic ring and what it does, or the section that is entirely the notes for a CD package, or that in King’s recent novel about 11/22/63, the attempt to undo JFK’s assassination is successful but with such disastrous consequence that history must be reversed again? Wouldn’t all of one’s interest be in discovering how the author pulled this off? So many readers seem to feel that a book can be read only once–clearly, knowing anything about what happens in a novel ruins the pleasure of reading it. Well, no, actually.

I used to review fiction for TLS and, thanks to Michael, the Washington Post, as well as some other places, and what seemed to me my real task was to communicate to the reader what it felt like to read that particular novel, a part of which involved describing what the novel took to be its own task. And to do that, you absolutely had to consider the way it was written, what the language was like. You had to speak from within the book to do it justice. You also had to describe how it lived up to its best intentions, a matter that emerged from everything else.

I guess Cecilia said all of that a lot more succinctly than I did.

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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