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. Continue reading “Spoiler Alert”