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22 November 2010 @ 06:45 am
TOTW: Hello, sweeties! Let's talk spoilers.*  
Here is a truism about my husband: he’s ornery.

So when his wife and his mother and, you know, a good chunk of the free world were caught up in reading the Harry Potter books, he refused. He claimed that he was waiting for all the books to come out so he could read the whole saga through without having to wait, but that milestone came and went, and he still hadn’t picked up Sorcerer’s Stone. Because he’s ornery.

But the previews for the Deathly Hallows movies (dark, spooky, bleak - in other words, right up his alley) were too much for him, and he finally broke down, reading all seven books in just under two weeks. He had a grand time with them, which didn’t surprise me at all, but it was interesting to watch him make his way through the story, because unlike those of us who picked up our copies of the later books at midnight on release day, he wasn’t coming to them cold. He had not only the weight of several years’ worth of hype on his shoulders - he knew actual plot details. Disjointed, sketchy details about characters he‘d barely even met yet, but details nonetheless, that he‘d picked up because of the omnipresence of the story in our culture. And it got me thinking - how do spoilers affect the way we engage with story?

As anyone who is prone to re-reading knows, going into a story with an awareness of how the plot resolves itself both allows and forces us to approach the story differently, noticing things like symbolism and flourishes of language - and, perhaps, flaws in narrative logic or character development - that we might have missed on the first go-round. But what about a story that has become something of a behemoth in popular culture? Does that cultural weight - a collection of preconceptions and expectations, of characters that become icons in collective imagination before the reader encounters them on the page - fundamentally change the experience? Is that especially true if the story is fantasy, as it often is in our literature and film (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Twilight, I'd even throw The Hunger Games in there at this point) where the restraints of realism are lifted and almost anything can happen?

I’m kind of on the fence with this one. In my own experience, I had caught bits and snatches of one of my most beloved television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before watching the complete series on DVD after is was over, and I know that while I may have appreciated certain things more on a writerly level since I was less emotionally invested in finding out what was about to happen and more able to be analytical, I did miss that visceral “Oh, my God!” jolt when a shocking plot twist occurred. On the other hand, my husband cried at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book, even knowing what was coming. So I open it up to you friends - what do you think?

*Fans of Doctor Who may recognize the subject line as a mash-up of River Song's catchphrases - I honestly can't read read or think the word "spoilers" now without hearing her voice in my head.

Alison Ching
R.J. Anderson: Doctor Who - River - How Exciting!rj_anderson on November 22nd, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
I both love and hate spoilers. Sometimes I can't resist them, because I'm just that excited for something to come out that I want to know any little tidbits that come down the pipe.

On the other hand, it's really only the little tidbits that I want. I hate it when a major plot development that would have thrilled and astonished me is spoiled for me in advance. Those kinds of spoilers I can do without... unless it's a book/movie/TV show that I was sort of iffy about in the first place and probably wasn't going to read/watch anyway.

So in the spirit of your Doctor Who subject line, I will look at Utah location filming photos, because it's fun to speculate about what's going on there and what the episode will be like. But I was pretty upset when I accidentally found out a major plot point of "The Pandorica Opens" before it aired.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on November 22nd, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
Interesting topic--one I've thought about. With Potter, so much if it was predictable that I'd listen to the kids in the classroom surmising as the books came out, and enjoyed their enjoyment of clue assessment while seeing how they did not yet grasp the concept of well-worn tropes. It was all fresh and new for them!

I had the same experience with Buffy: had heard about it for years. Caught bits of isolated episodes, but without context, my interest was not engaged until a friend sat me down, and we watched a lot of the first season together, skipping some of the Monster of the Week eps and engaging when overall arc began. I got hooked, and as I encountered each of the bits I'd seen, or heard about, context was brought illumination and the ahhh! of enjoyment.
Rose Greenolmue on November 22nd, 2010 02:23 pm (UTC)
Oh--that really caught me, that your husband cried at book 6 even though he knew it would happen. That's a mark of good writing--to make you care and feel it even when you know it's coming.

I'm with Rebecca--I like tidbits that I can wonder about, but not whole plot elements given away. The final of a series I'm reading comes out in December, and so I checked out Amazon's look inside the book feature on it to look at the opening pages. Well, the other day, suddenly large chunks from the ending were there. As soon as I saw that, I quit reading, because I really don't want to spoil that! I was relieved to look back the next day and see that they've taken down everything past page 7. (You see, I still kept hanging around, though...) So I prefer to avoid spoilers when possible.

