Roundtable on Spoilers

Russell Letson

I take Clute’s “made anything new” to refer to the Ezra Pound kind of new–and the news-that-stays-news aesthetic–rather than the kind of churning, mechanical novelty-generating that produces, say, zombie versions of Jane Austen. One of the hardest things for me to manage is to explain how a book that remains solidly within the bounds of a genre formula (“formula” in the neutral sense of “recipe” or “specification”) can produce satisfactions that are not the same as, say, those felt by the four-year-old who insists on watching the same episode of Blue’s Clues over and over. [Insert here a discussion of why we can listen to the same recording of a piece of music without exhausting it–I have records that I first heard in 1958 that please and move me still. Make what new?]

The story-as-puzzle or -surprise leads to a kind of reduction of the various satisfactions available to fiction. I note that one of the standard traps of beginning writers (I get to look over my wife’s shoulder as she teaches creative writing) is that they think the surprise or O. Henry ending is a really, really important part of story appeal–and, given that beginning writers are also readers, that booga-booga/gotcha/ whoda-thunkit finish must actually be a non-trivial part of audience expectation. Which will not be news to any teacher who has had to put up with “But we read [insert classroom perennial here] in high school/freshman English.” As though a once-through on Romeo and Juliet exhausts the play. (“Yeah, I know they both die. Can we read something new now?”) It is possible to value surprise too much.

On the other hand, I am in the process of finishing a novel that clearly intends the unpacking of the nature of its world to be a central part of its appeal. I suppose one question to be considered when I come to write the review is whether it is more than an elaborate 400-page riddle. (And on the third hand on the same side, why do I re-read, say, the mystery novels of Reginald Hill and Dick Francis?)

Reading these posts has me compiling sets of related terms that might begin to constitute an N-dimensional map of various kinds of expectations and demands and responses to fiction (or almost any art): Spoilers, revelations, reveals, surprises; novelty, innovation; formula, formulaic, formal, tradition, genre. It’s probably possible to assemble any number of these little familial clusters and meta-clusters and observe how they can be arranged along descriptive and prescriptive axes. But now I am rambling.

Guy Gavriel Kay

John and I have argued (cordially, usually over food) about this for some time. One of my points has been one also made here: there is a distinction between reviewing the new-this-fall Chabon, and writing about Kavalier and Clay.

As to John’s ‘challenge’: I have little doubt this group, for example, could edit a review that ‘kills’ a book’s ending, into one that does not do so but still leaves scope to evaluate and discuss that ending. Once one admits Psycho there is a tricky continuum of all works that are narrative-driven. Indeed, I have argued that this issue feeds into a general devaluing of narrative in ‘literature’ (consigning it, of course, to genre). We need to discuss, in this context, and give value to, the ways in which a first read of Lord of the Rings or War and Peace or Gatsby offers a different sort of joy than a second or fifth do. It feels wrong to me to dismiss or elide that first-reading joy.

On the initial question, I’m going to be reckless, since there’s just so much agreement hereabouts it makes me edgy.

One: I do not share the view that it is easy or that ‘anyone can whistle’ as to critical reviews. (This is the reckless part, from an author with a book coming out, you get what you ask for?) As a sometime reviewer for the Globe and Mail I share the desire to only praise, to select books by writers I admire. There is, for an author, precious little upside to being negative about a peer. But for those here functioning primarily as reviewers  – there may be a case that the two processes should mingle less often than they do, for this reason – only praising leaves an absence of what contrasts to the praise, what falls short. Surely (I’ll suggest) the desire to steer readers to works they might miss ought to work in tandem with a desire to alert them to what is not, say, as fully-clothed as emperor’s garments are usually said to be?

This doesn’t mean take-downs of bestsellers. Or doesn’t have to mean that. Not long ago, here in Canada, a canonical author released a widely seen as weak novel, and only one reviewer in a major paper actually said as much. It was not a take-down, it was a careful laying out of why and how the book failed, in the reviewer’s assessment. As it happened, this took courage as the reviewer is also a novelist. What was noteworthy was how everyone else writing of the book wanted us to ‘read between the lines’ of their appraisals, decode from the absence of rapture. This doesn’t speak to lucid discourse.

Another example, Christopher Bollen in the L.A. Review of Books recently wrote a remarkable piece on Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins that managed to praise the book (it is very entertaining) and shine a remarkable light on how it embodied trends (weaknesses) in the creative culture. Bollen included The Office, Franzen, Eugenides, and The Art of Fielding, among others, as similar examples of the problem he noted. None of this done with anything other than courtesy. It was the sort of piece that compelled thought in anyone reading it, if only to formulate one’s disagreement, if one happened to disagree. (Too long to summarize, but the piece is worth reading.)

One more note. If careful, thinking criticism is harder than we’ve been saying, I also think really strong, sound praise is even harder. My touchstone for this has always been Randall Jarrell reclaiming the then out-of-fashion Robert Frost in two essays that essentially sang Hosanna, brilliantly, line-by-line, theme-by-theme. It takes patience and real intelligence to do this, and a generous balking of one’s own ego, too (remember Jarrell was a serious poet himself).

Gary K. Wolfe

Of course, Michael, even a book that’s been around a while still has scores of new readers, a point underlined by the earlier observation than fewer and fewer newer sf readers (and I don’t necessarily mean younger) have little awareness of earlier classics, in or out of the field.  A few years back, I was even accused during a panel discussion (at an sf con) of revealing “spoilers” about Moby Dick.  But there comes a point at which you have to begin to assume that your own readers, or those you hope are your own readers, are interested in more than this one aspect of a narrative.

In regard to your earlier point regarding the relative  challenges of describing a book’s virtues rather than its faults, that’s something I’ve thought about for years.  One of my mentors at Chicago, Wayne Booth, said it was partly a problem of the very nature of the critical vocabulary we’ve inherited; there simply are more ways to describe failures rather than strengths.  For example, I’ve noticed in the past few years that one of the most common terms I see in reviews is “flawed.” That’s a word that could be used to describe almost any novel, but there are very few that many of us would describe as “flawless.”  Similarly, pointing out that a book is “incoherent” is damning, but saying that it’s “coherent” is faint praise at best.  This is one reason I think many novice reviewers are tempted to go for the throat–it’s simply rhetorically easier–plus, in many venues (such as the web) it’s more likely to get your review noticed.

I will note that among the many responses I’ve gotten over the years from writers I’ve reviewed, the howls of outrage for a negative or mixed review have been pretty much balanced by writers who appreciated that I was at least trying to engage with the book on its own terms.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I find that the tendency to give away spoilers is directly proportionate to the length of the review. When I’m reviewing for Locus, in the 600-800 word range, it’s easy to introduce the book and point out its good or bad points without giving too much away. But when I’m reviewing at lengths 2000-3000 words, I’m exploring the book more thoroughly, and sometimes that calls for giving away points to support my more elaborate analysis.

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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