Roundtable on Spoilers

John Clute

I think Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? is a test case, along with Psycho, and that if we were writing law, we would find it very difficult to write law good enough to handle such tests — that is the job of our legislator masters, who are not known for managing to write good law.

Something I said before comes back to mind, though, when I think about the various revelations recently made about journals charging for good reviews, and individuals charging authors for placing good reviews in various online venues, including Amazon. It seems generally understood — and various figures involved in this seem perfectly aboveboard about the fact — that it is entirely unnecessary to say anything specific about a book being review-plugged, nor in fact is it at all necessary to actually read the book in question, an assumption seemingly shared by everyone in that world (authors, vendors, reviewers and readers). For every reviewer in this list here who conscientiously shapes their words so as not to “spoil” the book for the reader, there are a hundred out there who mime this conscientiousness for money (lots of it) without having to crack the text. No spoilers there.

This seems kind of very frightening to me, though I haven’t thought about it at all enough. Hope others have: because it does feel a bit as though we’re in cold irons bound here, and the water rising to our mouth.

Guy Gavriel Kay

I do agree with John that if one is content to be shallow, one can write about a book without reading it. Am I the only one who did so in undergrad?

I don’t agree that specifics on the ending become a retina scan of proof that you did read the thing. Anyone can skim to establish that Norman Bates killed Roger Ackroyd. They can probably find reviews to tell them.

As to the shibboleth (thou shalt not spoil) … I think it is tricky, multi-faceted. Every film trailer these days shows, in 2 minutes, the best and sometimes the critical moments of a film (or the best laugh in it). If there are some fetishistically spoiler-averse people, there is also the idea that you need to market by teasing and spoilers are inherent in that, no? (The banal isn’t a tease.)

Stefan Dziemianowicz

The slight difference here being that trailers, while they do often show critical scenes, often do so out of sequence, to achieve an impact that these sequences often do not convey as they unfold through the actual narrative of the film. The “story” told by the trailer is sometimes very different than the story told by the film. And I’ve seen my share of trailers that included scenes left on the cutting room floor by the time of the final cut.

Michael Dirda

Well, there are obviously good reasons to discuss a book in toto, without regard to how much is being revealed. I think England and France are lot looser about this. But in the U.S.  most editors and readers won’t permit it. Even in my recent book On Conan Doyle I went to some pains not to reveal, for instance, the identity of the villain in the Hound of the Baskervilles.  Were I writing a book for scholars rather than for readers I wouldn’t have bothered to be so circumspect.

Of course, there are some books where the plot is relatively unimportant–one reads The Demon Princes novels knowing that Kirth Gersen is going to knock off one super bad-guy after another. There it’s the style, the descriptions, the odd cultures that count. But I still want suspense, I still want uncertainty, when I’m first reading the book. One reads differently the first time through, and that freshness shouldn’t be damaged or disparaged. Subsequent readings will be “better” and deeper and proffer their own pleasures, but that first time is what blows you away. Usually.

Fabio Fernandes

And in The Demon Princes’s case, Jack Vance already give you the spoilers, sort of – in The Killing Machine, he leads us to believe that Kokor Hekkus is the most dangerous of them all – so the further three would be supposedly easier to deal with, and therefore less important (that is not necessarily the case, but you still want to read all the saga through the very end, exactly because of the cultural richness of the Oikumene.

Still on “To spoil or not To spoil”:

A couple of years ago, I tweeted a link to a series of draft papers which would be presented in an annual Cyberculture and SF conference at the University of Oxford. One of the authors whose works were being studied tweeted outrageosly right after that, saying: “But it has spoilers!” It was not my paper and the spoilers were minor (but spoilers nonetheless, I’ll grant you that), but I made it very clear that there were academic papers, a whole other category. In order to study and understand, sometimes you must give spoilers. In order to entertain and attract readers in a review, you must not. I think the division it very clear in this respect.

Marie Brennan

Regarding spoilers, I’m reminded of a piece posted in the Boston Globe back in January. It appears to be behind a paywall now, but it reported on a study that showed people enjoyed a story more when it was spoiled for them — even people who asserted, with great force, that they hated spoilers — and even in the case of mysteries and other narratives that make heavy use of misdirection and surprise. The theory was that knowing where the story is going allows the audience to relax into it, letting go of the subconscious worry that they’ll be disappointed or blindsided by something unpleasant. I found it fascinating . . . and yet, I agree with Michael that the experience of a first read-through is something you can never reproduce, and so it’s best not to interfere. My personal compromise is to warn of spoilers and lay them out in a fashion that will allow the reader to choose whether to skip them or not. (Cut tags, white space, etc.) That way I’m not making the decision for them, but can still say what I need to.

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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