OTOH, I grew up with a tiny library, and you checked out the book when it was there. Which meant reading all out of order. So I do have a high tolerance for falling in love with books even if I come knowing too much about them. Like I said, the *most* important thing, even more than keeping the surprise a surprise, is good writing. It's not the factual surprise that makes it a delight. It's the author's ability to make us feel, personally and viscerally, the events of the story.
An Incident We'd Rather Not Discussanywherebeyond on November 22nd, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
I hate them, I hate them, I hate them. Because once I know a spoiler, I spend the entire time waiting for the spoiler to happen. Trying to figure out how the story that is at this point will get to that point. Which means I'm not enjoying it anymore, I'm analyzing it.

I don't consider inevitability a spoiler. Yes, Titanic sinks. Of course Harry Potter is going to win. But HOW they get there is what's interesting to me. As long as I don't know any plot points, I'm good to go!
ex_marissam on November 22nd, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
I think it's the sign of a great book when it can overcome the spoilers and still deliver a surprsing, engaging story. I've read Pride & Prejudice half a dozen times, but still find my heart in my throat during the proposal scene - it's just that tangible to me. The example of your husband crying at Book 6 is another perfect example.

Or there are those stories in which the author so deftly drizzles in small hints and clues that reading it a second time with the knowledge of the ending in hand can make for a completely different but no less enjoyable experience. (These are actually movie examples, but think The Sixth Sense or Shutter Island.)

That said, it still really sucks to be spoiled for something, especially if it's something you've been looking forward to. Whenever a new Harry Potter or Hunger Games would come out I would turn blinders to the Internet world, knowing that within hours it would be filled with spoilers that I hadn't gotten to yet. It's always best to experience it for yourself first.
all is always now: meg powersbeth_shulman on November 22nd, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC)
I'm someone who usually reads reviews before picking up a book, just so I know I'm not wasting my time, so I've rarely gone into a book knowing nothing about it.

But there are some books that I went into knowing nothing about, and reading them was a journey of discovery, where anything could happen. And I still remember how it felt to read them for the first time, and that still flavors the rereads. (Those books were The King of Attolia, Jellicoe Road, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, and To Say Nothing of the Dog.)

Today, though, in an era of blogging, it's almost impossible for those situations to happen. I have to say that I love book blogs and I've found so many amazing books from them. But there's nothing like picking a random book off the library shelf and then discovering that it's an incredible read.
allaboutm_e: River Readsallaboutm_e on November 22nd, 2010 08:01 pm (UTC)
Spoilers can't help but affect the way one experiences a story, but they don't necessarily have to serve as distraction or to lessen the impact.
I state this as someone whose second kid was too young for most of BtVS and AtS the first time around, and who still seemed to experience much of the appropriate visceral response to events as they happened when he watched the series over last summer. Although "spoilers" of the "Mom's in the room and _loves_ this episode and is going to deliver the line with the character, or accidentally ask 'Are you on the episode where they discover Spike is a butler?'" are N.E.V.E.R. appreciated.
Skylark: imagineskyewishes on November 22nd, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)
I don't really like spoilers, and go out of my way to avoid them, but it isn't usually such a problem for me as my favourite books fall in the less popular end of the scale usually.

Still, some things are unavoidable in our culture. The first time I saw Hamlet it was the strangest feeling of de ja vu, because so many lines from that play are used regularly by other writers and in other contexts, I knew half the words without knowing the full story, surreal.

On a side note, I read and enjoyed The Hunger Games, but I don't consider it fantasy genre at all.
A Deserving Porcupine: voldemortrockinlibrarian on November 22nd, 2010 11:27 pm (UTC)
It is a question of where-to-draw-the-line. I am definitely NOT a person who reads the end of the book first-- in fact it really BUGS me if I accidentally read something later in a book from where I am, because then I puzzle over it and wonder when it's going to happen and how important it is and so on. But I don't mind knowing the BASICS of a book beforehand. And there are so many books-- classics and NEW classics and so on-- that the ending is common knowledge anymore, before you even THINK about reading it, you already know how it ends. And yet reading those books is still FUN. So... I honestly don't really have an answer, I guess is my answer.
holyschistholyschist on November 23rd, 2010 12:00 am (UTC)
I kind of hate how everything is now a "spoiler" and apparently the only value in books/movies/etc. is whether the plot is "surprising." I'd say I'm average at picking up narrative clues--I see a lot of "twists" coming, but not all of them--but I think, really, that most "surprising plot twists" have been done approximately 1 million times. I don't read books to be surprised by the plot (although it's nice if it does surprise me) but to enjoy the characters, the worldbuilding, the writer's style, and sure, a satisfying plot--but it doesn't have to be surprising.

