Alas, Spoilers

(A spoiler free blog post on the topic of spoilers)

After starting this blog, I’ve been reflecting on the implications of spoilers in our society.  For years, I’ve noticed, both in myself and others, strong emotional reactions to being spoiled or even to the very idea of spoilers.  From the glee of finding out a plot twist early, to the agony of finding out about the untimely death of a favorite protagonist, spoilers seem powerful.  People may even feel powerful themselves when spoiling another person intentionally.  On the other hand, people go to great lengths to avoid being spoiled.  With changing technologies in recent years, its become more challenging to remain “spoiler free.”  I even noticed this with the 2012 Olympics.  While I actually didn’t mind for the Olympics, I was spoiled many times by friends on Facebook, Twitter, and by news sources.  I found an interesting news article related to spoilers and the Olympics that flies in the face of “commonsense”.  NBC found that “[p]eople who watched the events live earlier in the day via computer screen watched the tape-delayed broadcast 50 percent longer than those who hadn’t.”  This type of research doesn’t tell us why this occurred, but the article goes on to discuss the fact that this might change how NBC covers the next Olympic games.  (Also, check out the comments in the bottom.  There are some irate people who have been spoiled by NBC.)

Years ago, I cared deeply about avoiding spoilers because I felt like it reduced the emotional authenticity of my experience when reading (or watching).  Over time, it’s mattered to me less, although I still try to avoid major Doctor Who spoilers.  My spouse, knowing my position on spoilers, recently shared a study with me that has been making its way around the main stream media.  I haven’t read the original, experimental research yet, but the various news articles appear to agree that, at least for short stories, participants preferred the versions with the spoilers.  If you want to read more, this UC San Diego piece explains it.  Although this is limited research, and I’d like to see more studies specifically looking at novels, movies, and tv shows, I think this does question the typical belief that many of us hold.

And I’m writing a blog that looks at novels and culture.  What is a reviewer to do?  Some people get incredibly upset if they get spoiled on the most minor of details, while others only care about the ending. Furthermore, some people don’t care at all or actively seek spoilers.  I recently read a blog post by Maria Popova titled, “John Updike on the Ethics and Poetics of Criticism.”  I think that many of her ideas are spot on for what I’m trying to do with this blog.  As she notes, “[w]e need to relearn the skills of making the criticism constructive rather than destructive,” and she refers to a list of rules by John Updike on constructive reviewing.  Although I find all six relevant to writing a review, he notes his thoughts on spoilers.  According to Popova, Updike states,

“Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)”

I wonder what Updike would have thought about the recent study about spoilers.  I certainly don’t want to give away plot like a “drunken lord”, and I want to respect people’s feelings about spoilers.  On the other hand, I need to discuss characters, plot, and scenes if I want to give a good sociological analysis of what ever book or aspect of culture I am observing.  I realized that this can be a difficult balance to strike in my first posts, making me curious about what other people think.

Questions:

(1) Do you care about spoilers? Why or why not?

(2) What is the most memorable time you’ve been spoiled?  How did it make you feel?

(3) If you care, how do you try to avoid them?

(4) Would you expect that a blog like this should avoid any spoilers?  Major spoilers?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Alas, Spoilers

  1. Matt

    I don’t mind (and often like) spoilers. If I wouldn’t want to keep reading a work of ficttion with foreknowledge of the story it tells, I doubt I would have much interest without such knowledge.

    I don’t really think a site that engages in any sort of critical examination should avoid spoilers. Without spoiling something, you could tell us little more than whether you liked a book or you didn’t.

  2. Thanks for your response! Yes, it is really hard to discuss a topic critically without engaging in some spoilers. Although it might be possible to avoid spoiling the ending, in some cases.

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