The Sunday Salon: Spoilers

College certainly broadens your horizons. While the general attitude towards spoilers among my circles in high school was unadulterated fear (we looked upon the gent who spoiled Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with both dread and amazement), I have discovered people who actually enjoy being spoiled, wonder of wonders. They say that knowing the ending, or at least some of the smaller details, puts them at ease and helps them focus on the work at hand, be it a film or a book. io9 recently posted an article about how no one is as unspoiled as we once were, and, in light of meeting people who embrace spoilers heartily, I thought I’d glance back over my personal stance on spoilers. (Below the cut are some vague spoilers regarding The Lord of the Rings and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde–don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Naturally, I prefer to be unspoiled. Being absolutely shocked at a twist or a turn of events is one of my favorite things about reading–as someone who adores a good plot, twists are essential in the construction of some of the best. There’s nothing quite like being in the hands of someone who can sucker punch you with words, as masochistic as that sounds. (This is why I probably enjoy Joss Whedon’s apparent quest to punish all true love in his series.) However, Anders’ article at io9 made me rethink what it means to be “unspoiled”.

One would assume to be unspoiled one would have to know little to nothing about the work on hand. But these days, we just don’t open a book or watch a film knowing next to nothing about a film. We already know that, in Avatar, Jake Sully falls in love with Neytiri. Twilight handily advertises that Edward is, in fact, a vampire on the back cover, which takes the heroine half the book to discover. Publishers and studios are so eager to tell us about their wonderful new works that we’re often a little farther ahead than the book actually is. I know I’ve read a few books where the action of the plot took a while to get to where I knew it was heading from the blurb on the back of the book. But I prefer knowing a little too much (without major spoilers, of course!) to knowing too little and regretting reading or watching it.

But are fulfilled tropes really spoilers? In Avatar and many other works, we usually expect the male lead and the female lead to get together by the end of the work. (Oh, heteronormativity.) We expect the good guys to win, especially in certain genres. The subversion of these expectations can also make for the best twists. I think that fact makes them spoilers to a degree–knowing the ultimate outcome robs things of a lot of their impact, no matter how much you knew it was going to happen.

But these are fairly recent works. (Recent enough that I get plenty of mileage out of paraphrasing Breaking Dawn to increasingly queasy audiences.) What about older works that have been spoiled just through pop culture? Right now, I’m reading The Lord of the Rings. I know the actual identity of a certain character, and while it gives me great delight to be able to spot the various tells, I wonder what it would be like if it truly came out of left field, as it did for the first audiences. Still, it’s wildly enjoyable, because it is The Lord of the Rings. But a few years ago, I read Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it absolutely fell flat for me because the entire story rests upon that thrilling twist modern pop culture has spoiled for us.

Upon reflection, I see it this way–I’m still going to try and avoid spoilers. (Have you any idea what these last few weeks have been like for me as a Doctor Who fan?) I don’t think I can be one of those people who happily take in a spoiler and can still enjoy a work fully. However, if a work doesn’t rest solely on its twist, than it is still salvageable to me.

In other news, I finished Notes from a Small Island and watched the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice on Friday–review of the former will be posted this week, and I think I’ll keep a review of the film in reserve for a rainy day. I’ve started Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I tried to start before Notes from a Small Island, but I just wasn’t in the mood. I’m glad I held off–I’m supremely enjoying it.

What do you make of spoilers? Can you enjoy a work if spoiled, or does it dull the pleasure?

14 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Spoilers

  1. I am a big fan of the almost-physical “What????” reaction that a really good, really unexpected plot twist creates. But on second reading (or if it’s been spoiled) I enjoy the intellectual sport of noting the tells, as you say. Either way succeeds with me.

    What really bugs me is people who refuse to tell me any decent details because they don’t want to “spoil it.” As if surprise was the only possible thing that would make it good.

  2. I think for me it really depends on the book. In some books, knowing certain plot developments would lessen the impact. Fingersmith is a good example of this, I think. Everyone I know who’s read it has mentioned the sucker punch effect. In some books, it doesn’t matter that much because the story is more about how the characters get to where they’re going.

    And yes, I totally agree with J.G. about the fear of revealing any decent plot details. I haven’t encountered people refusing to tell me stuff it I ask, but I’ve known people who get aggravated if someone (usually me) reveals some plot development that is patently obvious from the get-go–mostly because it is, as you mention, a standard trope being fulfilled. And that, to me, is silly. Of course there’s a murder in a murder mystery; of course the guy and girl get together in chick lit. Of course Anne Boleyn gets executed. Some things you just know. In my reviews, I do try to avoid revealing much about the plot beyond the first 1/3 of the book, or to mention that there are spoilers if I’m going to talk about the ending.

  3. I love your distinction between spoilers and “fulfilled tropes” — yes, there is definitely a difference! I don’t like spoilers and I usually try to avoid reading the blurbs on the back of the book. However, I do like to know generally what kind of book it’s going to be, i.e. what kind of trope is going to be fulfilled. For example, I recently read Edgar Sawtelle and although I vaguely picked up on the Hamlet references, the ending where (SPOILER) everyone dies came out of left field and knocked me flat. If I had known in advance that it was going to be “that” kind of book I would have read it differently, not fallen quite so madly in love with the dogs, etc.

  4. Common tropes certainly affect reading expectations – like knowing the basic pattern of love stories and the such not – but I’ve always felt that the was books violate those tropes are just awesome. I am very anti-spoiler. I rarely, if ever, read the synopsis on the back cover before reading a book. I just really like to be surprised.

  5. Well, I read the last page first so where does that put me? Oh yeah, right in the front lines of the spoiler camp. I started this habit of reading the last page first when I was a kid and have really been stuck with it. I’ve tried not doing it but somewhere, somehow, I find my way to that last page and secretively read the last few words. In some cases, it’s refreshing to know that things will not end as I think they will, and in others it’s knowing that a character I have grown very attached to will make it to the last page. I’ve also been known to read ahead. For me, it doesn’t spoil anything, just adds to my own enjoyment. I don’t enjoy surprises, in life or books, so this keeps things on an even keel for me. 🙂

  6. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle on spoilers, if that’s possible. I prefer not to hear them–but I’ve been known to skip to the end of a book. Sometimes it’s easy to determine the end anyway, either because of literary convention, or author habits, or the foreshadowing is just too broad.

    I think if a work is sufficiently well-written, it will stand on its own merits, with or without spoilers. The best books are the ones we want to read over and over, after all. On the other hand, there are some books that I really wouldn’t want spoiled, at least on the first read–mysteries spring to mind. And sometimes the thrill of getting that “sucker punch” to the gut is just too wonderful to have wanted the spoiler.

  7. I love spoilers, I’m a spoiler addict. The onset of the internet was perfectly timed for me – my parents got the internet at pretty nearly the exact same time in my life that I discovered I liked books better when I read the end. I skip around books pretty freely, and I really enjoy knowing what’s coming. It’s kind of unfair, me experiencing dramatic irony without the author’s having created any – but I love knowing more than the characters do!

    Conversely I HATE IT when the characters know more than I do, when it’s a first-person narrator and they keep alluding to dire events later on. It drives me mad. Nothing is surer to make me skip to the end than a first-person narrator getting all know-it-all on me.

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