A recent, controversial New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.
Mr. Fish doesn’t think he owes us any warning when his reviews include spoilers. I think we all deserve a warning about Mr. Fish’s reviews, not to mention his misguided opinion – and definition – of spoilers.
He starts by stating that spoilers don’t really spoil anything. But the example he gives to support that notion – that the pleasures of a first read are only different, but no better than the enjoyment one gets from a second read – has nothing at all to do with spoilers. He states: “First-time readers or viewers, because they don’t know what’s going to happen, have access to the pleasures of suspense — going down the wrong path, guessing at the identity of the killer, wondering about the fate of the hero. Repeaters who do know what is going to happen cannot experience those pleasures, but they can recognize significances they missed the first time around, see ironies that emerge only in hindsight and savor the skill with which a plot is constructed. If suspense is taken away by certainty, certainty offers other compensations, and those compensations, rather than being undermined by a spoiler, require one.”
Certainly, readers can derive different kinds of pleasure from the first to the second read of a story. The first read gives us a chance to experience the thrill of the unknown; the second gives us a chance to more closely observe the craft of the writer since we now know the outcome. But what the hell does that have to do with spoilers? A first reading of a book is not a “spoiler.” A spoiler is a giveaway of the twist without the benefit of having the chance to read the whole story. It’s what some critics – one of whom is apparently Mr. Fish – might do in a review. When a review gives away a key plot twist, the reader has no chance to enjoy the suspense of the unknown, i.e. “is Mr. X the murderer? Or is it Ms. Y?” and “will the murderer get caught?” or “will our hero survive?” Thus, the term “spoiler” is apt, because it spoils the suspenseful aspect of the reader’s experience. But when the reader learns the plot twist by actually reading the whole story, that is not a “spoiler.” In that case the reader has been able to enjoy the full experience of following the story without knowing the outcome, of trying to guess who did it, whether the bad guy gets caught, etc. Now if the reader decides to go back for a second viewing in order to observe the story from a different vantage point, for example, to see how the writer built to the conclusion, why the “solve” did or didn’t work, that’s a voluntary choice and a whole different matter. The problem with “spoilers,” is that we readers don’t get to make that choice. The review that includes spoilers makes it for us.
Now, are there some people who prefer reading “spoilers” before they read the book? I’m sure there are. But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to know the ending – and as Mr. Fish notes, in fact get irate when someone even inadvertently gives it away. It’s why I always ask, before discussing a book or movie, “have you read/seen this?” Almost invariably, if the answer is “no,” it’s followed up with “so please don’t tell me the ending.”
Mr. Fish also attempts to support his premise that spoilers don’t matter with the example of the people who watch the footage of the space shuttle, Challenger,” pointing out that, even though they know what will happen, they nevertheless root for the shuttle not to explode. But just like his first-read, second-read example, the logic doesn’t hold. The Challenger example doesn’t prove that people prefer to know how a story ends. It just proves that people – particularly in the case of a true event that ends in tragedy – can still long for a different outcome. Again, nothing to do with spoilers.
Not surprisingly, this fallacious reasoning leads to an equally fallacious conclusion: that if spoilers ruin the entire story, the work had little merit to begin with. That if all the story had to offer was the twist, then a spoiler doesn’t matter because it wasn’t worth your time anyway. Mr. Fish therefore reasons that he shouldn’t have to give a warning when his reviews contain spoilers. If the book is good enough, spoilers won’t ruin the experience.
This is an overstatement and it entirely misses the point. A spoiler doesn’t need to ruin the entire experience to have a deleterious effect. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a spoiler seldom ruins the entire reading experience. But for many of us, it does diminish the experience, and that’s bad enough. If a critic feels the need to include a spoiler in a review, then so be it. All I ask as a reader is to at least give me fair warning so I can choose. And by the way, the fact that a spoiler diminishes my enjoyment of a book certainly doesn’t mean the work was flawed or unworthy of my time. It just means that I’ve been robbed of one of the pleasures the author intended to deliver, and that I hoped to experience.
So here’s my conclusion about reviews without spoiler alerts: I look to reviews to tell me whether a book is well written, whether a story is well delivered, whether characters are well drawn. What I don’t want from critics is a review that prevents me from having a choice as to how I experience a story once I’ve decided to read it. No critic has the right to decide whether spoilers impact my experience – or dismiss any negative impact as evidence that a book is unworthy of my time. So critics, go ahead and tell me what you think of the writing. Then get out of my way.
Marcia Clark is a former prosecutor for the State of California, County of Los Angeles, in the O.J. Simpson murder case. She has written a bestselling nonfiction book, Without a Doubt, about the case, and is a frequent media commentator on legal issues. Now a Special Correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, Clark provides coverage of high profile trials and contributes a column for The Daily Beast.
GUILT BY DEGREES, the second thriller by Clark to feature DA Rachel Knight, is now available in bookstores everywhere.