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Year End Review: Don’t Tell Me

Dec 31, 2012 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Dial M

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

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.

Will the hero still have a pulse at the story’s end? Will the young woman have the wit to pick the man who really cares for her? Will the professor get tenure?

These are urgent questions and as a reader I’ve never wanted to know the answers before the author was ready to tell me. As a writer, I’ve assumed other readers were similarly inclined.

But maybe not.

For example:

(1) A woman I know reads widely and ardently, but will never begin a book until she’s read its last several pages. Something compels her to read the ending first. Doesn’t this spoil it for her? Evidently not. It’s spoiled for her if she doesn’t approach it in this fashion. (This only applies, I should add, to fiction. When she sits down with a book about the War of 1812, she doesn’t have to begin by reading about the Battle of New Orleans. Unless it’s a novel about the War of 1812, in which case she does.)

(2) Another woman I know, a writer herself and an omnivorous reader, always takes a book to bed with her, and insists that it be a mystery. It’s essential to her that her bedtime reading take place in a fictional world in which things are not left hanging. With a mystery, she can relax knowing that there will be resolution at the end. Triumph or tragedy, all will be resolved.

(3) “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Edmund Wilson famously wondered, showing how utterly he missed the point of what Agatha Christie was doing. And yet I re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd a year or two ago, decades after my first trip through it, and enjoyed it more this most recent time. The book’s a puzzle and a tour de force and a bit of brilliant trickery—and no, I shan’t spoil it for you—but the fact remains that my own familiarity didn’t spoil it for me.

I write several series. Sometimes the survival of an important character is in doubt, and indeed some of Matthew Scudder’s key supporting players have died over the years. So the reader’s in doubt—but not when he’s already read a later book in the series, and knows that So-and-so made the cut. Does that make the reading less enjoyable? Yes for some readers, no for others.

In 1961, I wrote a book under a pen name; a half century later, Killing Castro is back in print from Hard Case Crime. Last I looked, Fidel was still sitting up and taking nourishment, so could any present-day reader seriously expect the five Americans dispatched to Cuba could possibly succeed in their mission?

Heh heh…

Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City.

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, the New York Times bestseller featuring the celebrated series protagonist Matthew Scudder (soon to be played by Liam Neeson in a major motion picure), is now in paperback in bookstores everywhere.

Mulholland Books will publish Larry’s newest novel, the Keller thriller HIT ME which has already received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, in February 2013.

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4 Responses »

  1. It’s worth noting that there are different degrees of spoilage. As you note, if you read the 5th Matthew Scudder book, you can be pretty sure he’s going to live through #1-4.

    That said, I just finished “Gone Baby Gone” which not only features the necessary spoilers of earlier books (our protagonists are going to live, at some point they began an romantic relationship, etc.), but for reasons that escape me, Lehane includes several pages describing the climaxes of earlier books. Not only do I know “Who dunnit” I know the precise circumstances of his capture/death (I’m not going to spoil it!). And in a mystery, that seems like a pretty big deal.

  2. I blogged about this UCSD research when it was first (so very badly) reported. The news media missed the salient point that the research was done on **short stories** and blithely extrapolated to novels and then to movies. Typical woeful reporting of scientific method, and no excuse for it when the science is as soft and untaxing as this. Drives me nuts.

    Surely (basic golden rule here) all anyone can say is “I don’t mind if you spoil things for me”. No one – not end-flippers, not critics, not literary theorists so snooty about “plot” that the joyful gift to humanity that is “story” makes them squirm – has the right to decide to spoil things for others.

  3. There are some things I don’t care whether or not I know the ending… TV shows, movies—though I may not have seen Sixth Sense in the theatre had I known the ending (though since it reminded me of another movie, Siesta, I knew he was SPOILER dead and picked up on all the clues throughout). For me the story can still be good because of how well it’s done. That’s why I don’t mind watching reruns, why I still buy DVDs, reread books, etc. Knowing the ending won’t necessarily ruin it for me as much as change when/how I view.

    That said, however… I prefer NOT to know the ending of books, especially mysteries, upon my first reading. I love following the story as it unfolds page by page.

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