I'm also a big rereader/rewatcher, if there's enough there to return to. If anything I enjoy a book more the third time through than the first, picking up on everything I missed the first couple times.

I don't personally feel that most good works of fiction are "spoiled" by knowing a plot twist, much less a minor detail. There are, of course, exceptions. I had a vague idea of what some people consider a major spoiler for Justine Larbalestier's Liar (revealed in part 2, but I though it was fairly obviously telegraphed in part 1, and would have even without my vague spoiler idea) and still enjoyed the heck out of it--but I wouldn't have wanted more spoilers. I assiduously avoided spoilers for the series finale of M*A*S*H (which I think packs part of its emotional punch for similar reasons to Liar). But if I read a fairytale reimagining, odds are I know about how the story will go, and I'm reading for the author's take on the setting or characters, and maybe a bit of subversion. A lot of genres are very formulaic and predictable.

I recognize that I am apparently in a very tiny minority of readers here, in that 90% of the time I don't care about even major "spoilers".
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on November 23rd, 2010 01:12 am (UTC)
I'm going to join the anti-spoiler contingent. When I was younger, I used to take out books from the library and try to read them without even looking at the description on the back, so I'd have NO idea of what was going to happen. I don't go that far anymore, but I do my best to avoid major spoilers, and it annoys me intensely when professional reviews contain them.
katecoombs on November 23rd, 2010 02:56 am (UTC)
As a person who writes book reviews, I figure anything that appears in the jacket copy or in the first third of the book is pretty much fair game. After that--well, you're asking for trouble. I feel I'm usually pretty careful, but I got my hand slapped for spoilers in an Amazon review the other day, so now I'm even more aware and trying not to do it again!

From another perspective: my mother always flips to the end of a book and reads it, which I used to consider basically immoral. But I'll confess I've done it once in a while as I've gotten older, mostly when I've been in the mood for a happy ending and suspected the book was not going to deliver.

Edited at 2010-11-23 02:57 am (UTC)
ebooraem on November 23rd, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
I'm a re-reader from way back: LOTR when I was a kid, nowadays everything by Austen except maybe Northanger, the Lucia books by E.F. Benson, Harry Potter occasionally, sometimes Diana Wynne Jones. On a rainy day when you have the sniffles, there's nothing like revisiting the familiar.

Having said that...I really enjoyed speculating on what was going to happen in the Potter books, so anyone who spoiled them for me would have lost an arm. And Megan Whelan Turner is SO good at surprises, I'd hate to lose the chance to enjoy them.

Depends on the genre, however. I think if you'd told me Scarlet and Rhett break up at the end, I wouldn't have been overly fussed.
Georgie Ludovicgeorgieludovic on November 23rd, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)
I think the only time spoilers are a real issue is when there's a big twist which is meant to reshape your whole attitude to something and you know it in advance. That and books heavily dependent on plot to keep you turning pages I suppose. But if that's all they are you're not gonna re-read.
amarisglassstirlingbennett on November 24th, 2010 08:03 pm (UTC)
I hate spoilers and try to immediately forget any I accidentally overhear. I went to a signing with Melissa Marr when Ink Exchange came out and I was the only one who hadn't read it, so anytime she answered questions about it I plugged my ears. Eventually she noticed and would signal me when it was okay to listen.

But once I've READ the book, knowing what's happening ahead of time in no way keeps me from enjoying it again (I'm a big rereader of my favorite books). But that's obviously because it's good writing/good story/good experience, as someone already mentioned. I'm not rereading to be surprised, just to experience. And it's not necessarily the most plot-twisty books I read over and over again; it's the ones I want to live again. Blue Castle. Outsiders. Holly in Love*.

And those visceral reactions keep on coming; it wasn't until the third viewing of the season 5 finale of Buffy that I cried...sometimes the emotions are too big the first time.

Sorry that got so rambly. Great post, Alison!
amaris glassamarisglass on November 26th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
Whoopsi, forgot the asterisk!

*Caroline B Cooney is awesome. For reals.